Review: Clara By Janice Galloway Essay, Research Paper
Music and silenceClara
by Janice Galloway
425pp, Cape Pianos are not pleasant objects – not if you’ve ever tried playing one. Pianos are infuriating brutes, heavy as thunderclouds: torture mechanisms designed to measure your inadequacy against some unattainable idea of perfection. Clara Schumann’s life was a perpetual torment of pianos. She was born into a family which dealt, taught and traded in pianos. She married a man who was one of the greatest composers for the instrument. And she herself was one of the outstanding concert pianists of the age. This much had been decided before she had even been born. Clara Schumann had no option but to become a prodigy. Her father, Friedrich Wieck, was the most respected – and tyrannical – piano teacher in Leipzig; Clara bore the brunt of his expectation. The first entry in Clara’s diary, dated June 7 1827, reads: “Since the decision has been made that this life will be remarkable, someone must record it.” In fact, Friedrich had begun keeping the journal on his daughter’s behalf. A later entry in his stern handwriting observes: “Father deserves my greatest devotion and gratitude for his ceaseless efforts on my behalf.” So no account of Clara Schumann’s life can afford to be overly romantic about the piano. To her credit, Janice Galloway is marvellously unsentimental. Galloway’s most recent work was the libretto for Sally Beamish’s Monster, an opera based on the life of Mary Shelley which explored the paradox that the lives of the great Romantics were frequently not remotely romantic at all.
Galloway’s fictional account of Clara Schumann’s life is similarly perceptive. It opens with the image of a young girl trapped in a pianistic nightmare: “Varnished edges sharp enough to cut, snap-shut lids, shin-battering pedals… a little girl could get lost among their brown bull legs.” Galloway makes clear that the misery of being Friedrich Wieck’s daughter was matched only by the misery of becoming Robert Schumann’s wife. What emerges is a work more imaginative than biography, yet more authoritative than crude speculation. Clara and Robert were one of the more spectacular mismatches in musical history. As Galloway puts it: “Clara had a talent for sobriety; Schumann did not.” Schumann spent most of his short life fending off his personal demons, not to mention an addiction to champagne and the ravages of a probably syphilitic disease. But at the heart of his insecurity was his marriage to a woman more successful than himself. When Schumann died in a lunatic asylum in 1856, he was better known as a provocative if erratic music critic than as a composer. Clara, meanwhile, was the foremost concert pianist of the day, noted for her sober style and fidelity to the score in an age when head-tossing displays of showmanship in the manner of Liszt were all the rage. Clara went through hell to get Robert, and through further hell when she finally got him. They first met in 1829 when Clara was nine, and Robert was a dissolute law student who came to take piano lessons from her father. When the relationship blossomed into romance 10 years later, Friedrich was so opposed to the match that he took the couple to court. The legal battle dragged on for months, Friedrich accusing Schumann of everything from promiscuity and mental instability to poor handwriting. The sorry affair ended when the old man received a prison term for slander. One of Friedrich’s accusations which came closer to the mark, however, was the charge that Clara was “unsuited to housewifery and wholly unprepared for its demands”. The initial months of the Schumann’s marriage – recorded in their joint wedding journal – saw them settle into a routine of respectable cosiness. Yet before long Clara had cause to note: “I seem often to have made Robert angry enough to speak ill of me.” Schumann’s irrational outbursts were undoubtedly the product of his degenerative disease. But there is little doubt that Clara’s creativity was stultified by the demands of caring for Robert and bringing their eight children into the world. In one of the most poignant passages, Galloway depicts Clara nursing her husband through the birth pains of his first symphony; and then, so as not to disturb him, placing a shawl beneath the hammers of her piano and “imagining the grandeur of the sound that should have been there”. Robert Schumann had such a divided personality that he invented names for both of them: Florestan for his impulsive, impetuous side, Eusebius to mark his calmer moods of introspection. Galloway is a distinctly Eusebian writer. Evoking Clara’s performance philosophy, she notes: “Passion one might take for granted – its control is the mechanism through which all else flows.” She might equally well be describing her own precisely modulated prose, which for all its restraint occasionally throws up brilliant ornamentations, such as the image of piano hammers “flailing like anemone fronds”. In life, Clara Schumann overshadowed her husband. In death it has become the other way around. Galloway’s beautiful novel goes some way towards restoring the balance.