It was a match made in musical heaven: Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Or, as Emerson Trio pianist Donna Coleman playfully refers to them, Bob, Clara, and Joe. The engrossing, thoroughly human story of these three giants of 19th-century music continues to fascinate — particularly this year.
Sept. 13 marked Clara Wieck Schumann’s 200th birthday, inspiring Coleman to honor her with programs centered on this remarkable musician and the two famous men in her life. Coleman is calling it The OutBach Festival of [Mostly] Women’s Music, held Oct. 22, 24, and 26 in San Miguel Chapel. The concerts will include some of Clara’s rarely heard piano pieces and chamber works, along with contributions from her husband and the couple’s dear friend Brahms. Also included is music by several female composers.
Celebrating Clara’s bicentennial, Coleman says, is “a no-brainer for me. I’ve produced music festivals all my life, but in the past, American music had always been the focus.” Last year, her OutBach Festival in the chapel offered challenging works, most composed by Americans. This time, it’s about a legendary triangle that reads like a juicy romance novel.
It was love at first sight for Robert and Clara. Yet, the couple had to survive a lengthy family struggle, Coleman says. The teenage Clara’s disapproving father, Friedrich Wieck, strenuously tried to keep his talented daughter away from Robert, who was one of his piano students and nine years her senior. After finally tying the knot (following a nasty court battle), the newlyweds settled into a busy life in music. “Once they were married [in 1840], she became a devoted wife and mother,” the pianist says. “And he was also a loving father. Clara was a brilliant pianist, and, in fact, she became the breadwinner of the family. She also inspired Robert as a composer.”
Despite some early concerns about his wife’s desire to write music, Schumann did come around, and he encouraged her in composition. “He thought she was a genius. In fact, I believe that her Piano Trio inspired his Piano Trio,” Coleman says. At the Oct. 26 concert, she’ll be joined by her colleagues in The Emerson Trio — violinist Endre Balogh and cellist Antony Cooke — playing trios by both Schumanns.
Throughout her life, Clara was in demand as a celebrated concert pianist, juggling career and motherhood. She would deliver eight children, with one dying in infancy. Meanwhile, Robert produced songs, chamber pieces, and orchestral works while desperately battling his own demons (he died in a mental hospital in 1856 at the age 46).
On Sept. 30, 1853, their lives changed when the 20-year-old Brahms unceremoniously knocked on the door of the Schumann home in Düsseldorf. Inviting him in, the couple listened in amazement to some of his piano pieces. Robert excitedly proclaimed him “the true apostle” — Beethoven’s successor. That day, the three began a deep friendship. Their unbreakable bond will be explored by Coleman in her first concert, A Love Supreme. Which brings up the question that has long puzzled historians and music-lovers: Just how supreme was the love between Clara and the handsome young composer? Did it become carnal?
Coleman didn’t hesitate in offering her thoughts on the relationship, which grew stronger in the decades following Schumann’s death. “I feel Brahms did fall in love with Clara,” she says. “But he always remained a devoted friend. In fact, when Robert was hospitalized after his suicide attempt [in 1854], Brahms became a surrogate father, and, in a way, a husband. He even babysat the children when Clara was off concertizing.” She believes that their love was strictly platonic. Clara died in 1896, having outlived her husband by 40 years. Brahms, who never married, died less than a year later.
A Love Supreme will feature Coleman playing keyboard works by the young Clara Wieck: selections from the Soirées Musicales. Robert is represented by the Davidsbündlertänze and Brahms by excerpts from his Klavierstücke, Opus 76.
Though Coleman has titled the second concert Happy Birthday Clara Wieck, the program, which features members of the Emerson Trio and soprano Constance Barron, includes works by six other women. Two of them serve as resident composers. Laura Clayton of Hancock, New Hampshire, will introduce the premiere of her five-movement Queen of Heaven: Songs to Goddess Inanna and Southern Californian Jane Brockman has written a yet-to-be-titled piece for Coleman. They’ll share the bill with Clara Schumann, Ruth Crawford Seeger (stepmother of folksinger Pete), Amy Beach, Australian Helen Gifford, and German composer Luise Adolpha Le Beau. ◀
▼ The OutBach Festival of [Mostly] Women’s Music
Concerts begin at 7 p.m.
San Miguel Chapel, 401 Old Santa Fe Trail
Tickets are $20-$35, passes $50-$85; brownpapertickets.com
▼ Tuesday, Oct. 22: A Love Supreme, with music by Clara Wieck, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms
▼ Thursday, Oct. 24: Happy Birthday Clara Wieck, with music by Clara Schumann, Laura Clayton, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Amy Beach, Jane Brockman, Helen Gifford, and Luise Adolpha Le Beau
▼ Oct. 26: The Emerson Trio, performing works by Clara Schumann, Amy Beach, and Robert Schumann