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three romances for violin and piano by clara schumann

Updated: Dec 5, 2019

Clara Schumann was destined to become a virtuoso pianist even before her birth on September 13th in 1819. Her father Friedrich Wieck, a prominent piano pedagogue, had decided his next child would become a living example of his successful teaching methods. Beginning early with a rigorous routine of piano, violin, theory, composition, and counterpoint lessons, by age nine Clara was ready for the big stage in her birth town of Leipzig.

What followed was a whirlwind career with tours throughout the major concert halls of Europe, appearances as a soloist with leading orchestras, a performance of her very own piano concerto under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn when she was sixteen, encounters with royalty and the great intellectuals of the days - from Goethe to Grillparzer -, becoming an honorary member of the Viennese Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, and receiving the title of ‘Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso’ from the Emperor and Empress.

Clara thus developed primarily as a performer and was widely admired as a leading virtuoso of her time. Confident on the stage, she had a less secure relationship to composing. She shared with her diary, “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?”

Throughout her tumultuous life with Robert Schumann, pianist, composer, prolific writer, critic and father to her eight children, only rarely had she had the opportunity to work away from under his shadow. It wasn’t until 1853 that the Schumanns moved to an apartment in Düsseldorf where Clara had her own studio and was out of Robert’s earshot. Her diary reflects a change of heart, “There is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation.” After many years of neglecting that joy, she picked up composing once again.

That year proved productive, and Clara wrote a set of variations on occasion of Robert’s birthday, inscribed ‘For my dear husband for June 8, 1853, a weak attempt once more on the part of his Clara of old.’ The Three Romances stem from the same year, although they did not see publication until 1855. They were dedicated to Joseph Joachim, a talented violinist Clara had heard at a music festival with the Beethoven concerto, a piece that had launched his career at thirteen. Together, Clara and Joachim would form a musical partnership that would encompass over 238 concerts in Germany and Britain, with the duo particularly favoring Beethoven’s violin sonatas over any other repertoire.

“There is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation.” - Clara Schumann

Joachim was in the employ of Georg V of Hanover, for whom he performed Clara’s Romances. The monarch, completely blind but enamored of music, commented upon hearing them that the pieces gave him “marvelous, heavenly pleasure.” Indeed, there is much to be enthralled by in these three miniatures.

The piano opens the first romance on a D-flat major tonic chord, colored by climbing chromaticism in the middle voice. The violin responds with a complimentary motive a few measures later, interweaving in sinewy lines around the accompaniment. The entire piece is fluid and restless but unhurried and in constant modulation, several secondary dominants interspersed throughout taking the piece to several keys. The middle section is short but intense, with driving upward motion, and sped up by triplet figures. The opening calm returns to close the piece, ending with a short coda.

The more somber and solemn second Romance is in g-minor, and almost sounds like a chorale in the outer sections. The violin here has the declamatory, pathos-laden main theme with characteristic leaps of an octave that recur often.The piano merely supports with chords below until it too picks up the leaps, leading into the middle section and into a bright G-major. The middle section has the two instruments playing with ease and in harmony, creating an amicable, pastoral feel. Both the nature of the theme and its rendition, with numerous ornaments and trills, evokes bird calls and yodels, supplanting the listener in a German countryside. The A section then returns, closing with the theme from the middle section now in g-minor and restoring balance.

The final romance is the most emotional and intense. The piano opens with passionate rising arpeggios, over which the violin carries a beautiful melody. In some ways it is very reminiscent of Robert Schumann’s song Widmung, written on the occasion of the couple’s wedding day on September 12th, 1840. This B-flat romance is also the most complex in terms of variety of material, with a middle section that lessens in excitement, but not by much. A staccato version of the opening material returns, as do the arpeggios.

While these romances may not be the first pieces to spring to mind when we think of the music of the 19th century, dominated as it was by the towering figures of Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner and other larger-than-life composers, they do offer an opposite charm. Never meant to compete with the symphony or to be performed in a large concert hall, they are the most at home in the salon. A common and popular genre during the time in which Clara Wieck’s pianistic career thrived, the romance described an amicable piece for piano solo or another instrument with piano accompaniment. At times languid, dreamy, and fiery Clara’s romances offer a spectrum of moods and are intimately crafted pieces, offering a glimpse into the inner world of an extraordinary woman who had found her own voice again amid the noise of everyday life.

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