Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Robert and Clara, Sittin’ in a Tree…

Robert (1810-1856) and Clara Schumann (née Wieck, 1819-1896) in 1847
Robert (1810-1856) and Clara Schumann (née Wieck, 1819-1896) in 1847

We mark the marriage on September 12, 1840 – 182 years ago today – of the pianist and composer Clara Wieck (1819-1896) to the composer and pianist Robert Schumann (1810-1856).  The couple were married the day before Clara’s 21st birthday (September 13, 1840), for reasons that will be explained in detail in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post.

Not for the Timid

I ask: what are the most difficult things any person can attempt?  To summit K2 and return alive?  To win Olympic gold?  To overcome addiction?  To row solo across the Pacific?  All tough things to accomplish, no doubt.  

What are the scariest things anyone can do?  

Swim with piranhas? Eat at a barbecue restaurant next to a cat hospital?  Urinate on Mike Tyson?  Scary stuff, dangerous stuff, that.

But to my mind, nothing is more soul-searingly difficult-slash terrifying than one, raising children and two, staying in a first marriage.  (Okay; I’ve probably told you more about my life than I intended to, but there it is.)

Children are to people what water is to a house: children will find and reveal every flaw in your “structure” – your personality – while simultaneously sucking dry your money, patience, energy, and creative spirit like a lamprey does the innards of a trout.   And yet our babies make us immortal as virtually nothing else can.  The books we write, the paintings we paint, the buildings we design, and the symphonies we compose shrink to utter insignificance when compared to the life we create.  

And then there are first marriages.  

A typical first marriage made problematic by the youth of the bride and groom
A typical first marriage made problematic by the youth of the bride and groom

By their nature, most first marriages are between two relatively young people, people whose lack of life experience should, in fact, disqualify them entirely from making a decision as important as getting married.  But if young people didn’t get married, most babies would not be made.  Which would be problematic for the survival of our species.

For better or for worse, getting married (and perpetuating the species) is not a priority for everyone, particularly for artists, who by the nature of their calling must be selfish with their time and energy.  For example, the number of major composers who never married is a substantial one; whatever their domestic aspirations were vis-à-vis a mate, their needs for unrestricted independence and freedom from any external commitment precluded anything so imprisoning as a walk down the aisle.  Such unmarried composers include Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Giacomo Rossini (1792-1868), Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and George Gershwin (1898-1937).  

(We’d observe that collectively, that’s a helluva fine gene pool never to have been passed on.)

Jean and Aino Sibelius; they were married for 65 years!
Jean and Aino Sibelius; they were married for 65 years!

Now: all of this is not to say that composers don’t marry.  In fact, a few notable composers would seem to have had solid first marriages, although we’d point out that they were “solid” because their wives took care of everything, allowing their composer/husbands absolute freedom to do their thing.  Among such first and only marriages were those of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and Cécile Mendelssohn (née Jeanrenaud, 1817-1853); Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) and Carolina von Weber (née Brandt, 1794-1852); Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) and Anna Dvořák (née Čermáková, 1854–1931); and Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) and Aino Sibelius (née Järnefelt, 1871-1969). 

But unfortunately, the list of tragic or simply rotten first marriages of composers is longer than the list of good first marriages.  A lot longer.…

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