Virtuosity in Clara Schumann's Piano Compositions

Jacob Sagrans


In the late 1830s, Clara Schumann’s piano compositions began to shift from crowd-pleasing virtuosic showpieces to more complex and less openly showy works. While Nancy Reich has noted this tendency in her biography of Clara Schumann, there is little discussion on how this aesthetic shift may have been affected by the two major changes in Clara’s life in 1840: her marriage to the decidedly anti-virtuoso music critic and composer Robert Schumann, and her emancipation from her overbearing father and impresario, Friedrich Wieck. This paper examines how Robert Schumann’s disparaging views on virtuosity and the strained relationship between the Schumanns and Friedrich Wieck may have affected the shift in virtuosity in Clara Schumann’s piano compositions, drawing on primary sources such as the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, as well as recent writings on musical virtuosity in the nineteenth century, most notably those of Liszt scholar Dana Gooley. After positing possible reasons for this change in Clara Schumann’s compositions, this paper discusses the broader implications of a shift away from virtuosity in light of the opposition emerging in the nineteenth century between “popular” and “high” musical styles. While the shift in virtuosity in Clara Schumann’s piano compositions likely had multiple complex causes, this paper argues that one can gain new insights into Clara Schumann’s works particularly when one examines Robert Schumann’s anti-virtuosic critiques.

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