Here in San Francisco the pianos are back in the gardens again—the Botanical Gardens. The idea of placing pianos in public areas and inviting passers-by to play them is now more than a decade old and it is still charming people around the world. Even though piano lessons are not as common as they were a generation or two ago, many amateur musicians still enjoy playing when they have a chance.
Today I want to talk about a woman who helped to make the piano the major instrument that it continues to be—Clara Wieck Schumann. When she gave her first concerts in Vienna in 1838, one critic described her “not a wonderchild—and yet still a child and already a wonder.” Clara was 18 at the time, so not exactly a child, but an accomplished young musician who had studied under her father’s guidance all of her life. From those early concerts, she moved on to a career in music that lasted for sixty years.
On the day before her 21st birthday Clara married Robert Schumann, the composer whose work she helped to make famous. She continued to perform and to compose music after she was married. She had little choice because she was the family
breadwinner. She also raised seven children (an eighth died in infancy). We often hear about the discrimination that women suffered during the 19th century, discrimination that kept many of them from fulfilling their early promise. But sometimes we need to think about the remarkable women who overcame the prejudices and oppression of the times and managed to have successful careers despite all the barriers.
If you ever feel discouraged about the difficulty of combining a career with marriage and motherhood, you can find inspiration by reading more about Clara Schumann. An excellent biography is Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman by Nancy B. Reich. The author gives a great deal of scholarly musical background, but even if you are not knowledgeable about music, the story of Clara Schumann’s life will hold your attention and strengthen your resolve to persist in your own ambitions.
And if you have a chance—try to find one of those pianos in a public place and give it a try!