Pianos and Persistence–Clara Schumann and her music

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 thoughPiano_edited-1 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

Clara Schumann
Clara Wiech Schumann

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!


Pianos among the flowers

Wouldn’t it be great if one day when you were wandering through a public garden you Piano player_edited-1came across a secluded piano where you could sit down and make beautiful music? Well, this week I had a chance to visit several pianos set in different locations around San Francisco’s Botanical Gardens.  I saw a quite a few people—from children to professional pianists- making music there.

Even though this is the first time I’ve seen any of the Pianos in Public Places, it is not a new ideas. According to a Wikipedia article, the idea of Pianos in Public Places originated by accident in Sheffield, England. The first piano was originally left on the sidewalk temporarily because the owner could not get it up the steps into his new house. As an experiment the owner and a friend then attached a sign inviting passersby to play the piano for free. So many people took advantage of the offer, that the piano became a community attraction. Piano_edited-1

In the last ten years, several cities around the world have placed pianos in public places and invited people to play or to listen. There are public pianos in Paris, London, New York, Toronto, and many other cities.

The pianos in the Botanical Gardens took various forms–some of them very strange and new, but all of them fun. Piano_jumble_edited-1

During a week when so much of the news is bad—I suggest that you try the music cure. If you live anywhere near a city with public pianos, visit them and join the fun! We all need beauty in our lives and music and flowers are among the best ways to find beauty.


Fanny Mendelssohn–a musical life to celebrate

Concert at home
Concert at home
Women composers are not prominent in the history of Western music; in fact, many students of music and lovers of classical concerts would be hard-pressed to mention any female composer. Now at last, it appears that we have a new name to list among the 19th century composers of note—Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.

Fanny Hensel, by her husband Wilhelm
Fanny Hensel, by her husband Wilhelm

Her name, of course, is well known because of her famous brother, Felix, but until recently she had been considered a pianist and salon musician who played in private concerts at home, not as someone whose work was worthy to be considered part of the canon. Now at last, as her compositions have been discovered over the last twenty years and studied by serious musicians, she is being taken seriously as a musician. R. Larry Todd, author of Fanny Hensel; The Other Mendelssohn (Oxford, 2010) has studied her music and has named her as the greatest female composer of the 19th century.

Both Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn were musical prodigies when they were children. By the time Fanny was 12 and Felix 9 years old, they were able to perform in public. Then their paths diverged. Like most women of her time, Fanny’s musical ambitions were strictly curtailed. While her father encouraged Felix to become a professional musician, he told Fanny that she must restrict her music to entertaining the family—the husband and children she was destined to have. Her entire life was to be determined by her gender.

Fanny never gave up her musical ambitions, although she did not have as much time to pursue them as Felix did. She generously shared her music and her ideas with her brother and did not became bitter about always being in his shadow. Eventually she fell in love with Wilhelm Hensel, a painter, and the couple had a child, named Sebastian after J.S. Bach, one of Fanny’s favorite musicians. Remarkably enough Fanny was able to make this tangle of love relationships work. She was happy with her husband and doted on her son, but continued to maintain a very close and loving relationship with her brother Felix too.

During her lifetime, Fanny’s music was often presented at concerts held in the Mendelssohn home. Fanny carefully arranged the concerts, wrote pieces for them and planned the events. As her son grew up she had more time to devote to her music and as she neared the age of 40 was more and more inclined to think of herself as a professional musician. She was beginning to publish her works, but was suddenly struck down by a stroke and died at the age of 41. When he heard the news, Felix collapsed in a faint. He died within six months of his sister.

The rediscovery of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel as an important musician is a joyful event. And while we celebrate being able to hear performances of some of her works, perhaps we should also celebrate her success in leading a rich, loving life despite the harsh limitations put on her because of her gender. She managed to make life happy for her brother, her husband and her son as well as maintaining her devotion to her own profession. That was a remarkable achievement in her time and an inspiration to us today.

Cosima Wagner–ambitious wife

February is a chilly and unwelcoming month in most of the country, but still it’s the month we celebrate love with Valentine’s Day and all the frilly romance that goes with it. Many women over the centuries have defined themselves by the men who loved them, becoming the “wife of…”, “mistress of…” or perhaps even better, “beloved of…” was the height of their ambition. Very few of these women are remembered in history, but Cosima Wagner is an exception. Her fame rests not so much on having been the wife of the composer Richard Wagner, but on her relentless dedication to him while he was alive and to his memory after his death. She managed to become a celebrity during her lifetime, sustain a permanent memorial to her husband, and to merit a full biography in 2007, more than a century after he died.

Why would a woman (or a man for that matter) want to define herself entirely through another human being? We’ll never know for sure but some clues might be found in Cosima’s childhood. She was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt, the famous 19th century composer and pianist, and his mistress, the Countess Marie d’Agoult, who had left her husband for Liszt. Both parents were preoccupied by their own lives and Cosima’s happiest years as a child were those she spent with her grandmother, Liszt’s mother. Cosima WagnerThese days we all know children who are virtually raised by a grandparent—usually a grandmother—and who carry with them for years the pain of being neglected by their parents. Cosima seems to have been an example of this. Her marriage to Wagner, who was 24 years older than she, seems to have given her the emotional security she had not found as a child. All her life she clung to that security and to her memory of Richard Wagner.

When Richard Wagner died in 1883, Cosima was dramatically grief stricken. She insisted on sleeping in the same bed with her husband’s dead body and clung to it until she was physically removed. After the funeral, her children, family friends, and colleagues expected that she would retire into seclusion for the rest of her life, but Cosima chose a different path. Suddenly released from being a wife in the shadow of a famous man, she became the head of the family, director of Wagner’s beloved Bayreuth festival, and keeper of the Wagnerian flame. Through the force of her will she shaped Wagner’s legacy and watched his cult become a lasting influence throughout most of the musical world.

Cosima Wagner was not an admirable woman. She accepted Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism and eventually became a follower of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. She built the Bayreuth festival into an aristocratic gathering place for the wealthy and powerful as it still is today. But people do not have to be admirable to be fascinating. Despite having been born a woman in a strongly masculine world, she became a powerful figure who helped shape that world. And all the time she masked her ambition behind the womanly excuse of devotion to the man she loved.

Oh, and about that biography. It is now available in English and is well worth reading: Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth by Oliver Hilmes.