Colleen Lee Plays Clara Schumann

Celebrating the Bicentenary of the Composer’s Birth

Venue: CMA Lecture Theater, HKUST
Date: 26 March, 2019 (Tuesday) 7:30PM

Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

Clara Josephine Wieck Schumann was born in Leipzig on 13 September 1819. She is considered one of the finest pianists of the Romantic era and one of the most distinguished woman composers of all time. To celebrate the 200th Anniversary of her birth, Musica Viva respectfully presents a special chamber music recital of some of her most beautiful compositions.

Daughter of Friedrich Wieck, a noted piano teacher, and Marianne Tromlitz, a famous singer, Clara began to perform as a child prodigy at the age of nine and went on a concert tour to several European cities at eleven. By the age of 18, she was performing to sell-out audiences and laudatory critical reviews describing her playing as epoch-making. Paganini, Liszt, Chopin and numerous great musicians who heard her all praised her extravagantly. In March 1838, Clara was appointed Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso of Austria, the highest honour in music conferred by the empire. She was only 19.

On the day before her 21st birthday in 1840, Clara married Robert Schumann whom she had known for 10 years as her father’s piano student. Friedrich Wieck bitterly opposed the marriage and the young couple had to obtain a court decision in order to get married.

In addition to being trained as a piano virtuoso, Clara also began to study composition with her father at a young age and produced a significant body of works including a piano concerto written when she was 14, chamber music, songs, and many character pieces for solo piano. After her marriage, family responsibilities for a large household with eight children curtailed her career as a composer, but she continued to perform and tour frequently. Following the unfortunate early death of Robert Schumann, Clara devoted herself to promoting and editing the music of her husband and taught at the High Conservatory in Frankfurt.

Clara Schumann passed away in May 1896, aged 76.


3 Romances for piano, Op. 21

Colleen Lee, piano

Clara, the eldest daughter of pianist and teacher Friedrich Wieck (1785-1873), began to study piano with her father from the age of five. She quickly became an acclaimed child prodigy admired by Goethe, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Paganini and Liszt. In 1830, Robert Schumann came to the Wieck household as a pupil of Clara’s father. Clara and Robert fell in love, but Wieck’s refusal to accept Robert as a potential husband for Clara led to years of bitter conflict. After legal representations, they were finally able to marry in 1840. As a composer, Clara was reluctant at first, but later found it fulfilling.

The Op. 21 Romances were written in 1853 by which time Clara had six young children. In addition, a year later saw Robert’s breakdown, his attempted suicide and committal to a mental institution. The Romances were published by Breitkopf and Härtel in 1855/6, though Robert’s illness and death in 1856 had a heavy impact.

The opening of the Andante is deeply haunting, though there is a more positive and animated central section. The light, springy chords which sketch the opening Allegretto reveal tender phrases as richer melodic bass lines gives warmth. Essentially a rapid waltz, the Agitato feeling comes from the unsettled chromatic running notes which press the tempo forward. A central section is marked Langsamer (‘slower’) and conveys a feeling of longing. The return of the opening confirms Clara’s own technical virtuosity.

Soirées Musicales, Op. 6
1. Toccatina
2. Notturno
3. Mazurka in G minor
4. Ballade
5. Mazurka in G major
6. Polonaise

Colleen Lee, piano

Clara was only 16 when she wrote her Op. 6. However, by this time she had already established herself throughout Europe, known for her technical mastery and sincerity of feeling. These early compositions show the influence of the virtuoso pieces of her concert tours. The Op. 6 set was published by Hofmeister of Paris in 1836.

The Toccatina has light, incisive treble figures which gradually grow in power. The central section is warmly expressive before the opening figures return, given an emphatic ending.

The soulful Notturno easily rivals the best of Chopin’s nocturnes, though the more active central section reveals Clara’s individuality.

In the Mazurka in G minor, the spread bass notes emphasise the feeling of melancholy. A verse in the major key begins peacefully but has more dramatic contrasts of register and dynamics. The opening returns and gives a beautifully restrained ending.
The Ballade begins as a rather solemn narrative gradually rising to dramatic heights. As this resolves, the opening returns, becoming more emphatic but settling with calm resolution. The dotted rhythms of Mazurka in G major give a rustic quality. An expressive central section leads to a quiet return of the opening, building to an impressive ending.

The opening chords of the Polonaise have a steadying effect, with a sense of latent power. This increases as the texture thickens. A section in the major key is lighter and transitions neatly to the return of the opening where the underlying power finds its release.

Lieder from Liebesfruhling, Op. 12
No. 2 Er ist gekommen (He came in storm and rain)
No. 4 Lie set du um Schönheit (If you love for beauty)
No. 11 Warum willst du Andre fragen (Why will you question others?)

Carol Lin, mezzo-soprano
Colleen Lee, piano

On 13 March, 1840, six months before they were married, Schumann wrote to Clara ‘Why not write a song! Once you’ve begun, you just can’t stop’. But Clara lacked confidence. Over a year later, on 23 June 1841, after their marriage the previous September, Robert wrote to his publisher, Breitkopf, ‘I would like to give my wife a little present on her birthday… together we composed a number of Rückert songs… I would like to offer her this collection in a printed version…’. Her three songs are Nos 2, 4, and 11, designated Op 12. The remainder are Robert’s Op 37.

Er ist gekommen is probably Clara’s most popular song. The rapid, rising figures reflect the impact of the first meeting and the strength of the feelings aroused. The final section is more settled, with a quiet ending.
In Lie set du um Schönheit, the distractions from real love, beauty, youth, and riches are gently dismissed in flowing melodic lines. The poet offers his own love, for love’s sake, as a conclusion.

Warum willst du Andre fragen is a simple folk-like melody advocating not looking to others, fantasies, or even words for confirmation of love. The eyes tell all in Clara’s very personal setting.

4 Pièces caractéristiques, Op. 5
Impromptu: Le Sabbat
Caprice a la Boleros
Scene Fantastique: Le Ballet des Revenants.

Carol Lin, mezzo-soprano
Colleen Lee, piano

This set was written 1835-6, perhaps just before the Op. 6 Soirées Musicales heard earlier. Published by Hofmeister of Paris, the date is not clear, but the printing plate number, 2308, suggests 1838.

Impromptu: Le Sabbat is marked Allegro furioso, the large leaps outlining the fury. Chromatic grace-notes also contribute a grotesque feel. Unlike Ravel’s more measured opening, Clara’s Caprice a la Boleros shows the furious swirling of the dancers, the rapid repeated notes suggesting castanets. A quieter, more reflective section allows moments of grace before the swirling figures return. In Romance, marked Andante con sentimento, the mood is warm and Romantic, chromatic chords contributing to the emotional outpouring. Scene Fantastique: Le Ballet des Revenants (Hexentanz) opens with detached bass octaves outlining the ‘devil in music’, the diminished 5th interval. This sets the witches dance on its way with stamping, repeated notes. New figures in the bass grow to a sustained climax, but the dance gradually dissolves as the sun rises in the horizon and the witches fade away.

Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 17
Allegro moderato
Scherzo. Tempo di menuetto – Trio

Colleen Lee, piano
Jasmine Pang, violin
Xu Ting, cello

Written 1846, when Clara had 4 young children but still managed to continue her concert tours, the Trio was published by Breitkopf, Leipzig, as Op. 17. The printing plates, numbered 7562, indicate 1847. Although her work as a composer was limited in this period, the G minor Piano Trio stands out as the major work.

The Allegro moderato begins with an immediate statement of the theme in the violin, taken up by the piano. A strong dotted figure takes charge and is followed by the lyrical second theme. The development reveals new colours, eventually leading to the recapitulation. Here, the lyrical second theme is given in the major, though the closing returns to the minor.

Scherzo. Tempo di menuetto – Trio has a playful feel. Violin and piano lead, with the cello in an accompanying role. In the Trio, the piano syncopations have a duple effect while the cello has its chance for prominence. The Scherzo is repeated.

In the Andante, the piano opens with melancholy descending phrases, taken up by violin, and then the cello to varying accompaniments. The central section is dramatic and influences the return the opening.
The Allegretto begins like a narration, with the cello joining in the discourse. This intensifies with a new, ascending theme in the piano. A fugal section with long contrapuntal lines brings original harmonies after which much of the earlier material returns, culminating in a dramatic closing.

Variations on a theme by R. Schumann, Op. 20

Colleen Lee, piano

On Robert’s 43rd birthday, Clara presented him with the Op. 20 Variations, ‘To my beloved husband on the 8th of June, 1853, this humble, renewed essay by his old Clara’ (she was not yet 34!). The theme is from ‘Albumblätt No 4’ of Bunte Blätte (Op. 99), published the previous year. Clara’s Variations were published by Breitkopf, plate 8944 indicating the year 1854.

The theme, marked ‘Ziemlich langsam’ (‘quite slow’), is solemn and expressive. In a binary structure, the simple minor-key theme is pushed along by a gentle dotted figure.

Var I retains the treble, but the dotted figure becomes constant rolling triplets. Var II sees the triplets quickening to light, staccato semiquavers (sixteenth notes) with new harmonies. Var III has rich chords in the major key and great depth of expression. In Var IV, the theme is in the left hand with etude-like virtuoso triplet figures in the right. Var V is marked ‘Poco animato’ with the treble theme in chords and heavy bass octaves. Var VI is a softer, more lyrical version exploring the contrapuntal possibilities: the theme in canon at the 5th between treble and tenor, and later canon at the octave. The final Var VII is a virtuosic setting with the theme surrounded in rapid figurations. This treatment continues into the major key where the delicate arabesques gradually fade away.

Programme notes provided by Michael Ryan.


Programme Note

Please refer to the notes embedded in “Programme”.