Conference Review: Clara Schumann (Née Wieck) And Her World, 14-16 June 2019, Oxford

The Clara Schumann (Née Wieck) And Her World International Bicentenary Conference, supported by the RMA, was held from 14 to 16 June 2019. Organised by Joe Davies, the conference brought together a diverse group of leading musicologists, theorists and performers who shaped the conference and formed a rounded perspective of Clara. The presentations shared a determination to re-evaluate the impact and legacy of this extraordinary person, not only as a composer, but also as a pedagogue and performer. Presenting Clara with this perspective allowed for an examination of her influence on the 19th-century cultural landscape, and opened the door for new conversations evaluating her mark on the Austro-German canon.

The conference expanded its conversation to utilise Clara as a case study for systematic problems in modern scholarship’s study (or lack thereof) of women. Central topics to the conference included compositional styles, performance practices, musical circles, repression of women and legacy. Past scholarship was also celebrated, with numerous tributes to the recently passed Nancy Reich, whose ground-breaking work initiated an increased standing and future path for the research and performance of Clara’s music. Taking place at Lady Margaret College, University of Oxford, an institution with a long history of supporting women’s education, proved a poignant setting for this seminal conference.

Keynote lectures were given by Natasha Loges (Royal College of Music) and Susan Youens (University of Notre Dame). Beginning with the question of identity, Loges raised the troubling fact that even the composer’s name can be polarising. The three titles of Clara, Clara Schumann and Clara Wieck all convey their own implications and stigmas, and are similarly imperfect. Understanding that Clara is robbed of autonomy even through her name, Loges addressed a continuing prevalence in modern society to exclude works by female composers in concert halls. Statistics demonstrate that today, Beethoven’s works are performed more often than the combined works of all female composers. Loges argued that Clara played the 19th century Austro-German canon into existence through carefully selected and diverse concert programmes. Consequently, she should be recognised as a person who could mould an entire cultural landscape.

The second guest speaker, Dr Susan Youens, presented on the fascinating topic of Clara and Robert’s compositions during the revolutions of 1848, and Clara’s settings of Hermann Rollet’s poetry. Youens presented Clara as brave and progressive, yet also pragmatically cautious in an increasingly censored and dangerous society. Youens argues that it was in her compositions, such as her setting of Rollet’s ‘Geheimes Flüstern’, Op. 23, no. 3, where Clara inserted hidden revolutionary messages in the music.

Arguing that as a composer Clara’s compositional output is analogous to her male peers, a common observation by the speakers found her achievements greater still through her performance and work as pedagogue. Yet presenters were careful not to idolise Clara blindly – David Conway (University College London) studied Clara’s anti-Semitic sentiments, and Roe-Min Kok (McGill University) grappled with the prevalent subservient language used to describe Clara’s obedience to Robert through framing their relationship in a historical context. Amanda Lalonde (University of Saskatchewan) brought a fascinating perspective on Clara as a sibyl prophetess, arguing that Clara did not attempt to embody the composer in performance, but rather cultivated physicality and improvisatory character to embody the role of prophet. During the conference, presenters closely examined selected works by Clara, such Harald Krebs’ (University of Victoria) performance research on expressive declamation in select Lieder and Christian Leitmeir’s (University of Oxford) study of a cadenza composed for Mozart’s Piano concerto in d. minor K.466 published in 1891, which Clara worried contained ambiguous authorship – was it hers or that of Brahms?  Brahms reassured Clara the work was her own, and even that his compositions owed a great deal to hers. Finally, Lukas Beck (University Oxford) and Robert Estebach (University of New Hampshire) gave presentations on Clara’s collaboration with Ferdinand David and Joseph Joachim respectively, arguing that Clara’s performance partnerships with leading performers built her reputation as an authoritative musician.

Annkatrin Babbe (Sophie Drinker Institut) presented an intricate presentation on Clara’s teaching position at the conservatory in Frankfurt, where she taught by demonstration of her own playing, establishing a distinct style. Clara attracted talented students, demonstrated by Katrin Reyersbach (Robert Schumann Society Zwickau) and Thomas Synofzik’s (Robert Schumann Haus) presentation on Clara’s Polish student Nathalie Janotha. Surviving recordings of Janotha’s playing demonstrates incredible technical skill and an unrelenting tempo.

Theoretical analysis of Clara’s music also played a key role in the conference. Presenters demonstrated that Clara’s music was innovative, predominantly in its tonal structures. For example, Julie Pedneault-Deslaurier (U. Ottawa) demonstrated hidden harmonic palindromes in the music, Sarah Moynihan (Royal Holloway) argued that Clara utilised hexatonic poles and experimental tonalities, Benedict Taylor (U. Edinburgh) found thematic links to other works and Stephen Rogers (U. Oregon) discussed Clara’s utilisation of modern modified cadential figures that allowed her Lied to finish without a sense of resolution.

Bringing the threads of this conference together was the seamless integration of musical performances. Cecilia Oinas and Anna Kuvaja (both Sibelius Academy, Helsinki) presented a programme of four-hand music frequently played in public by Clara over her illustrious career, discussing her inclination to play the genre in public performance. A recital by Aisling Kenny, Cecily Lock and Cheryl Tan provided a wonderful opportunity to hear Clara’s piano music and Lieder with musical context given by the performers. Finally, R. Larry Todd (Duke University) and Katharina Uhde (Valparaiso University) explored allusions and quotations of Clara’s music in Robert’s Op.21 and 22, as well as other quotations and influences shared between Clara and members of her circle.

The closing panel noted that more needs to be done to include female composers in modern academic and performance discourse. Until we can alleviate a collective lack of concerts, research and collections, female artists’ inclusion in modern discourse will remain a footnote.  This conference is a promising step. Susan Youens noted that in her early career, female composers such as Fanny (Hensel) and Clara were considered pale clones of male composers. This conference disproved that theory through captivating presentations and beautiful performances, indicating the path to a more optimistic and inclusive future.

Louis De Nil is a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Music specialising in the performance history of Schubert’s Lieder.

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