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Classical Album of the Week: Pianist Lara Downes Honors Clara Schumann's Life and Work

March 9, 2020. In For Love of You, pianist Lara Downes pays homage to the 19th-century pianist and composer Clara Wieck Schumann, playing solo piano works created by both Clara and Robert Schumann during a forbidden love affair before they eventually married.  

Lara Downes, who grew up playing and studying music composed by men, remembers the thrill of discovering the music of Clara Wieck Schumann, and the story of her love affair with Robert Schumann. When he was courting her against her father's wishes, Robert wrote to Clara, "My Clara, what would I not do for love of you?" 

For Love of You became the title of Downes' album, released in the fall of 2019, marking the 200th anniversary of Clara's birth. 

Track List: 

Robert Schumann: Piano concerto in A minor, Op. 54

Clara Wieck Schumann: Three Romances, Op. 11

Robert Schumann: Fantasiestucke, Op. 12

* * * 

Lara visited WRTI's Performance Studio in October 2019 to perform selections from the album, among other works, and chat with WRTI's Susan Lewis. Here's an edited excerpt of their conversation:  

[Lara began by playing the first movement from Clara’s Three Romances.]

The title of this album I understand was inspired by a quote: “My Clara, what would I not do for love of you?”

Yes. You know, Robert and Clara Schumann, it's probably one of the most legendary romances of all time. And it's something that has fascinated me because they were two composers that I love and it's the only instance I know of in which these two creative minds and souls came together and cross-pollinated to produce a body of work that really represents this romance, this love.

And so, the album is a tribute to her as his collaborator.  I did not say ‘muse;'  his collaborator, and in her own right, as a great woman in music.

Now, Clara’s father was Robert Schumann's piano teacher. And I understand the father was not that thrilled with the romance.

Not so happy, you know, he's raising this tremendous virtuoso. She was a child prodigy and already touring around Europe and at the height of her career. And here comes this penniless, nobody composer into his household and falls in love with his daughter and he's appalled! 

And he went to great lengths to keep them apart.

The album includes music by Clara Wieck Schumann and music by Robert Schumann.

During the period that led up to their marriage, it was about four or five years of this really  fraught  relationship.  They were both writing music back and forth, sometimes as their primary means of communication.

So Robert Schumann wrote his Fantasiestucke. It's a set of eight pieces, which are very dear to me.  The third piece is called “Warum” [which means] 'Why?' 

There's a story that he's just come from this terrible confrontation with Clara's father. He goes to drown his sorrows in a cafe and he sits and scribbles these notes on a napkin and sends her this music as a sign that he's struggling.

So I love that story. When I was that age, when I was a teenager and very, very much feeling my feelings, this was a piece that I would go to time and time again, and sit at the piano and be emotional.  And so it brings me close to the music.

And you brought the music with you!

I wanted to show you. It's so funny because I played this music so many times that it's literally just worn out.

The back is broken of this music book!

[Lara plays Robert Schumann’s “Warum” from Fantasiestucke.]

How tender and beautiful. It's wonderful to think about them communicating through music. And they eventually did get together.

They did.  And  they created so much together.  His piano concerto, which is on the album, was written not only for her, but at her insistence, and with her assistance. It's really an incredible commingling of creativity.

So where does Clara Schumann fit in your musical evolution? You were born in California where you were surrounded, when you were young, by writers and artists and musicians.  You moved to Europe when you were about nine and then ended up coming back to America.

Yes. But you know, Clara goes back to the beginning, because if you're a little girl and you are getting serious about your piano lessons and you're looking in the music history books, she's the one face that you see that doesn't have a beard!

So I remember just being so fascinated by her story and the way that she fit into this kind of pantheon of great artists of the romantic era.

And I do, I have this mixed cultural heritage. I'm Jamaican and and Eastern European. And I've lived all over the place and I think my interests take me into very different areas. So you look for the model that can guide you.

And Clara Schumann was really there from the beginning for me as a woman who did make her way in music and against many odds and had this tremendous   power to her.

And it's great that you are, you're celebrating her because we were talking earlier about how women in history don't always have someone to tell their stories.

Yes. And I guess I probably did first learn about her because she was a footnote in Robert's story, which she's not.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.