Sunday, March 2, 2003
A novel about Clara Schumann, a musical superstar of 19th-century Europe, could easily focus on celebrity and glamour. Janice Galloway takes the less obvious but more rewarding path in "Clara," delving into interiors rather than gliding over surfaces.
The story of Clara could never be the story of Clara alone. One of the most celebrated pianists of her time -- a child prodigy who gave her first concert at 9, the age at which she also began composing -- Clara married composer Robert Schumann, and their relationship is often considered one of the great love stories.
Clara's life is Pygmalionesque. The men in Clara's life -- first her father, then her husband -- sought to mold her as they wished, with limited success.
Clara did not speak until the age of 4. It was thought she was deaf. When she was 5, her parents divorced and she remained with her stern and demanding father, Friedrich Wieck, who became her piano teacher. He had decided before she was born she would be a prodigy.
When Clara was 11, Robert -- nine years her elder -- began boarding at the family's house and taking lessons from her father. Some seven years later, he proposed to Clara. Friedrich forbade the marriage, forbade that they see each other, threatening to ruin Clara professionally and disinherit her if she married and did not focus on her career. Robert sued for the right to marry and won. The wedding was one day before Clara turned 21.
Robert and Clara studied music together, had children together -- many children -- and apparently struck a compromise. Robert wanted Clara to stay home, better to play the devoted wife; what Clara wanted to play was the piano. So whenever the family needed money, Clara would tour Europe.
The author had a wealth of material from which to work. Clara kept a diary from the time she was a young girl, and she kept one with her husband for years. Much of "Clara" includes the everyday occurrences. Some are mundane, some not, especially when one considers with whom the Schumanns' hobnobbed (Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn and a young Brahms, among others). That's not to say the book is without drama. Among other life events, Clara suffered multiple miscarriages, and the Schumanns fled the Dresden revolution in 1849. Robert's struggle with mental illness colored much of their marriage. He died at 46 in an asylum.
Basing the structure of "Clara" on the eight-song cycle "Frauenliebe und Leben (A Woman's Life and Love)," by Robert Schumann, Galloway's writing is impressionistic, a gathering of feelings, thoughts and descriptions that form Clara's amazing story. Many of the descriptions are wonderful -- calling young misfit Friedrich Wieck's trouser legs "a comedy" -- but a few are nonsensical.
The novel, which won the Saltire Award for best Scottish book, truly comes into its own in its latter pages, rising to its most gripping at Robert's decline.