March 2010: Victoria Bond on Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann interested me for many reasons. Her life reminded me of that of my own mother, who had been taught and groomed by her father to be a piano virtuoso. My mother soloed with the Chicago Symphony when she was 10 years old. She traveled to Europe and concertized in many of the major capitals when she was just a teenager, winning the Liszt Competition and studying in Hungary with Bartok and Dohnanyi. She led a glamorous and exciting life, and the stories of her youth dazzled me. I also learned of the great conflicts that took place between her and her father. She was headstrong and independent, just like Clara Schumann, who fought and won a court case in which her father tried to prevent her from marrying Robert. Although my grandfather never stood in the way when my mother decided to marry my father, there were enough similarities for me to gain a great understanding of the struggles that Clara had to endure.

I have also always loved the music of Robert Schumann, and through Clara’s biographer, Nancy Reich, I became acquainted with her music and developed a love for it as well. The story of her romance with Robert was made for opera, as was Robert’s tragic end. Clara’s independent travels as a star performer overturned 19th-century stereotypes of a woman’s role. All this adds up to a story with real dramatic potential.

I brought the idea of the opera to Barbara Zinn Krieger, Artistic Director of “Making Books Sing.” At first we thought of creating an opera for young audiences, the idea being that Clara’s struggle for independence from her father and her romance with Robert would appeal to a teenage audience. However, as the ideas grew and evolved, and Brahms came into the picture, we decided there were too many adult issues in the story and we took the plunge of adapting Clara’s story for a general audience.

Barbara has masterfully distilled the essential scenes that illuminate each of the personalities in our drama. Her libretto is clear, concise and vivid. We have completed several scenes from Act I and plan to continue our work on the opera in Baden-Baden, Germany where we have received a grant to live in Brahms’s studio. He spent many summers here, so that he could be near his beloved Clara, whose home is a short walk from his. Clara would come to Baden-Baden each summer with her children and Brahms was a regular guest at her home. Unfortunately, her house has not been preserved as a museum, but it is still standing, though much altered. Being in the proximity of these two great musicians is inspiring to contemplate.

I have woven original works of Clara and Robert into the fabric of the score. They communicated best with each other in their first language – music. It was central to their relationship and their characters and personalities are embedded in the notes. My own music for the opera grows out of this language, and although it is not in the same harmonic or melodic world of the nineteenth century, I have imbue my music with its spirit.