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Bob and Clara and Felix and Fanny

The strange worlds of the Schumanns and the Mendelssohns

By Brian Hunt

The Daily Telegraph, 8 March 1997

"All the time there was musical conversation going on between those couples" says the pianist and conductor Diana Ambache. "So much so that you can't tell which ideas came from whom first." She's talking about two pairings: the marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann and the remarkably intense relationship between brother and sister Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

All four were composers, which created as much tension as it offered opportunity for mutual encouragement. In fact, the deeper one goes into the strange, claustrophobic world of the Schumanns and the Mendelssohns, the more taut and tangled the web becomes.

This spring, two separate events in the London concert calendar will bring the intricacies of these two intertwined relationships into sharp focus. Between March 21 and 23, John Eliot Gardiner will present Schumann Revealed, a weekend of concerts at the Barbican. Then, at St John's Smith Square on May 22, Diana Ambache will be playing Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn's music back-to-back, interspersed with readings from their letters.

More than one commentator has remarked that the Mendelssohns' correspondence often reads uncomfortably like a set of love letters. "I stop before your portrait and kiss it every five minutes," wrote Fanny to Felix just before her marriage, recognising the union with her husband as a separation from her brother. "I love you, adore you immensely." On her wedding day she wrote again: "Every morning and every moment of my life, I shall love you from the bottom of my heart ..."

When Felix and Fanny were growing up together, family and friends used to jestingly ask whether their wedding date had been fixed. They were born just over three years apart, but Ambache thinks their intimacy is best compared to that of twins, not lovers. "Felix didn't make it to Fanny's wedding; Fanny didn't get to Felix's. It has to say something. Felix's death, six months after hers, can be taken as evidence of a broken heart. I'm sure there was no impropriety, but their closeness must have made it difficult for their partners."

Indeed. A few months after Felix took Cecile Jeanrenaud to the alter, Fanny wrote to her sister-in-law: "When I see Felix's works for the first time in print, I look at them with the eyes of a stranger ... it always makes me sadly recall the time when I used to know his music from birth. It is so different now, and what a pity it is that fate should have decreed that we are to live so far appart ..." Cecile may have found it easier to accept fate's decree on that score.

Yet Felix would undoubtedly have missed his sister's acute musical intelligence. Fanny once claimed: "I have always been his only musical adviser, and he never writes down a thought before submitting it to my judgement." It was no idle boast. Ambache says: "They acted equally as tutor and pupil with regard to each other's music. His respect for her musical judgement was the highest."

Though he was happy to let her harmonise some of his music, and even passed off her songs as his own, Felix followed his father in crushing Fanny's professional ambitions. On her 23rd birthday he wrote "You must ... prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman - I mean the state of a housewife." Ironically, it was the liberating encouragement of her husband, the painter Wilhelm Hensel, that finally saw Fanny's music make it into print. It reveals an unbridled passion and candour in striking contrast to the suave confidence of her brother's music.

Clara Schumann (Photo credit: AKG London) In her series highlighting female composers, "Women of Note", Diana Ambache has already played the work of Clara Schumann: "For me her music has a beautiful sadness and sincerity. Some people have called her humourless - why don't they pick on male personal attributes in that way? - but seriousness and dedication were at the core of her nature. Look at her support for Robert; she was the vehicle by which his piano music came into the world, and she thought it so important that he was properly understood."

To which some people might add, "on her own terms". In his introduction to the "Schumann Revealed" weekend, John Eliot Gardiner writes of the "myth, controversy and misunderstanding" surrounding Schumann's compositions. Ask him to elucidate and he replies: "It all began with Clara, didn't it?

"His social diffidence and her huge public reputation [as a virtuoso pianist] contributed to the tension between them. That's normal domestic strife. What really becomes a problem is the difference between her perception of what is most to be cherished in his music, and his. My feeling is that her attitude to her husband was tinged with jealousy, disappointment, hurt, all sorts of things."

The background to Robert and Clara's marriage is well known. Clara was in every sense the product of her father, the piano professor, Friedrich Wieck, who sent her on lucrative tours from the age of 12 to advertise his teaching methods. Wieck strongly opposed Robert's courtship, and both Clara and her piano had to be wrested from him through the courts.

Once married, the Schumann's faced the problem of reconciling conflicting career demands. "Every time Robert composes, my piano practice must stop completely," wrote Clara in her diary. "Not one, tiny hour of the day can be set aside for me." Yet Robert made next to nothing from composing and a pittance from music journalism; Clara's concerts paid the rent.

"Separation has again emphasised my strange, difficult situation," wrote Robert to Clara while she toured in 1842. "Ought I to neglect my gift because of my commitments to the newspaper and the piano? That's how I torture myslef. We must seek a way to nurture our two talents side by side." However Robert, like Felix Mendelssohn, found it easier to mingle his compositions with those of his female counterpart than to encourage her an independent composing career.

In many ways, it was a good marriage: sexually fulfilling, as Robert meticulously recorded in their shared diary, and professionally advantageous. Robert was too shy to promote his own cause, but Clara played his compositions to great adulation. In effect, she took control of his music - if not of its creation, then of every other aspect. And when Robert died, her grip on his output tightened.

"She was a great musician, and a formidable lady, and she had a miserable life in many ways," says cellist Steven Isserlis, who plays some of Robert Schumann's late chamber works at the Barbican this week-end. "But still ... She tore up Schumann's last work for cello, Five Romances, for which I can't forgive her. It was symptomtic of the way she was. A very controlling character."

Robert spent his last years in an asylum; Clara seems to have been convinced that some of his music was tainted by madness and should not be heard. She locked his Violin Concerto away and destroyed some of the chamber music. "Everybody loved the Five Romances," says Isserlis. "Brahms and Joachim used to fight over which one was their favourite. There's a letter from Schumann to Brahms about them, sent from the asylum, and he was obviously very happy about the music. Forty years later, Clara tore them up."

Isserlis's sense of loss is very personal, but even those with a more detached viewpoint accuse Clara of distoring her husband's image. By ripping up manuscripts and neglecting his later music in her concert programmes, she created the impression of a composer in decline, unable to capture the freshness of her early inspiration.

Conversely, she ignored Brahms's pleading and suppressed the first version of Robert's Fourth Symphony, including only its more solidly Germanic revision in her catalogue of his works. Audiences will be able to pass judgement on Clara's censorship when Gardiner conducts both versions at the Barbican.

However, when one considers what went on in the Schumann household, one can only admire Clara's ability to take charge of situations - while coping with 10 pregnancies. At times, Robert seems to have courted the mental instability that eventually overtook him.

Brahms's constant presence can't have eased pressures. On his arrival, Robert greeted him as "a young eagle flown in from the Alps - one could compare him to a gorgeous stream", suggesting that the homo-eroric tendencies of Schumann's youth were not entirely dormant. But Brahms soon became madly devoted to Clara, happy to characterise himself as "her little man ... the only male able to talk sense to her".

To all this one has to add the proximity of the Mendelssohns. When he first encoutered Felix, Robert enrolled him into the Davidsbundler, his imaginary league against philistinism. Felix repaid Robert in more practical terms, giving him a chair in piano and composition at the Leipzig Conservatory. The to were united in their love of Schubert (Mendelssohn conducted Schumann's music), but the relationship cooled, especially after Schumann failed where Mendelssohns had succeeded, as muisc director in Dusseldorf.

Clara and Fanny got on well; they had, after all, plenty in common. But the full story of the musical conversation between the Schumanns and the Mendelssohns has perhaps yet to be told.

"I've studied the score of Schumann's Spring Symphony in the Library of Congres," says John Eliot Gardiner. "It's a dizzy making superimposition of different handwritings, some of which are clearly not Schumann's own. Are they David's? [Ferdinand David, the violinist for whom Mendelssohn wrote his Concerto, and who conducted Schumann premieres.] Are they Clara's? Or are they Mendelssohn's?"

The counterpoint, it seems, may be even more complicated than we expected.

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