Schumann on Jealousy and Love: Clara as Inspiration for Robert’s First Symphony



by Madeleine Stephens

     Robert Schumann was an intensely emotional character, one constantly plagued by depression and feelings of inadequacy.  In this paper, I will identify the foundations of Clara and Robert’s relationship and explain Schumann’s insecurities.  I will then propose that Robert Schumann’s compositional labour of his first symphony was much like the labour of Clara, due to his passion to create products and his complicated feelings about sex and gender.  First I will argue that their childhoods created bi-gendered identification for both Robert and Clara.  Next I will explain how their marriage repressed those bi-gendered feelings through different coping methods–Robert through his production of music, and Clara by becoming a mother to her husband and her children.  Finally I will use the compositional process of Schumann’s first symphony as a way to explore how these issues were manifest in music.  

     In his childhood, Schumann’s loss of his father and admiration for his mother led him to experience Oedipal feelings apparent in his shame for his sexual desires, later influencing his need to compose.[1]  As a young boy, Schumann’s father supported his musical education, but died before Schumann became of age.[2]  As a result, continued existence of music in his life was reinstated heavily by a devotion to continue the musical path begun by his father.  The loss impacted Schumann’s family greatly—he became closely connected to his mother even as he traveled away from home.  Both mother and son had frequent bouts of depression contributed to by their shared loss.  Loss of his father and the resulting ties to his mother gave Schumann a strong feminine perspective in addition to the unconscious yearning for a paternal figure, resulting in his connection to his piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck. 

     When Friedrich Wieck and Robert Schumann first met, Wieck promised Schumann’s mother that he would create a virtuoso of her son.[3]  Already beginning to accomplish this with his daughter, Wieck took on the challenge of educating the already older Schumann.  Schumann’s own desire to fulfill and honor his father’s wishes in addition to his mother’s guaranteed expectation created pressure on the young musician.  Schumann’s youthful obsession with his teacher was of the filial nature, his pupil’s great enthusiasm due to Wieck representing the father figure that Schumann lacked.[4]  With the pressure of becoming a famous pianist on his mind, Schumann attempted to learn quickly from Friedrich Wieck.  But as the years went on, Schumann developed a paralysis of his right fourth finger, ending the perfect trajectory of his imaginary virtuosic career.  Although historians have not been able to agree on a cause, it is likely that Schumann was convinced of his condition’s cause as self-instated.[5]  Due to the psychopathology of the time period, sexual acts were considered sinful, especially acts of masterbation.[6]  Schumann seems to have projected his expected punishment for his ‘sinful’ acts upon the instrument of doing—the fingers of his right hand.  Schumann’s shame for committing sinful sexual acts gave him a cause for his ailment, and twisted his sexual desires as a whole. 

     Pleasure attracted Schumann during his young adult years, but it did not bring happiness.  Young and with a large amount of freedom, he spent much time traveling, drinking, and experimenting with different sexual partners.  But Schumann seemed frustrated by his own choices to be self-destructive, chastising himself in his diary to “produce something at last and be finished with it.”[7]  This theme of a desire to produce came from a number of sources, first including the lifeline that composing presented as a way out of his improper life.  Constructive achievements would help put Schumann back on the straight pathway again.  Another achievement came from publishing one of his first pieces.  Frau Schumann had sent her son a congratulatory letter after the publication of the Abegg Variations.  In her letter, she praised Schumann on the “birth of [his] child,” but cautioned him not to expect too much.[8]  Any criticism from the music world, it seemed, would upset her son greatly, due to the hard work and entire-being experience of production.  Shortly after his twenty-first birthday, Schumann created the twins Eusebius and Florestan as friends and alter-egos to help him cope with the world.  He received much relief from the results of his creation.  The efforts of production gave Schumann a gratification that he yearned for to subdue his anxieties.  This theme of creation would be present through his life. 

     Clara Wieck and her father were perhaps the greatest influences on Schumann’s life and on his progress as a musician.  Born to two musical parents, Clara’s life of constant practice and performance prepared her for her destiny as a concert pianist.  Her father had decided to train his daughter from a very young age in theory and performance, using his own skills as a teacher and composer.  Clara was taught the basic elements of rhythm, harmony and melody certainly before learning to read if not also learning to speak.  A father who cared more about preparing his daughter for the stage and a mother who was constantly pregnant, teaching, or performing shaped Clara’s entire life.  Both elements contributed to her late learning of how to speak.[9]  Her mother was absent and her father demanding, creating a quietly musical daughter.  In addition, the behavior of Clara’s mother became engrained as proper mothering techniques.  Babies and music were her model, and babies and music became Clara’s life.  As a young woman, Clara “was a highly integrated and stable personality (though not truly autonomous), orientated towards performance and a performer’s version of love, marriage and motherhood.”[10]

     Marianne and Friedrich Wieck divorced when Clara was five years old, and she remained with her father in order to continue her course of study.  Now the only woman in the house, Clara fulfilled an odd role.  She replaced her mother in her father’s musical sphere, playing the piano under her father’s tutelage just as her mother had.[11]  In this way, Clara’s role womanly as she submitted to her father’s domineering instruction.  But through his control over Clara’s career, Wieck acted as one with Clara, intently focused on the success of the young performer.  His every goal was her performing, and he demanded that it be Clara’s as well.  Wieck even took command of Clara’s diary, commenting and writing individual entries in Clara’s voice.[12]  With her internalization of Wieck’s practice techniques, economic skills, and promotional abilities, Clara took on her father’s identity, functioning “as an extension of [Wieck]—symbolically, as a phallic supplement.”[13]  As she grew up, Clara became more of a masculine ideal even while existing as a female.  As she became closer to Schumann, Clara noticed that “[he] could ‘no longer find any loving persons’ in his family environment.  She hoped to ‘replace what he had lost and accompany him faithfully through life.’”[14]  Schumann’s “deep bond with his mother”[15] lost through her death, he needed to find a motherly love present in someone else.  Clara, realizing his needs, tried to become that role for him.  Clara and Robert’s courtship was constantly resisted by her father.  Once they had decided to marry, Wieck filed suits and appeals to the court stating that Schumann was unfit to marry and that Clara was unable to perform housewife duties.[16]  Wieck tried to attack both his daughter and her suitor, but though dealing with the trials took many years out of their marriage, they persisted.  By condemning both his daughter and her fiance, Wieck pushed aside any affection that either of the couple had for him.  Wieck’s inability to let his daughter grow up and move on caused Clara to desire an end to the relationship with her father.[17]  His dominating presence in her life stopped as she became less dependent on her father.  

     Although Clara acted as both mother and father to her new husband, Schumann was never completely satisfied.  He repressed the jealousy he had felt since Clara was age thirteen and already more talented, but it never truly left him.[18]  Schumann in his early years fully expected to become a concert pianist, and when his plans were ruined due to his finger injury, having a younger more talented and fully capable musician in the same house only added to his misery.  Clara being female only contributed to his frustration.  Women were inferior, even in the realm of music and most certainly in the realm of composing.  Once married, Clara’s assumption that she would supplement the Schumann income by continuing her performances once again contributed to the reversal of gender roles that were experienced by the couple.  Schumann must have known that Clara’s income was necessary (and greater than his own), but was unhappy with having to rely on his wife.  Although it is Robert Schumann’s name who is remembered today, Clara Wieck then was more famous than her unknown husband. 

     Schumann’s First Symphony was written with a desire to assert his masculinity, but ultimately it was composed in a style which held nothing back.  After winning the court battles and marrying Clara, the couple lived in marital bliss.  But Schumann remained preoccupied with needing to assert his talents as a composer, especially when living with the famous Clara.  He decided to write a symphony, which was unheard of from the composer who primarily wrote songs (and many of them love songs to his new wife).  The choice to write a symphony was a bold step taken by an insecure composer.  Schumann was depending on the fame he received to build up his reputation and create a following.  He expected his symphony to make an impression with the talented composers of the day.  But Schumann was unable to present his new work to the public without the assistance of Clara.  His piece was designated simply as  ‘Symphony by R. Schumann’ on a concert billed under Clara’s name.[19]  Her skill, greatly recognized, was used to attract the audience necessary.  Without Clara, the unknown composer wouldn’t have been able to have the audience needed to hear and praise his symphony. 

     Schumann’s First Symphony was greatly criticized but well received by the public.  It premiered March 31st, 1841 at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn.  The symphony was written in a period of only four days, many consecutive hours contributing to its generation.[20]  On the 25th of January Schumann writes, “symphonic fire–sleepless nights–on the last movement.”[21]  The piece, intensely written, is an outpouring of feeling.  Schumann’s creative tendencies were all given to his work as he rushed to finish it.  The first movement betrays this hurry, as its “relentless, Baroque-style rhythmic texture and motivic saturation…make for a compressed and spirited local intensity.”[22] 


Example of persistent rhythmic drive.
Example of persistent rhythmic drive.


Its continued movement and successive presentment of motives reveals that Schumann’s many ideas were urgently scribed.  Schumann’s great desire to create is heavily communicated in his first symphony through its total giving and connections to the feminine.  The ambiguous tonality of the first movement ends in a shocking blast of horns as they enter assertively.  The void is burst with a sharp cry, everything then falling away “into the suddenly gaping abyss of D minor.”[23]  With this startling entry, “we are made to hear that Schumann will hold nothing back, keep nothing in reserve.”[24] 

Figure 2.  Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 10.36.27 PM

 Example of ambiguous tonality, entry into B-flat major, and descent into D minor.  

          Schumann’s First Symphony reveals the chaotic tendencies of the composer.  In its composition and its excited feel, the spring symphony is the delivery of bottled feelings and inspiration.  Much like the later deliveries of Clara and her children, Schumann’s symphony was the result of hard work in a condensed period of time.  The two were ultimately connected through their mutual need for parental figures of the opposing sex, and for their identification as the opposing gender.  Schumann as the female imago desired Clara’s support, but he also attempted to fulfill his male role as the husband and care for his wife financially.  He was never able to fully accept her performing, and it was only when she slowed that Schumann felt relieved from his momentary depression.[25]  In addition, although Schumann believed that his sexual past was punished by the injury to his finger, he still desired to create something to relieve his guilt.  Clara’s sexual acts produced children, but Schumann’s sexual past produced nothing.  As a result, he frenetically produced his first symphony in comparison to Clara’s production.  Schumann as male and female was able to withstand his crippling depression through the creation of great works of music. 


[1] Anna Burton, “Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck: A Creative Partnership,” Music & Letters, Vol. 69, No. 2, 218.

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Anna Burton, “Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck: A Creative Partnership,” 219. 

[4] Ibid. 

[5] eter Ostwald, “Florestan, Eusebius, Clara, and Schumann’s Right Hand,” 19th-Century Music, Vol. 4, No. 1, 21.


[7] Peter Ostwald,  “Schumann, The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius,” 78. 

[8] Ibid, 77. 

[9] Anna Burton, “Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck: A Creative Partnership,” 214. 

[10] Ibid, 218. 

[11] Ibid, 216. 

[12] Ibid, 217

[13] Ibid, 217. 

[14] Ostwald,  “Schumann, The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius,” 152.

[15] Burton, “Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck: A Creative Partnership,” 226. 

[16] Ostwald,  “Schumann, The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius,” 153. 

[17] Burton, “Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck: A Creative Partnership,” 227. 

[18] Ostwald, “Florestan, Eusebius, Clara, and Schumann’s Right Hand,” 26.

[19] Jon W. Finson, “Robert Schumann and the Study of Orchestral Composition,” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 92. 

[20] Ibid, 32-24. 

[21] Ibid, 32. 

[22]Scott Burnham, “Novel Symphonies and dramatic overtures,” in The Cambridge Companion to Schumann, edited by Beate Perrey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 152. 

[23] Ibid, 148. 

[24]  Ibid, 148. 

[25]Peter Ostwald, “Florestan, Eusebius, Clara, and Schumann’s Right Hand,” 31.  



Burnham, Scott.  “Novel Symphonies and dramatic overtures.”  In The Cambridge Companion to Schumann, edited by Beate Perrey, 148-172.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Burton, Anna.  “Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck: A Creative Partnership.” Music & Letters, Vol. 69, No. 2: (Oxford University Press, 1988): 211-228.

Finson, Jon W.  Robert Schumann and the Study of Orchestral Composition.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. 

Ostwald, Peter. “Florestan, Eusebius, Clara, and Schumann’s Right Hand.” 19th-Century Music, Vol. 4, No. 1:  (1980): 17-31. 

Ostwald, Peter.  “Schumann, The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius.”  Boston:  Northeastern University Press, 1985.   

Schumann, Robert. Symphonie für Orchester [Nr. 1-4], ed. A. Dörffel. Leipzig: C. F. Peters,


Schumann, Robert. Symphony No. 1 in B-Flat Major, Op. 38. Robert Schumann, Symphonies

Nos. 1 “Spring” and 2. Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Seattle: Naxos, 1989. Online



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