Chamber Music Center lauds Clara Schumann

Michelle Schumann 2

Celebrated pianist from late 1800’s part of ‘Love Triangle’ on Saturday.

By Luke Quinton, Austin American Statesman
Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013

“She was a just a trailblazer!” Michelle Schumann is talking about another Schumann: Clara, the composer and pianist from the late 1800’s.

Clara had eight children and a performance career that made her the breadwinner (in lieu of her husband, the better-known composer Robert Schumann). She composed music of her own (and also edited and maybe –just maybe- collaborated on more of her husband’s music than people realize). And she might have had a romantic relationship with a younger man who turned out to be the legendary composer Johannes Brahms.

What a life.

But if there’s an Austin musician who can match Clara’s intensity, it might be Michelle Schumann, the indefatigable pianist, the artistic director of the busy Austin Chamber Music Center, and also artist-in-residence and associate professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and mother of 7 month-old baby Ivy.

“I think a Clara Schumann in our time would be super famous,” Schumann says. “She rivaled Franz Liszt. And even as a composer, her works are very beautiful, but she herself put a lid on her own composing.”

Writing music, like so many things, wasn’t seen as an appropriate profession for women. Clara, too was swept up in the culture of the times. “Even she didn’t believe women should be composers,” Schumann says.

The Austin Chamber Music Center’s concert Saturday – appropriately called “Love Triangle” – features three piano trios, one each by Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, and Brahms. Michelle Schumann is joined by cellist Gregory Sauer and Miro Quartet violinist William Fekenheuer.

Each work is unique, dancing different-colored dances with the emotional pull of the era. And the Brahms is astonishing – it makes three instruments sound like a symphony. “But I can hear similarities” between all three, Schumann says.

And why not? All three composers were of the same time and place – and for a while, even of the same apartment building.

The concert’s title alludes to an affair, and some suspect as much but “if there was any connection there,” says Schumann, “they covered their tracks. Brahms and Clara burned all their letters, leaving historians curios. But in the end, says Schumann, when Clara could’ve chosen Brahms she didn’t.

The demands of motherhood and a performance career are something Schumann knows in intimate detail, as she (literally) balances a phone interview and her 7-month-old. It has finally dawned on Schumann just how hard she was working. She hired a nanny for 35 hours a week – except that was just scratching the surface. “In a way, it’s sort of shocking to me that a full-time nanny takes care of the minimum. I don’t think I had full respect for just how many hours I was logging.”

One technique Schumann has mastered is the art of night-practicing. “You can use your ears a lot, and imagine what the sound is making with your fingers.” Schumann points out that pianist Glenn Gould would do the same thing when his cleaning lady was making noise. “You’re envisioning color, timbre, sound quality – and it just forces you into that realm,” Schumann says.

When Schumann was younger, she says, “I noticed, if I didn’t play the piano for three or four days, I would just be a different person.” She even managed to find a piano on her honeymoon.

That’s the kind of dedication that Clara Schumann might have appreciated.

Maybe, in the end, it was the piano that mattered to her most of all.

When: 7:30p.m. Saturday
Where: First Unitarian Church, 4700 Grover Avenue
Tickets: $25
Information: or 512-454-0026

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