At the Schumannfest, it's about Clara — and other women in music

Focus on women composers: Schumannfest 2019

Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

Her father Friedrich Wieck trained her to become a superstar among pianists. Her husband Robert Schumann permitted her lucrative concert career but forbade her composing activity. To Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann was an esteemed adviser and intimate friend. But with Clara Schumann research getting underway in recent years, she is gradually emerging from under the shadow of the men in her life.

Focus on women composers: Schumannfest 2019

Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824)

Blind from age four, she played piano at the Austrian court as a child and was celebrated on concert tours. Mozart is said to have written a piano concerto for her. But Maria Theresia von Paradis was also a composer. Art songs, piano works and chamber music created by her first appeared in print in 1786. She also wrote two piano concertos, cantatas and operas.

Focus on women composers: Schumannfest 2019

Emilie Mayer (1812-1883)

The first professional woman composer in music history was celebrated across Europe as the "female Beethoven." Emilie Mayer never married. After her death, her music was largely forgotten, and only a small part of her oeuvre including eight symphonies, 15 concert overtures and diverse chamber music works has been published.

Focus on women composers: Schumannfest 2019

Pauline Viardot-Garcia (1821-1910)

"The most brilliant woman I have ever encountered" was how Clara Schumann described her. Pauline Garcia was one of the 19th century's greatest vocalists. Her marriage to the author Louis Viardot in 1840 was a boon to her compositional activities: he did everything he could to support her. After her stage career ended, she had many productive years as a composer.

Focus on women composers: Schumannfest 2019

Lil Hardin Armstrong (1898-1971)

The most prominent woman in early jazz played piano, sang, composed and arranged music for the best bands in New Orleans. In 1921 she met Louis Armstrong; they married three years later. She was a major factor in his success, writing songs like "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," "Don't Jive Me," "Two Deuces," "Knee Drops," "Doin' the Suzie-Q" and "Just for a Thrill."

Focus on women composers: Schumannfest 2019

Ann Ronell (1905-1993)

After studying under the American composer Walter Piston, she met George Gershwin, who hired her as a rehearsal pianist. That was Ann Ronell's ticket to Broadway. In 1932 she wrote her most famous song "Willow Weep for Me." Later on came music for cartoons, film scores and ballet music.

Wife, mother of eight, pianist, musical adviser, concert manager, composer: Clara Schumann is in the spotlight at Bonn's Schumannfest — along with other female composers and performers.

"How I long to compose, but I can't do that here at all. I console myself with the fact that I am a woman, and women are not born to write music."

Words from a woman who had already completed several compositions, including a piano concerto written at age 15, and piano works, lieder and chamber music. By 1856, the year of her husband's death in a sanatorium in Bonn-Endenich, roughly two dozen works had come from the pen of Clara Wieck-Schumann. She never composed again but even during her marriage, Robert Schumann had for the most part forbidden her from composing.

Clara in the anniversary year

Clara Wieck-Schumann, born on September 13, 1819 in Leipzig, is being celebrated, performed and studied in the festival landscape 200 years after her birth. With serious research into her life and work only having begun in recent years, much remains to be discovered about this fascinating figure in music history.

As the most famous female pianist of the 19th century, Clara Schumann had an enormous impact on music life, but why do her compositions remain in the shadows? "You have to consider that she only composed in her younger years," says Markus Schuck, director of the Schumannfest in Bonn. "No works exist from her later years. But it also has to do with the role that was assigned to women those days."

Markus Schuck, director of the Schumannfest in Bonn

Women composers and performers in the spotlight

The Schumannfest in Bonn, which began on June 1 with a recital of art song and ends on June 16 with a song contest for children, presents female composers in each of its 16 events. At center stage is Clara Schumann, the subject of two biographical films to be screened and of a musical titled Clara, created and performed by pupils of the Clara Schumann high school in Bonn.

Clara is also the name of a play performed by Bonn's fringe ensemble, written and performed for the Schumannfest by Marlin de Haan. 

Concerts are the focus of the fest however. "We even have a pianist who is herself a composer and who is at a similar point in her development as Clara was at her age," explains Markus Schuck. Only 22, Latvian artist Aurelia Shimkus won an ECHO Klassik award in the newcomer category. Her playbill includes her own music and works by Bach, Schumann and Russian contemporary composer Sofia Gubaidulina.

At 22, already a prize-winning pianist: Aurelia Schimkus

In an event titled "Words und Music," the young violinist Liv Migdal and her sister, actress Nadia Migdal, will probe the question of why the creations of women composers rarely turn up on concert programs. Together with the pianist and poet Daniel Gerzenberg, they will focus on the thoughts and soundscapes of poetesses and women composers.

Concerts recorded

Besides Aurelia Shimkus, the German pianist Katharina Treutler and the German-Greek pianist Danae Dörken will perform recitals with works by Robert and Clara Schumann. Both Dörken's recital and the opening performance with lieder singer Arttu Kataja and piano accompanist Paulina Tukiainen are recorded by Deutsche Welle and can be heard at a later date in the broadcast Concert Hour.

This year's patron of the Schumannfest in Bonn is DW Director General Peter Limbourg. "DW's support gives us a big boost and insures that Robert Schumann's music is heard in other countries as well — and this year, the compositions of Clara Schumann too," says Markus Schuck. "Schumann discovered artists. So does Deutsche Welle, which examines the development of cultural life worldwide."

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Pianist Danae Dörken

Together with a small team, Schuck organizes the Schumannfest on a volunteer basis, and the festival receives only minimal municipal subsidies. "We're operating at the limit of what is possible," says Schuck. "Maintaining the festival structure long-term would require an organizational structure with a paid staff. But paying tribute to Robert and Clara Schumann is a strong motivation for us to continue."

With the motto being "Dear Clara," the Schumannfest in Bonn lasts from June 1-16.