Pianist Angela Cheng Champions Clara Schumann’s Work

Pianist Angela Cheng Champions Clara Schumann’s Work

By D.T. Baker

"I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose – there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?"

One can hear the regret and resignation in Clara Schumann’s words. She is one of a handful of women from music’s past who yearned to compose music, yet there always seemed to be something (or someone) in the way. And unlike many aspiring female composers, Schumann was one of the luckier ones. She, at least, was encouraged by important people in her life to flex her creative muscles.

Clara Schumann (née Wieck, 1819-1896) was the product of a very musical household. Home-schooled, her father Friedrich was a noted pedagogue and author of a book on piano technique. He saw to it that Clara learned composition along with her studies in piano. Indeed, the young and extremely gifted student began composing early on, creating piano and chamber pieces. And in stark contrast to the quote above, the teenaged Clara once cheerfully noted, "Composing gives me great pleasure ... there is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound."

It was the teenaged Clara Wieck that composed a piano concerto – the very one that the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra will present on April 20 & 21. Edmonton-raised pianist Angela Cheng, who has championed the work (even recording it in 1992 for Koch, with JoAnn Falletta conducting), returns to the Winspear Centre as soloist.

It was the recording Cheng made, in fact, that was her introduction to the piece. “I didn’t even know the piece existed,” she says. “I played a concert with JoAnn, and a year or two after that, she contacted me to ask if I would like to record the Clara Schumann concerto. She sent me the score, and a recording of a live performance, and I listened to it, said ‘okay’, and I learned it fairly quickly.”

Cheng credits that recording with giving her the chance to play the concerto with many other orchestras over the years. “I’m happy to play the piece, because I think it’s quite beautiful. It’s very hard,” she adds laughing, “because she was such a phenomenal pianist.”

Clara Wieck was nine, and a budding talent, when she met 18-year-old Robert Schumann at a recital they both attended. Clara’s talent, even at that age, was enough to convince Robert, also an emerging pianist, to take lessons with Clara’s father. While doing so, he stayed with the Wieck’s for about a year. Clara’s performing career took off, and she spent much time touring throughout Europe, with her father accompanying her. As she neared her 18th birthday, Robert proposed marriage, which she accepted. Her father, however, did not, and it took a rather nasty court battle for the couple to win the right to wed.

The marriage was a true love story, and eight children resulted from it. But soon, Robert Schumann’s health, particularly his mental health, went into sharp decline. It was all too much for Clara, understandably, and her ambitions to compose fell to the wayside – juggling her lucrative and successful performance career with their children’s welfare, as well as concern for her ailing husband, was already overwhelming.

Her husband sympathised with her plight, writing, “Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.”

Robert Schumann was still finding his own compositional voice when he helped young Clara with aspects of her concerto, including the orchestration. Angela Cheng points out that some of that assistance would prove useful to Robert, when he composed his own piano concerto.

“The second movement (of Clara’s concerto) is just for piano and cello,” Cheng notes, “and so you see how Robert, in his own concerto, in the middle part of the second movement, it’s the whole cello section with the piano. So, there are correlations.”

Just as it had been a delightful discovery for Angela Cheng in 1992, the Edmonton-raised pianist is happy when audiences hear Clara Schumann’s concerto for the first time. “A lot of people make comparisons to Chopin’s concertos, because there are all these beautiful melodies. Audiences generally like it a lot, because they don’t know what to expect. It usually goes over quite well.”

Sometimes, orchestras come looking for Angela Cheng because they want to present the Clara Schumann concerto and are justifiably impressed with her recording. Other times, Angela says, it’s suggested to orchestras which might be looking for something a little different.

“I don’t think it’s one way or the other; I think it’s a combination of both,” Cheng feels. “I’m sure my agent, over the years, does mention it. But sometimes, orchestras just want something a little bit off the beaten path.”

It's almost symbolic that even the ESO’s performance of Clara Schumann’s concerto hit some snags. It was scheduled to be presented in the early spring of 2020, and Ms. Cheng was looking forward to returning to her hometown once again. But the pandemic put everything on hold, and Ms. Schumann’s concerto had to be set aside.

Clara Wieck’s teenaged piano concerto is a fine work. It shows the promise of an emerging talent that, like too many others, was stifled by her life, and the times in which she lived. Certainly, much progress has been made since then, but Angela Cheng is quick to point out that while things have gotten better since Clara Schumann wrote the resigned remarks quoted above, there’s still a long way to go.

“This is not your music,” she says she has been told, either due to her gender or her Asian heritage. “It’s still there,” Cheng says regretfully. “Is there less of it? Yes. And for my students’ sake, I hope these impediments melt away.”

Angela Cheng will perform Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto on April 20 & 21. Click here to buy your tickets.