Getting to know Clara Schumann

Composer Chloe Knibbs delves into the fascinating world of Clara Schumann with chamber choir Ex Urbe as part of the Adopt a Composer project.

Following an exploration of the female composers in our playlist, Ex Urbe MD Ben Hamilton and myself have decided to focus our piece around the life and music of Clara Schumann. Clara is a fascinating character – from her piano, songs and choral works, to her career as a renowned pianist and her resilience and strength in the tragedies her family experienced over the years - so I feel that exploring her life and telling her story during this project is going to be a really exciting challenge for Ex Urbe and myself.

When it came to our first creative workshop, I decided our main focus had to be getting to know Clara Schumann. Who was she? What mattered to her most? What could we hear in her music? 

It seemed only sensible that we met Clara in person first (or as close as we could). This led to looking at a mixture of lithographs, photos and paintings of Clara throughout her life. The images gave a sense of the many chapters within her life, and the various identities she had been within them.  Throughout this process we began to realise the many ways Clara could be interpreted and consider how that could be reflected in the final work – allowing the audience to have their own interpretation of her. 

After becoming a little better acquainted with Clara we set about getting to know her as a composer. This was achieved by listening to one of Clara’s works “Drei gemischte chöre” - a three-movement choral work written for her husband Robert Schumann’s 38th birthday - which the choir will be singing alongside our new work later on this year. This was followed with an exploration of Clara’s diary entries and a review of one of her piano recitals in Manchester.

Poignant phrases or words that the choir felt carried an importance to them were selected and then used to generate creative ideas – ranging from poems and a “Clara motif” to insistent rhythmic patterns to harmonic structures. All of which will be built on in our following workshops and inform the piece.

Unsurprisingly – and probably a good sign (!) - our workshop generated more questions. What was the nature of her relationship with Johannes Brahms? Did she always doubt herself as a composer? How did she manage her responsibilities with such a large family? What aspects of Clara and her life are essential to capture in our piece? We look forward to attempting to answer some of these questions at our next workshop…

Follow Adopt a Composer groups and composers on social media:

Chloe Knibbs Soundcloud / Twitter

Ex Urbe Facebook / Twitter

The Adopt a Composer project matches vocal and instrumental leisure-time music groups with some of the UK’s most promising composers to collaborate on creating a new piece of music. The project leads to a première performance and broadcast on BBC Radio 3. If you’re a music group or composer and you’d like to take part, find out more.