Reflections on Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling von Robert und Clara Schumann (1841)
German Romantics: Clara was featured on the film-recital project, I take the long way there. For more information about the repertoire on this program, check out my projects.
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
Clara Schumann, a German Romantic-era pianist, composer, and piano pedagogue, was a celebrated virtuoso. From the age of eleven, she managed a 61-year concert career, touring throughout Europe. Her success as a concert artist secured essential income for her eight children and husband, the renowned composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856). She began composing as a child, and her compositions later included solo piano pieces, chamber music, choral works, and Lieder.
At the age of thirteen, Clara began to compose one of her most famous works, Piano Concerto in A minor, which she later premiered in Leipzig with composer Felix Mendelssohn as conductor. Due to her touring schedule, the management of her large household, and her own personal hesitancy towards composition, Clara’s output was often sporadic.
In her diaries, Clara expressed intense self-doubt about her compositional abilities, internalizing nineteenth-century socio-cultural prejudices against women as composers. She wrote in 1839, “I once believed that I had creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not wish to compose – there never was one able to do it. Am I intended to be the one? It would be arrogant to believe that.”  After Robert’s death in 1856, Clara composed only two other pieces and turned her energy to performing, teaching, and caring for her children.
Throughout their marriage, Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling von Robert und Clara Schumann constitutes the only explicit compositional collaboration between the Schumanns. The collection includes nine songs by Robert and three by Clara, listed under the joint opus numbers op. 37/12. Throughout a protracted legal battle with Clara’s father, Friederich Wieck, over her hand in marriage and control of Clara’s finances, Robert continually expressed his desire to compose with his fiancée.
In 1839, he wrote to her that “we shall publish a good deal under both our names; posterity shall regard us as one heart and one soul and not find out what is yours and what is mine.” In 1841, at the publication of the first edition of Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling, Robert purposefully instructed the songs to be published without identifying which “belonged” to each composer, further cementing his desire that the Schumanns were united in all things, including their aesthetic sensibilities. In fact, without prior knowledge, it was nearly impossible for nineteenth-century critics, performers, and audiences to discern who had specifically composed what, since Robert and Clara’s harmonic and motivic choices within Zwölf Gedichte complemented each other seamlessly.
For poetic texts, Robert chose selections from Liebesfrühling, a collection of four hundred poems written by Friederich Rückert (1788-1866) during the courtship of his wife. Not only was Rückert one of Robert’s favorite poets, but the poetry itself was an apt choice for the newly married couple. In Liebesfrühling, Rückert crafted his poetry from two distinct perspectives: the voice of the poet (a male protagonist) and the voice of his Geliebte, or beloved (a female protagonist). After excerpting a set of Rückert poems for the joint project, Robert asked Clara to set five of the texts.
In January of 1841, Robert had composed nine Rückert songs in a flurry of compositional activity. By May of that year, Clara still struggled to compose her selections, writing in their shared diary, “With composition nothing at all is happening — sometimes I’d like to knock myself on my dumb head!”  However, weeks later, Clara finished four of her Rückert settings: “Warum willst du and’re fragen,” “Er ist gekommen,” “Liebst du um Schönheit,” and “Die gute Nacht.” She gifted the song set to Robert as a birthday gift, who then ordered the songs for publication, ultimately removing Clara’s “Die gute Nacht” from the collection. After offering their shared endeavor to the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel, Robert presented Clara with the newly published volumes, divided into two sets of six songs, each concluding with a duet, as her surprise birthday gift.
While Robert and Clara may have originally intended Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling von Robert und Clara Schumann to function as a musical dialogue between two performers, embodying a couple as they explore the many facets of their romantic bond through song, the collection is rarely performed as such. Instead, songs are often excerpted by composer with Clara’s set of three songs performed separately, an interpretive decision that we also followed in I take the long way there.
In examining Clara Schumann’s Op. 12, the collection consists of three songs: “Er ist gekommen,” “Liebst du um Schönheit,” and “Warum willst du and’re fragen.” “Er ist gekommen” compares the arrival of the beloved to a stormy deluge, which furiously sweeps into the protagonist’s life, leaving them to wonder, “How could I foresee that his path would merge with mine?” As the storm calms and spring returns, the beloved sets off on their path once more. The protagonist, however, does not fear their absence because “he remains mine on any path.” In “Liebst du um Schönheit,” the protagonist pleads with their beloved to love truly and freely, rejecting the false values of beauty, youth, and wealth. In the final song of Op. 12, “Warum willst du and’re fragen,” the protagonist questions why their beloved believes the “fancies” of strangers over the truth and constancy genuinely expressed through their eyes. The protagonist has a simple request: “Whatever my lips say, see my eyes – I love you!”
In collaboration with NYC-based The Pleiades Project, I take the long way there reconceptualizes the three Lieder of Clara Schumann’s Op. 12 in German Romantics: Clara, which also represents the first film project I have ever co-created. While these songs may have marked the beginning of Clara and Robert’s union, our protagonist navigates Op. 12 as she copes with the end of an important relationship.
In coming to terms with the conclusion of this chapter in her life, our protagonist’s imagination travels to vibrant fantasy worlds. She engages with a series of invented historical personas, combining her contemporary self with illusory traces of past women’s lives. In becoming the heroine of her own story, our protagonist achieves a sense of closure, reapproaching her present circumstances with curiosity and a cautious hope for future possibilities.
- Nancy Reich, Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001), 216.
- Rufus Hallmark, “The Rückert Lieder of Robert and Clara Schumann,” 19th-Century Music 14, no. 1 (Summer, 1990): 4, https://www.jstor.org/stable/746673.
- Hallmark, “The Rückert Lieder,” 7.