Clara Schumann née Clara Wieck (1819 – 1896) was a German pianist, composer and sought-after piano teacher. A child prodigy trained and strictly supervised by her father, Friedrich Wieck, Clara became one of the 19th century’s foremost virtuosos and remained active for more than six decades. Before her teens she had already debuted at the Gewandhaus in her native Leipzig and toured to Paris, taking along some of her own compositions to include in her programmes.
Robert first met Clara when he became a student of her father, and romance soon blossomed. However, Friedrich was set against their marrying and even waged a court battle to oppose their plans. He lost, and they wed in 1840. Before Robert was known to the world, Clara was already commanding an international reputation as a concert pianist, and her advocacy of her husband’s music certainly helped his work circulate.
Clara had a difficult life, juggling her commitments as a pianist with raising seven children (an eighth died in infancy) and looking after her husband as his mental health waned. Clara more or less stopped composing after Robert’s early death in 1856 (he was 46 and she was only 37), thus her oeuvre is relatively small — just 23 published works.
Among her compositions for piano are three Preludes and Fugues, op. 16, composed in Dresden in 1845. These pieces resulted from a joint undertaking between Clara and Robert to master the art of counterpoint. Robert felt he needed to improve his contrapuntal skills so the couple decided to tackle the project together.
The Prelude and Fugue in B flat, the second of the set, is currently on the syllabus for ABRSM Grade 8, and will be a good choice for those whose playing would benefit from the study of strict counterpoint but who prefer the Romantic idiom to the more customary Baroque examples.
While the Prelude is certainly contrapuntal, the mood feels more like a Nocturne, with a singing right hand line against an arpeggiated accompaniment. The noble fugue, in four voices, presents many challenges to the player and will therefore need to be studied diligently.
While progress will feel slow this way, a “stepladder” approach yields the best results in the long term. This practice method involves taking each strand of counterpoint separately before bringing them together in all possible combinations of two and three voices. This works better if the section selected for a given practice session is short (a few bars only). Work out a good fingering as you go along, write it in the score and stick with it each time you practise!
My full video walk-through of this work is available on the Online Academy here. An index of walk-throughs for other pieces from the ABRSM 2021 & 2022 Grade 8 syllabus is available here. Please click here for all grades.
For more on the stepladder approach to contrapuntal playing, follow this link to my previous blog post.