restricted access (Re)Considering the Priestess: Clara Schumann, Historiography, and the Visual
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(Re)Considering the Priestess
Clara Schumann, Historiography, and the Visual

In memoriam K. M. Knittel

Revered and celebrated, Clara Schumann has long held a place of prestige within musicology. She stands out as an anomaly among female pianists of the nineteenth century, having achieved extraordinary accolades from the very outset of her career and maintaining a phenomenally long and prolific public presence. Shaped foremost by Berthold Litzmann’s and Nancy Reich’s biographies, the scholarship on Schumann most often turns to her own words regarding her place within the musical tale of the nineteenth century.1 Her explanations very [End Page 107] often correspond to one of the most dominant historical narratives within musicology: a story that extols the instrumental, autonomous musical work and its composer and, in so doing, celebrates the serious listening experience.2 This understanding has, since the nineteenth century, been a way to measure musical worth and value by privileging mindful (masculine) over bodily (feminine) interactions with music.3 In a historical era fixated on establishing gender differences, wherein music played a crucial role, it is curious that a female pianist developed into one of the preeminent symbols for this masculine aesthetic.

Schumann’s attachment to this ideal is perhaps most evident in her revered title of “the priestess,” which emphasized her saintly “devotion” to the musical work and the “quiet dignity” of her performances.4 This label, itself originating during Schumann’s lifetime, attempted to regulate her sexuality and femininity in seemingly benign terms: she became the appropriately domesticated other or the desexualized and disembodied conduit to the composer or his musical work. Given the circumstances, with social forces desperately working to transform the public taste into one of a “cultivated” bourgeoisie, interpretations that attempt to disavow or regulate her gender are hardly surprising.5 What is surprising, however, is that modern scholars continue to regulate Schumann’s gender similarly to that of the nineteenth century. As Reich argues at the outset of her biography, “[Schumann] is viewed even today as her nineteenth-century contemporaries saw her—as a saint or ‘priestess,’ as a dedicated wife, mother and musician.”6 Ludim Pedroza also notes this constancy: [End Page 108]

The “priestess,” as Clara Schumann was labeled by Liszt and other contemporaries, has been recognized as the harbinger of the self-denying pianist-interpreter. Accounts of public reactions to Schumann’s performances seldom allude to ecstasy, rapture, or fainting episodes. . . . Up to this day [emphasis added], her public persona remains an emblem of sobriety, nonsentimentality, rationality, and objectivity; not surprisingly, on account of her unwavering commitment to preserving the integrity of the musical work and to upholding the composer’s intentions, Schumann’s name continues to be associated with the Werktreu ideology.7

As both Reich and Pedroza outline, we still attach Schumann to a nineteenth-century ideal that demanded the performer defer to the musical work; this belief, at its core, empowered (and continues to empower) the musical structure that the bourgeois male sought so desperately to secure.

Categorizing Schumann as an “emblem of sobriety, nonsentimentality, rationality, and objectivity” allowed (and continues to allow) her musical legacy to exist purely within the mindful, “masculine” realm, privileging her repertoire choices and engagement with the musical structure over all other aspects of her performative persona. So while it is clear that both critics and Schumann herself cultivated this kind of performing ideal, it cannot be ignored that this characterization became a way to obfuscate almost entirely the presence of the feminine in music and of Schumann herself. This perception, to use Pedroza’s words, “self-denies.” In this kind of historiographical mindset, the bodily (the feminine) becomes off-limits, and we seemingly ignore the contradictory evidence it might reveal. Schumann’s performing career, in effect, is narrowed to celebrate her as primarily an emptied agent or “executant.” By reducing the power of her visual, bodily, feminine presence, however, we ignore important aspects of her performance identity (or identities) that could perhaps engage differently with this historical narrative.

In an effort to consider Schumann’s story from a perspective that asks us to think in more dialectical terms, this article reconsiders her historiography by...