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International Women’s Day: Thoughts on Clara Schumann’s Notturno

Today is International Women’s Day and I’ve decided to re-publish a post I wrote last year on my favourite composers and one her best pieces.

I’ve always had a strong interest in women musicians and composers and the role they have played in the history of music. To my mind the study of women composers has not yet been brought fully into academic studies of music, or for that matter the concert repertoire. The music of Clara Schumann (1819-1896) is a case in point. While Clara was an acclaimed pianist, businesswoman, and composer, she has never quite received the same critical attention as her husband Robert; despite the fact that her works have emotional depth and are fascinating from a technical perspective they are still rarely performed.

A particular favourite of mine is her Notturno for piano. Although some might say this work is nothing more than a tribute to the compositional style of John Field (c.1782-1837), I feel this work is extra-ordinary. It has an inventive harmonic structure, an unusual treatment of dissonance, rhythmic variety, a clever disposition of form, as well as a quirky and wistful coda. For the musicologist Jeffrey Kallberg, the opening bars show Clara at her most progressive. Clara, rather than follow the established model of Field, employs gestures that we now associate with the music of Chopin, music written only a few years earlier.

The unusual harmonic structure of the work is noticeable from the beginning. The nocturne opens with a tonic F major pedal, which immediately creates a feeling of stasis. At bar 3, however, an unusual effect is created through the augmentation the F major chord (the C natural being replaced by a C sharp). This unusual effect is heightened by the fact that the melody also begins in this bar, but on the second beat, thwarting our expectations. The fact that the first note is held across the bar until the second beat of the fourth bar accentuates this and creates a syncopated effect. The middle section is also interesting as it contrasts with the previous music, the music becoming more ornate and demanding, although retaining the relaxed style of the nocturne genre. The contrast employed, unlike that often employed by Chopin in his nocturnes, is muted, Clara’s work occupying a space somewhere between the balanced works of Field and elaborate works of Chopin. The return of the augmented chord towards the end of the piece signals a return to the opening material, although the melody is now ornamented and intensified. It is only the in last 15 bars or so that piece returns to the more tranquil style of the opening bars.

I apologise for the above technical analysis, but I feel that explaining the musical details of a work can help with our understanding and appreciation of a work. Perhaps a new way, though, is required for explaining these details. For those not familiar with reading music, the musical devices are still audible. Indeed, try listening to this piece and consciously acknowledging what grabs your attention and what moves you. To my mind, the harmonic move in the third bar (and its return later in the piece) pulls at our heartstrings and the effective contrast created between the opening, middle, and final sections helps provide the piece with an entertaining and characteristic structure that in my opinion provides Clara Schumann with an important place in the history of music.

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