Clara Schumann (1819-1896) teacher, pianist and composer was a member of the Konigliche und Kaiserliche Kammervirtuosin “Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso“, Austria’s highest musical honour. Her fascinating and tragic story is compellingly brought to life by Elena Mazzon in a one hour tour de force of dramatic monologue and piano playing. In the intimate surroundings of the cabaret room at Ram Jam records, itself furnished appropriately in the Biedermeier style of wooden floors, and a candle on every table, one feels transported back to the Germany of the 1830s.
Elena gives an utterly compelling and psychologically convincing portrait of the young Clara. Looking uncannily like her in so many ways, short, slim almost fragile with brown hair tied neatly in a bun and dressed soberly in a shoulder to ankle frockcoat, Elena speaks in a central European drawl made familiar to us in the image of the German professor. Credit to Peter Warnock’s voice coaching. But what makes this such a gripping piece is her frankness about the many ironies in Clara’s life. She says, “Oh how I loved sex“. But of course, in the days before contraception sex meant pregnancy and babies. Clara had eight. Every baby making it harder for her to be a composer and pianist. Unlike her more famous husband Robert. “Sex, Love and Classical Music,” tells this fascinating story with wit and passion, force and energy but above all with understanding and sympathy.
Born in 1819 Clara Wieck (named by her father, meaning light, brilliance) was a child prodigy. Her father trained her to be a musician. He treated her not as a girl but as a musician. She was not allowed to play with dolls. Age 9 she met Robert Schuman, he fell in love with her on sight. When she was 18 he proposed marriage. This was the first of those many ironies that were to dog Clara’s life. For had not her father brought her up to be a musician, not a mere wife? Was she not throwing away everything he had shown her by marrying? Unsurprisingly he refused to give consent. Elena’s face contorted by rage as she recalls her father’s anger is chilling. Clara took him to court and got a court order to marry at 21. But almost immediately her father was proved right. Robert monopolised the piano “I’m composing” and Clara had babies and did housework. Although in three weeks of concert tours she made more money than Robert did in a year.
Elena is superb as she recalls the details of her misery as a wife and mother. Watching Robert’s big toenail as it cuts through the sock and which she will have to darn is a comic gem. Then we see her in fear and trembling as she goes to buy a condom. Illegal at the time and highly risky for a respectable married woman to try. Shockingly perhaps she confesses to relief at the death of one of her children. Into this danse macabre comes the dashing young Johannes Brahms. Clearly in love with her, she was understandably attracted to him, especially as Robert had by this time had a mental, breakdown and incarcerated himself in a lunatic asylum where he died two years later. But in the final agonising irony, Clara is again destined for unhappiness. As Elena undoes her dress as Johannes had she has a sickening moment of Deja Vu. It’s Groundhog Day all over again. Making love to Johannes will be just a repeat of the misery she has endured with Robert, more pregnancies, more housework, more waiting for the man to compose. And so tragically Clara refuses the advances of Johannes and comes to terms with what she depressingly describes as death by domesticity. “Sex, Love and Classical Music” is a powerful reminder of how limited and restricted women’s lives were, and still are. Importantly it goes some way to answering those insensitive smart arses who disingenuously wonder why women haven’t achieved as much as men in classical music. Go and see this fantastic play and you will come away a sadder but a much wiser person.
Review by John O’Brien
Clara is the story of a feminist icon and ground-breaking classical composer, Clara Schumann. No, not Robert
Schumann- Clara Schumann!
This one-woman show – written and performed by Italian actress Elena Mazzon, directed by Catriona Kerridge and
with the musical direction of Stefania Passamonte – might be set in the past, but it tackles issues that are relevant and topical with irony and sensitivity, and poses questions we still, haven’t answered in the 21st Century.
Fusing words, music, irony and poignant encounters, Elena Mazzon explores the story of this fascinating and
controversial woman, delving into her life and relationships as she gets ready for a date with none other than the
famous Johannes Brahms.
1st to 3rd August 2019
46b Richmond Road (The back of The Grey Horse Pub)
Kingston upon Thames, KT2 5EE