November 15, 2022
Orli Shaham meets Clara Schumann descendant

On November 6, 2022 Pianist Orli Shaham kicked off the 2022-23 season of Pacific Symphony's Cafe Ludwig chamber music series. Shaham has been curator, host, and pianist for a decade and a half. The program celebrated "Clara Schumann and her Legacy" and ended with a post-concert Q&A with the great-great-granddaughter of Clara Schumann, Elizabeth Brumfeld. This was the first time Ms. Brumfeld had ever heard her descendant's music live in concert. 

Here's a complete transcript of the conversation. 

Orli Shaham: I'd like to introduce you to Elizabeth Schumann Brumfeld. And before I say anything else about the relationship or any of that, I'm just going to ask a question. What is that experience like for you to listen to your ancestor’s music?

Elizabeth Brumfeld: It's very emotional, very emotional. I just was dealing with tears right away. I just thought, “How have I not known about this? How just how is that even possible?”

OS: To fill you in a little bit, Liz confided in me that this is the very first time she's heard Clara's music live. I think that says a great deal about where music has been and hopefully this says a lot about where music is going. Did you did you ever grow up knowing of her as a composer at all?

EB: In my home? Not really as a composer. It was mentioned occasionally that Robert and Clara were my great-great-grandparents, and we did have a beautiful portrait of Clara in our home. But she was never portrayed as anything more than the wife of Robert, who also did a little bit of composing. Yeah, “just a little.” But it was almost a footnote.

OS: Well, and in many ways it was a footnote for herself as well. She clearly didn't feel she had a place being allowed to compose. I mean, she certainly she was quite conservative socially. And I think she never questioned that role for herself as domestic partner. I think it was just unusual that she was the breadwinner for so much of that time.

EB: Such an unusual thing for that time, yeah. And that she took that role willingly.

OS: Willingly and with love. The thing that has always stood out to me with the story of Clara and Robert is the love. They put little notes to each other in their pieces, even in the in the first Romance that I played today, she quotes from his violin sonata. And they would put each other's initials into the music. Part of it is because when they were first courting, her father was not pleased, I think both because he saw marriage as an end to her performing career. I think because although Robert Schumann was, of course, such an incredible musical genius capable of reaching us in so many ways, there was a mental health issue there. When we talk about it now we talk about the suicide. “Oh, he jumped into the river” and it’s part of lore. But one of the things that speaking with you has done yet again for me is it reiterated, this is not law. These are people's lives. And I wonder if there's any aspect of that that has been part of your story with them.

EB: Well, I wonder. Even since our conversation just a few days ago, I was thinking about just the mental health aspect of his life and through the ages, through the time now. I think we all know that there's such a stigma attached to mental illness. I wonder if that is why I didn't know much, why it wasn't talked about it much. I don't know. I suspect it may be.

OS: Obviously he was so influential in music in so many ways, and for such a long time to come. Was your family musical? I mean, have you been raised in music in some way?

EB: I was exposed to a lot of music. There was a lot of music in my home. There was a love for classical music. We always had classical music playing in the background during dinner and we always watched Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. Those were not to be missed. And my father, well, I don’t know to call him a pianist or not, but he played it beautifully. He played by ear. Really beautiful player. I wish i could play that way, but I cannot.

OS: The Schumanns had a lot of kids, as I alluded to when I was talking, they had at least seven who survived and many of them had had children. Are there other Schumanns all over the planet running around that we should know about?

EB: Well, I wonder myself. I have some cousins that live in Michigan mostly, but to my knowledge they're not very musical. And beyond that, I really don't know. I know that one of my I have an uncle who moved out of the state very early on and I haven't heard from and we've just been disconnected. And so. There just isn't a lot.

OS: I see where the next project is going to be.

EB: Yes, I think so. I think so.

OS: My brother, who is a concert violinist, did tell me that maybe 25 years ago he was playing with an orchestra in Chile, either in Santiago or maybe Valparaiso, and one of the violinists in the orchestra apparently is a distant cousin of yours.

EB: I know. I would love to have a look at a family tree that that truly traces all of Robert and Clara's children. I have access only to the one branch that I'm involved in, so I don't know what's happening with the rest of the family. It'd be wonderful to find out.

OS: I have. I have a million questions, but I already had the pleasure of speaking with Liz on the phone a few days ago. I wonder if any of you have questions whether about the program or about her connection. Anything that we can we can talk about.

EB: Yeah. I grew up outside of New York City, eastern Long Island, for about 18 years and then was upstate New York and then moved to California about. 40 years ago.

OS: Do you have any idea when the family came to America?

EB: My grandfather, Felix, son of Ferdinand, came in the early 1900s.

OS: For those of you who didn't catch it, she just said her grandfather, Felix. He's named Felix after Mendelssohn, of course.

EB: Oh, thank you. I didn't know that.

OS: This story about Ferdinand. Is this something that you knew? Ferdinand also died young. I think he also had had some health issues, mental health issues. And when he died, Clara took the kids and she raised them. She was in her sixties by this point. Was that part of family lore?

EB: No, I just learned that last week.

OS: I love all of this, you know, And I think for her, it speaks volumes that your grandfather was named Felix, right? I mean, I didn't say it about the quartet, but of course, there's an homage to Felix Mendelssohn in there, right? It's such a it's such the core of European music of the middle of the 19th century. You know, they were right at the heart of things, even though technically they didn't live in the most important city most of the time. But people just came to them and she created, I think, this environment where everybody wanted to stop by and be part of what was going on there. It was this it must have been would have been wonderful to be like a fly on the wall on those suppers.

Do we have other questions?

Audience Member: I enjoy these concerts because for 40 years and this is love it and part of it is an educational venture. But this is the first time I learned that you were a teacher at Juilliard. And I'm curious, you must be teaching performance related to the courses of background and all the class interest in what you’re doing.

OS: Yeah, well, I don't teach music history at Juilliard, but very early on in my career, I did teach music history at Columbia University. My education is a little odd. I went to Juilliard, and then I decided to get my bachelor's from Columbia University in modern European history, of all things. Because I thought it was it was really relevant to what I was so immersed in, in music. And then I actually pursued a master's in musicology at Columbia. And so as part of that, I was teaching a lot of history courses. Now, at the moment I teach piano and chamber music, which I adore teaching, and I teach some performance classes. But I one of the things I try to instil in my students is this understanding why. I wish they were all here right now. You bring them to life, right? The fact that you're here, they were people and they had a family like we all do and parents and children. And it went on and it was this this human connection to the music I just find so fascinating. You know, it's very hard for me to let that go. So I'm particularly excited for that part of it. And I think the string players and I were talking about how just seeing so many of the composers didn't have children for one reason or another. And some of those who did, you know, the lines died out so, so long ago. But to just kind of feel the three dimensionality of both Robert and Clara through the fact that, you know, their DNA is still here right in front of us. It's kind of awesome. Thank you.

Audience Member: Where is the Schumann home? Andis that preserved for people to visit or... ?

OS: I think they are. Have you gone?

EB: Yes. Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau, Germany, and his home is a museum that I was fortunate to be able to visit almost 20 years ago. But I'm excited to say I'll be going back next Spring to see it again. And so his home is available as a museum and is filled with wonderful, wonderful memorabilia - some a couple of pianos that Clara has played. And there's also another Schumann house. In Leipzig.

OS: And that was the main one that they were living in during that time.

EB: Yes. Well, that's where Clara was born and lived. And that's where her father was teaching, of course. So I'm excited to be able to see that one coming up in a few months.

OS: I don't know why it made me think of this, but one thing that I haven't mentioned yet this afternoon, is that Clara had huge hands. And when you're a pianist, and you play music written by pianists, you really get to know their hands. And I've been playing a lot of her solo piano pieces as well. There are another set of romances that she wrote right around this set in particular that I've been playing. She just had an enormous MIT. It's so cool to know that. I saw one more question before that, Eugen.

Audience Member: (inaudible)

OS: I'll just share the questions. The first one was questioning about the mental health issues. Of course, we know there were so many poisons in the water and things that weren't taken care of at that time that that did lead to a lot of mental health issues for people. Do you about in the background of your father?

EB: I have no I have no information about that at all. But it's very interesting to consider.

OS: Good research topic. Yeah. And then the second question was about the Schumann symphonies. And John mentions my husband is a conductor and a lot of conductors shy away from conducting the Schumann symphonies. I think in some ways it's actually oddly true of pianists too, although he wrote so much piano music, I think there's a in certain ways, they're very delicate. I think you said it right at the very beginning for yourself. You said it's very emotional for you to hear this music. Well, guess what? It's very emotional to play. Schumann's music goes right to the core. And Clara's as well. All of the music that we heard today, I think it's the there's something at the heart of that that they all understood, which is why they all fed off of each other in that way artistically that it's never dry. It's never just notes. Even when Amanda Meyer goes into the contrapuntal stuff in her second movement or when Robert does the very intricate counterpoint in that last movement, it's never just about the counterpoint. It's never in sort of the bohemian way, it's never pure. So I think that's one aspect to the Schumann symphonies. The other thing is that the delicacy of tempo I think you all heard today, playing with these guys who are just so amazing.

OS: It's like a masterclass in rubato, you know, what you witnessed on stage. You know, we took time and breathed and listened to each other and reacted in the moment. And that's very hard to do with a group of 80 musicians, but it's not impossible. And when it's done well, it's exceptional. I mean, my tiny little story about that is my husband did propose to me right after we finished a performance of Bartok’s third piano concerto in Aspen. We went off stage and instead of handing him the towel, the stagehand handed him the ring and he asked me. I said “yes, but we have to go out for a bow.”
So we came back and the second half of that concert was the Schumann Second Symphony, which is one of my favorite pieces. And after that, my husband was so emotional. Well, my then fiancé was so emotional because of the symphony and because of that he called me on to the stage and announced to the entire world that we were engaged. So Schumann's been doing that for us for years. You know, as pianists, we learn his music so early. He's such a part of us from the Kinderszenen on. How many of you have played those?

I see a lot of hands. Yeah right. I mean it's one of the first things that we learn. And for me, I just I fell in love with his music in elementary school. You know, I couldn't get enough. I played at some point pretty much every bit of the piano music. And there's something so human in his searching and so masterful in his knowledge. The things that he did like in this quartet that, just as I said, the sort of the synthesizing of everything that came before, because he never felt entitled to what he was doing., I think he got a lot of support from Clara. The letters are fabulous, where he says, “oh, I don't know. You know, I wrote this. I think you'll like it. But could you please?” And she makes these suggestions.. Like my one of my favorite piano concertos. It was just one movement. Like with the piano concerto. One of my favorites! And she says “Honey, it needs a second and third movement.” It wouldn't have existed if it wasn't for that relationship. So I don't know if you have any thoughts on that kind of love that they had between them and what comes through with that.

EB: It's just really it's truly astounding to hear these stories because I just have not heard them and did not know. And so I feel like I've been in a little bit of a crash course just literally weeks. And it's lovely to hear about this and to know that that not only is there access to this in the diaries, which I'm looking forward to reading and in the biography, I thought.

OS: That's a great book, actually. If any of you are interested.

EB: Yes.

OS: By Nancy Reich.

EB: Nancy Reich on Clara Schumann.

OS: There's also a wonderful new biography of Robert Schumann, fairly new by Judith Chernick, called The Faces and the Masks, which does talk quite a bit about his sort of mental state as well.

EB: Yeah, that would be very interesting. What’s been coming to the surface for me as I've been trying to process all of this is that I’m just at the beginning of getting to know her. Every conversation that I have, whether it's with you or with another public musicologist that I've gotten to know a little bit, is just a wealth of information. And I'm scribbling notes down like crazy. All of these things that I did not know. But when I think about her legacy, it's more than the music. It seems like it's more than the music that she reached out almost into people's lives in a way that I suspect was unique and maybe even it is now. Because I think it's easy for us to get absorbed with what we're working on in the accomplishment that we hope to achieve and become so focused on that that we lose sight of other people. And it sounds like that’s something she never lost sight of.

OS: You know, you read this in the stories from her students and from her daughters who worked with her, that she was always looking out for who needed to be introduced to whom. And how it needed to work out for them. Even later in life, Brahms would come and play his compositions when Clara wasn't available to her students instead. Just because she knew, well, he needs somebody to play it for while she was out of town.

EB: Right. Well, I wanted to read just this one quote that I came across from a student of hers who said to her “each pupil represented a sacred trust not only in music, but as a character. And she influenced us for good in every way.” And I just thought, you know. In thinking about extending her legacy, not only through musicians such as yourself and our wonderful guests today who bring her music to us. But through thinking about how she impacted people. She did not keep everything to herself. She was interested in how she could bring good to other people's music, but perhaps even to their lives. And I just think, you know, given the cultural moment that we're all in, what would it look like for us to take on some of that in her honor?

OS: I couldn't agree with you more. I think her legacy is astounding. And I'm so glad to be partaking in sharing and learning about it alongside with you and for all of us to I mean, I think we'll all go home and spend a little more time thinking about her and what she did and how that impacts us. Thank you for spending the time with us this afternoon.

Thank you very much. And thank you all.

EB: Thank you all. And you are all part of this legacy as well. So I thank you for your interest and for your for your coming.

OS: And see you all in February!

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