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The Socio-Political Faces of Clara Schumann on German Film

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 April 2023

Nicole Grimes*
University of California, Irvine, USA


Filmic portrayals of Clara Schumann from World War II to the present provide a fascinating insight into changing conceptions of her professional and domestic roles. Just as fictional reshapings of her biography from the late-nineteenth century to the present can be understood to relate to changing social and political contexts, filmic portrayals of this great musical figure over the past 80 years speak to both constancy and change. The image that remains constant, the depiction of a loyal wife in the service of her husband's art, takes on different guises as it is reflected in the mirror of each film's historical, social, and political moment. In Träumerei (1943/44) Clara Schumann provides an idealized depiction of the German woman in the context of war, one who sacrifices her performance career for love of husband, children and domesticity. Song of Love (1947) reflects the revered role of the mother of a large family in post-war America. Limiting its narrative frame to the years leading up to Robert Schumann's death, Frühlingssinfonie (1974) casts a new light on the domestic strands explored in Träumerei, reflecting then recent developments in research in the Neue Schumann-Gesamtausgabe. In Geliebte Clara (2008), whereas the titular focus shifts explicitly to Clara herself, this passionate retelling is based on the familiar narrative that informs all four films. Building on the historiographical work of Beatrix Borchard, Matthias Wendt, and Yael Braunschweig, this article provides a rich cultural context for each film, and explores how that context relates to source materials including letters and diaries. Reaching beyond that scholarship, this article challenges the familiar narrative found in these movies by re-reading passages of Clara's letters and diaries that can be understood to express regret and frustration at the limitations that her domestic life imposed on her artistic career.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press

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I am grateful to Julian Horton and Stephan Hammel for their helpful thoughts on earlier versions of this article.


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6 Wingfield, ‘Zdenka Janackova's Memoirs and the Fallacy of Music as Autobiography’, 167.

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10 Ní Dhúill, Metabiography, 29.

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12 Beatrix Borchard, ‘Orte und Strategien der Kulturvermittlung, Oder: Clara Schumann als “konzertierende Vermittlerin” deutscher Instrumentalmusik in Paris’, in Übergänge. Zwischen Kunsten und Kulturen: Internationaler Kongress zum 150. Todesjahr von Heinrich Heine und Robert Schumann, ed. Henriette Herwig et al. (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 2007): 85–102, here 86.

13 Roland Barthes, ‘Musica Practica’, in Image Music Text (London: Fontana Press, 1977): 151.

14 Beatrix Borchard, ‘Von Robert zu Clara Schumann und zurück?’, Schumann Studien 9, ed. Ute Bär (Sinzig: Studio, 2008): 81–96, here 82. On the subject of madness, see also David Ferris, ‘Schumann and the Myth of Madness’, Nineteenth Century Music Review 18/3 (2021): 389–426.

15 Borchard, ‘Von Robert zu Clara Schumann und zurück?’, 82.

16 Borchard, ‘Von Robert zu Clara Schumann und zurück?’, 81.

17 A select list of the publications resulting from the primary sources brought to light in the 1980s includes the Schumann Briefedition, ed. Thomas Synofzik et al., Robert-Schumann-Haus, Zwickau, und dem Institut für Musikwissenschaft der Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber, Dresden:; Gerd Nauhaus, ed., The Marriage Diaries of Robert and Clara Schumann: From their Wedding Day Through the Russia Trip, trans. Peter Ostwald (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993); and Berthold Litzmann, Clara Schumann: An Artist's Life, Based on Material Found in Diaries and Letters, trans. Grace E. Hadow, 2 vols (London: Macmillan, 1913; rev. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

18 A similar tendency has been widely commented upon in relation to the biographical representations of the Schumanns. See Matthias Wendt, ‘Albtraum zwischen Trümmern: Der erste Schumannfilm Träumerei in Zwickau uraufgeführt, in Düsseldorf verboten’, Schumann Studien 9, ed. Ute Bär (Sinzig: Studio, 2008): 297–318; and Monica Steegeman, ‘Clara Schumann – eine Replik auf Rollenklischees und Vorurteile’, in Schumanniana Nova: Festschrift Gerd Nauhaus zum 60. Geburtstag, ed. Bernhard R. Appel, Ute Bär, and Matthias Wendt (Sinzig: Studio, 2002): 679–97.

19 Rufus Hallmark, Franeuliebe und Leben: Chamisso's Poems and Schumann's Songs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014): 223.

20 Ruth Solie, ‘Whose Life? The Gendered Self in Schumann's Frauenliebe Songs’, in Music and Text: Critical Inquiries, ed. Steven Paul Scher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992): 219–40.

21 Jeffrey Kallberg, ‘The Harmony of the Tea Table: Gender and Ideology in the Piano Nocturne’, Representations 39 (1992): 102–33, here 114–15.

22 Jeremy Barham, ‘Recurring Dreams and Moving Images: The Cinematic Appropriation of Schumann's Op. 15 No. 7’, 19th-Century Music 34/3 (2011): 271–301, here 292.

23 The main roles are played by Hilde Krahl (Clara Schumann), Mathias Wiemann (Robert Schumann), Friedrich Kayssler (Friedrich Wieck), Emil Lohkamp (Franz Liszt), and Ullrich Haupt (Johannes Brahms).

24 Klaus Kreimei, The Ufa Story: History of Germany's Greatest Film Company, 1918–1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996): 4.

25 Michael Kater, Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997): 3–6.

26 Kater, Twisted Muse, 243.

27 The information in this table is drawn from Heldt, ‘Hardly Heroes’, 130–31.

28 Manuel Köppen, ‘Der Künstlerfilm in Zeiten des Krieges’, Kunst der Propaganda: Der Film im Dritten Reich (Bern: Peter Lang, 2008): 57–87, here 58.

29 Guido Heldt, ‘Hardly Heroes: Composers as a Subject in National Socialist Cinema’, in Music and Nazism: Art Under Tyranny, 1933–1945, ed. Michael Kater and Albrecht Riethmüller (Laaber: Laaber Verlag, 2004): 120.

30 Ní Dhúill, Metabiography, 80.

31 Köppen, ‘Der Künstlerfilm in Zeiten des Krieges’, 84.

32 As Karen Hollinger notes, the subject of biopics has been ‘overwhelmingly male, and the biopic has been characterized as one of the most male-oriented film forms’. Karen Hollinger estimates 25–28 per cent of biopics feature women. See Karen Hollinger, Feminist Film Studies (London: Routledge, 2012): 158.

33 Klassen, Clara Schumann: Musik und Öffentlichkeit (Vienna: Böhlau, 2009): 491.

34 Heldt, ‘Hardly Heroes’, 122–23.

35 Yael Braunschweig, ‘Biographical Listening: Intimacy, Madness, and the Music of Robert Schumann’ (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2013): 55.

36 Kater, Twisted Muse, 240–41.

37 Köppen, ‘Der Künstlerfilm in Zeiten des Krieges’, 83.

38 Wendt, ‘Albtraum zwischen Trümmern’, 312.

39 Karl Laux, Robert Schumann Blätter: Mitteilungen der deutschen Robert-Schumann-Gesellschaft 2 (August 1944): 15. Cited in Wendt, ‘Albtraum zwischen Trümmern’, 312. Karl Laux was President of the Zwickau Robert-Schumann Gesellschaft from 1957 and for many years Vice-President of the Gesellschaft für Musikforschung.

40 Klassen, Clara Schumann: Musik und Öffentlichkeit, 491.

41 On the mother trope, see Braunschweig, ‘Biographical Listening’, particularly chap. 2.

42 Braunschweig, ‘Biographical Listening’, 55.

43 Dialogue from Träumerei.

44 Dialogue from Träumerei.

45 ‘The Quintet Variations’, as Schumann called them, composed in 1843, were arranged for two pianos to allow for more enhanced performance opportunities. This two-piano version was first performed by Clara and Mendelssohn at a concert of Pauline Viardot Garcia on 18 August 1843.

46 As Beatrix Borchard asserts, in this film, true German music is opposed to a ‘virtuosity calculated for external effects, represented by Franz Liszt, which is linked to “French” culture’. However, in this important scene, the piece that is the vehicle for virtuosity as Clara plays with Liszt is Robert Schumann's German music. Borchard, ‘Von Clara zu Robert und zurück’, 89.

47 Dialogue from Träumerei.

48 Dialogue from Träumerei.

49 Dialogue from Träumerei.

50 Dialogue from Träumerei.

51 Dialogue from Träumerei.

52 For a comprehensive overview of how this piece has been appropriated in cinema more broadly, see Barham, ‘Recurring Dreams and Moving Images’.

53 Dialogue in Träumerei.

54 Dialogue in Träumerei.

55 Borchard, Clara Schumann: Musik als Lebensform, 55.

56 Katy Hoffmann, ‘Propagandistic Problems of German Newsreels in World War II’, in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 24/1 (2004): 133–42.

57 See for the German Newsreel of 28 September 1944.

58 German Newsreel of 28 September 1944.

59 Robert G. Moeller, ‘What Did You Do in the War, Mutti? Courageous Women, Compassionate Commanders, and Stories of the Second World War’, German History 22/4 (2004): 563–94, here 567.

60 Erica Carter, Dietrich's Ghosts: The Sublime and the Beautiful in Third Reich Film (London: British Film Institute, 2007): 36.

61 See Ruth Solie, ‘Whose Life? The Gendered Self in Schumann's Frauenliebe Songs’, 228.

62 Cited in Eric Rentschler, ‘Remembering Not to Forget: A Retrospective Reading of Kluge's Brutality in Stone’, New German Critique 49 (1990): 23–41, here 37.

63 Seán Allan, Screening Art: Modernist Aesthetics and the Socialist Imaginary in East German Cinema (New York: Bergahn Books, 2019): 205.

64 Seán Allan, Screening Art, 201.

65 Seán Allan, Screening Art, 203.

66 Matthias Wendt, ‘Das Schumann-Bild in der Belletristik’, in Schumann Handbuch, ed. Ulrich Tadday (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzer, 2006): 563–69, here 566.

67 Ní Dhúill, Metabiography, 73

68 Hans A. Neunzig and Peter Schamoni, eds, Frühlingssinfonie: Clara Wieck und Robert Schumann – Die Geschichte einer Leidenschaft und zahlreichen Fotos aus den Film ‘Frühlingssinfonie’ (Munich: Wilhelm Heyne, 1983).

69 Ní Dhúill, Metabiography, 159.

70 Neunzig and Schamoni, eds, Frühlingssinfonie, 7.

71 Dialogue in Frühlingssinfonie.

72 Dialogue in Frühlingssinfonie.

73 Neunzig and Schamoni, eds, Frühlingssinfonie, 144–9.

75 Valerie Woodring Goertzen, ‘Clara Wieck Schumann's Improvisations and Her “Mosaics” of Small Forms’, in Beyond Notes: Improvisation in Western Music of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, ed. Rudolph Rasch (Lucca: Brepols, 2011): 153–62; and Goertzen, ‘By Way of Introduction: Preluding by 18th- and Early 19th-Century Pianists’, Journal of Musicology 14/3 (1996): 299–337.

76 On the differences between French and German musical culture as they relate to Clara Schumann, see Beatrix Borchard, ‘Orte und Strategien der Kulturvermittlung’.

77 Dialogue in Frühlingssinfonie.

78 The film conveys nothing of the reservations Schumann confided to his diary about Clara's performance and evident lack of understanding of the piece. See Peter Ostwald, Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1985): 90.

79 It was Clara's performance of Beethoven's ‘Appassionata’ Sonata that prompted Grillparzer to write this poem. See Franz Grillparzer, ‘Clara Wieck und Beethoven’, Wiener Zeitschrift für Kunst, Literatur (1837), translated in Alessandra Comini, The Changing Image of Beethoven: A Study in Mythmaking (Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2008): 195. Beatrix Borchard takes note of the incestuous overtones in how the relationship between Clara and Friedrich Wieck is depicted in this film. See Borchard, Clara Schumann: Musik als Lebensform, 70.

80 Dialogue from Frühlingssinfonie at 41:00.

81 Linda Correll Roesner, ‘The Autograph of Schumann's Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 14’, The Musical Quarterly 61/1 (1975): 98–130, here 113.

82 ‘Wenn ich dich zum ersten Mal wiedersehe, da weine ich, da schrei ich, da laß ich Dich nicht wieder los. Dann darfst du nicht mehr von mir. Zu viel habe ich schon um dich gelitten’. Letter from Robert Schumann to Clara Wieck, 16 February 1839, cited in Borchard, Clara Schumann: Ihr Leben. Eine biographische Montage. Mit einem Essay der Autorin: ‘Mit Schere und Klebstoff’ (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2015): 107.

83 See Ostwald, Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius.

84 Barham, ‘Recurring Dreams and Moving Images’.

85 Neunzig and Schamoni, eds, Frühlingssinfonie, 12.

86 Richard Holmes. ‘Biography: Inventing the Truth’, in The Art of Literary Biography, ed. John Batchelor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995): 15–25, here 18.

87 For a fascinating exploration of the attempts to regulate Clara Schumann's sexuality and femininity in seemingly benign terms in relation to her title as a ‘priestess’, see April L. Prince, ‘(Re)Considering the “Priestess”: Clara Schumann, Historiography, and the Visual’, Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 21 (2017): 107–40. See also April Prince's article in this journal issue.

88 Steven Taubeneck, ‘Helma Sanders Brahms: An Introduction’, in Women Filmmakers: Refocussing, ed. Jacqueline Levitin, Judith Plessis and Valerie Raoul (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003): 65–71, here 68.

89 Helma Sanders-Brahms, Clara Schumann und ihre Beziehung zu Robert Schumann und Johannes Brahms –Entstehung eines Films (Cologne: Verlag Frank-Michael Rommert, 2009): 3.

90 Sanders-Brahms, Clara Schumann und ihre Beziehung zu Robert Schumann und Johannes Brahms, 3.

91 As Sabine Hake frames it, Deutschland, Bleiche Mutter is a ‘highly allegorical interweaving of family story and national history in what became [Sanders-Brahms's] most famous and most controversial film’. Sabine Hake, German National Cinema (London: Routledge, 2008): 177.

92 John E. Davidson, Deterritorializing the New German Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999): 69.

93 Helma Sanders-Brahms, Geliebte Clara interview,, accessed 24 July 2020.

94 Georg Maas, ‘Frühlingssinfonie: Robert und Clara Schumann im Film’, Robert Schumann für die Jugend: Beiträge zu Theorie und Praxis des musikpägagische Komponistenporträts (2008): 92–111, here 93.

95 Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987): 44.

96 Lucy Green, Music, Gender, Education (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997): 131.

97 Sanders-Brahms carried out 12 years of research in Schumann houses and research institutes, as mentioned in her booklet on the making of the film. Helma Sanders Brahms, Clara Schumann und ihre Beziehung zu Robert Schumann und Johannes Brahms.

98 Irmgard Knechtges-Obrecht, ‘“Das Klavier war der Schlüssel”: Ein Bericht über den Film Geliebte Clara’, Correspondenz: Mitteilung der Robert-Schumann-Gesellschaft 31 (2008): 27–33, here 30, and Borchard, Clara Schumann: Musik als Lebensform, 66.

99 Knechtges-Obrecht, ‘Das Klavier war der Schlüssel’. According to Peter Ostwald, ‘The 1 April letter from Dr Peters … is the only existing document from Endenich that alludes to violence on the composer's part. … It seems probable that upon being admitted to the hospital Schumann was in a state of extreme agitation, which might have escalated into aggressive behavior if he had been interfered with (a scenario that he feared when Clara came too close to him)’. Peter Ostwald, Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius, 279.

100 The literary plays an important role in much of Sanders-Brahms's output. Heinrich is about the writer Heinrich Kleist, the characters in Under the Pavement are acting in a Greek Tragedy, A Future for Emily begins with Brigitte Fossey acting in Kleist's Penthesilia, Laputa begins with long quotations from Jonathan Swift, and Deutschland bleiche Mutter begins with a Berthold Brecht poem. See Brunette, Peter, ‘Helma Sanders-Brahms: A Conversation’, Film Quarterly 44/2 (1990): 34–42Google Scholar, here 40–41.

101 Ostwald, Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius, 140. See also Hoffmann, Ernst Theodor Amadeus, ‘Johannes Kreisler's Certificate of Apprenticeship’, trans. Knight, Max, 19th-Century Music 5/3 (1982): 189–192CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

102 MacAuslan, John, Schumann's Music and E.T.A. Hoffmann's Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016): 148CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

103 The Rhenish Symphony is used repeatedly throughout the film to signal Robert's psychological pain. As both Johannes Jansen and Knechtges Obrecht assert, Clara was never a conductor. Yet, as Borchard notes, there are ample reports from members of the Düsseldorf Chorus that tell us that Clara frequently sat in the front row of rehearsals with the score in her lap and intervened with the choir behind the back of her ‘absent-minded conducting husband’. Borchard, Clara Schumann: Musik als Lebensform, 67.

104 Helma Sanders-Brahms, Clara Schumann und ihre Beziehung zu Robert Schumann und Johannes Brahms, 29.

105 See, for instance, the ‘Introduction’ to Mayer, Paola, The Aesthetics of Fear in German Romanticism (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2020)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

106 Johannes Jansen, ‘Filmstart im Dezember: Geliebte Clara’, Concerto: Das Magazin für Alte Musik (2008): 19–20.

107 ‘Interview and Excerpts from a Master Class with Helma Sanders Brahms’, in Women Filmmakers: Refocussing, 71–77, here 76.

108 Brunette, ‘Helma Sanders-Brahms: A Conversation’, 41.

109 Sabine Hake, German National Cinema, 106.

110 Litzmann, Clara Schumann: An Artist's Life, 2: 57.

111 Knechtges-Obrecht, ‘Das Klavier war der Schlüssel’, 29.

112 Ní Dhúill, Metabiography, 20.

113 On the Schumann's ongoing trouble with accommodation in Düsseldorf, see Irmgard Knechtges-Obrecht, Clara Schumann: Ein Leben für die Musik, 102.

114 Litzmann, Clara Schumann: An Artist's Life, 2: 35.

115 Diary entry of 20–27 September 1840 in Robert Schumann, Tagebücher, ed. Georg Eismann and Gerd Nauhaus (Basel: Stroemfeld and Roter Stern, 1971–82). Translated in Martin Geck, Robert Schumann: The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013): 134.

116 Dialogue from Geliebte Clara.

117 Knechtges-Obrecht, ‘Das Klavier war der Schlussel’, 27–32.

118 This entire scene lasts from 00:25:32 to 00:30:30. The original dialogue at this point is: Clara Schumann: ‘Er hat etwas von einer streunende Katze, die ein Tiger warden könnte’. Robert Schumann: ‘Nun also, da haben wir unseren Tiger’.

119 Reich, Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman, 231.

120 Dialogue from Geliebte Clara. The musical director for Geliebte Clara evidently confused the themes from Robert's Albumblätter with Clara's Romance Variée, Op. 3. The theme that Brahms plays is composed by Robert Schumann, and is not a part of Clara Wieck's Romance Variée, Op. 3. In May 1853 Clara's diary announces: ‘Today I once more began … for the first time for years, to compose again; that is, I want to write variations on a theme of Robert's, out of Bunte Blätter, for his birthday: but I find it very difficult. – The break has been too long’. On 3 June, she adds: ‘The work is done. It seems to me that it is not a failure, and now all the birds are alive again and sing the whole summer long’. Litzmann, Clara Schumann: An Artist's Life, 2: 85 (Ebook).

121 Felix Schumann was born on 11 June 1854.

122 There has been scholarly disagreement on whether Clara Wieck or Robert Schumann invented this theme. See Becker, Claudia Stevens, ‘A New Look at Schumann's Impromptus’, The Musical Quarterly 67/4 (1981): 568–86Google Scholar.

123 Kallberg, ‘The Harmony of the Tea Table’, 123, citing Burtin, Anna, ‘Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck: A Creative Partnership’, Music & Letters 69 (1988): 211–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here 224, and Nancy Reich, Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman, 231.

124 Kleefeld, William, Clara Schumann (Leipzig: Bielefeld, 1910): 1Google Scholar, cited in Borchard, ‘Von Robert zu Clara Schumann und zurück?’ 85.

125 Hallmark, Franeuliebe und Leben, 6.

126 Solie, ‘Whose Life? The Gendered Self in Schumann's Frauenliebe Songs’, 224.

127 Ní Dhúill, Metabiography, 16.

128 Nancy Reich quoted in Tibbetts, John C., Schumann: A Chorus of Voices (New York: Amadeus Press, 2010): 442Google Scholar.

129 Holmes, Richard, ‘The Proper Study?’ in Mapping Lives: The Uses of Biography, ed. France, Peter and St, William Clair (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002): 7–18Google Scholar, here 15.

130 Ní Dhuill, Metabiography, 34.

131 Ní Dhúill, Metabiography, 96.