discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Love conquers all things except poverty and toothache

I should have remembered The Wisdom of Mae West before writing my last post, which was, I now realise, a product of severe toothache. And lack of sleep. And strong painkillers. Not to mention a little bit of medicinal grappa. Hardly the state of mind and body needed for sympathy with what has been called ‘the most feted romantic love story in the history of Western music’. 

I’ve learned a lot in the past week. My Italian dentistry vocabulary has expanded spectacularly. I am an expert on all aspects of root canal treatment. I now know you can’t buy codeine from a pharmacist in Italy, that antibiotics are absurdly cheap here, and paracetamol is ridiculously expensive. My new best friend, il dentista (see? fluent), thinks it something to do with the church’s attitude to pain. He was joking. I think. The pharmacist suggested I bring some British paracetamol with me next time, and she’ll swap it for antibiotics. We’d both be rich. She was joking. I think.

And so, back to Clara Schumann. Without toothache. And damn it, I still don’t get it. What’s ‘romantic’ about living with a husband who is suffering from severe mental illness? What’s ‘romantic’ about that husband preventing you from doing what you do because he sees his work as of more value than your own? Why is it a ‘love story’ to get pregnant every eighteen months? And yet, and yet, as my lovely wise cousin (almost as wise as Mae West) pointed out, some people just thrive on being carers, and that is the role that Robert offered Clara on a plate, from the very start. He, knowing his mental instability even then, asks Clara: ‘Just love me a lot, do you hear – I ask a lot because I give a lot […] Your radiant image, however, shines through all the darkness, and I can bear things more easily.’

And Robert did love her. And he saw how hard it was for her. The phrases that touch me most come from Robert, writing in their joint marriage diary. He’s writing about and to Clara. (Marie and Elise were the couple’s two daughters). Robert’s words capture his wife’s spirit – the energy he so loved, needed and occasionally feared:

Clara is now setting her songs and several piano pieces in order. She wants always to move forward but Marie is grasping her dress on the one side, Elise also creates much to do, and the husband sits deep in thoughts of ‘Peri’ [Robert’s oratorio]. So, forward, always forward through joy and sorrow, my Clara, and love me always as you have always loved me.

Forward, always forward through joy and sorrow. That’s Clara Schumann for me.

- - click screen to close - -  Marie and Elise are at the back….


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