Clara (Wieck) Schumann was born in 1819 in Leipzig Germany, where she was raised by her father to be not only a world-class pianist but the first great female composer. At 13, however, she fell in love with Robert Schumann, another of her father’s students, and when he permanently injured his hand with a finger-strengthening device of his own invention, she became the principle interpreter and champion of his work. By the time she was 18, she was an internationally revered performer and composer–and secretly engaged to Schumann. Her father blocked the union for as long as he could, reluctant to see her great gifts buried beneath the demands of marriage and motherhood, but at 21, Clara went to court and got permission to marry.
Over the course of the next 14 years, as Robert descended into madness, she bore 8 children (seven lived) and concertized as much as she could under those circumstances (though her composing fell by the wayside), continuing to perform and promote Robert’s work, which was highly unpopular in its time. Always conflicted by his admiration for Clara’s abilities as a musician and jealous of her unprecedented success, in 1854 he threw first his wedding ring and then himself into the Rhine. Three days later he was taken to a nearby mental institution, where he died in 1856. During that time, his 19 year old protegee Johannes Brahms–14 years Clara’s junior–took up residence with the Schumann family, managing the household and caring for the children while Clara–as if released from chains–embarked on a grueling series of concert tours, regaining her prior acclaim.
During that time, it is clear Brahms fell in love with Clara. His letters to her remain, though all her correspondence to him during that time was later destroyed at Brahms’ insistence. Two weeks after Robert’s death, the two vacationed together in Gersau, Switzerland. Tongues were wagging, but rather than marrying, the two parted ways abruptly. Clara never remarried; Brahms never married. Still, the two remained “best friends” by their own definition until Clara’s death in 1896, when Brahms wrote, “Aside from Frau Schumann, I have no other friend in the world.”