An interview with the prodigy Music: A reporter 'talks' to Clara Schumann, the 19th-century pianist. Beverly Serra-Brooks will play Clara, and some of her repertoire, at Shriver Hall today.

November 02, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ladies and gentlemen, the celebrated pianist Clara Schumann will now take questions from the press.

Reporter: Madame Schumann, it has been more than a century since your last recital. Why are you now again on tour?

Clara Schumann: Oh, it has been longer than that! I stopped performing in 1890. I was 71, and I was going deaf, you know. Anyway, it is not I on tour, but a clever pianist named Beverly Serra-Brooks. She dresses as me, plays my music and talks about my life.

Reporter: Tell us about her.

Schumann: She is a beautiful woman of 40 who lives in Pasadena -- the one in California -- with her husband, the composer Lee Brooks. He wrote the script for this concert. She has music degrees from California Institute of the Arts and California State University, Northridge.

Her teachers have included Jorg Demus, an Austrian who specializes in Mozart, and Reginald Stewart, who I think will be familiar here in Baltimore. He was the former director of the Peabody Conservatory of Music and conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Reporter: How did she develop this program?

Schumann: As a performer on community concert series, she began to talk to the audience about the pieces she was going to play. So she suggested to Columbia Artists Management International, her presenter, that she was thinking of making a theater piece about Clara and Robert Schumann. They called her back a day later and said they already had bookings, and when could she start?

Reporter: What interested her about you?

Schumann: This is a good time for women musicians. We are being rediscovered. For years, no one knew that Fanny Mendelssohn, my dear friend, was a composer just like her brother, Felix, or that Nannerl Mozart was as gifted a performer as her brother, Wolfgang. I myself was married to Robert Schumann, the greatest composer who ever lived, but he was known as "Clara Schumann's husband" in our day, for my playing was far better known than his compositions.

Ms. Serra-Brooks understands this very well. Her husband is a composer, and she is a pianist. "We live like Clara and Robert Schumann lived," she says, "except he's not crazy."

Reporter: You introduced most of Robert's pieces, didn't you?

Schumann: Yes, and several I will play -- or rather, Ms. Serra-Brooks will play -- on this program. She will perform the "Symphonic Etudes." Sometimes she plays the great "Fantasy," but I have mixed feelings about that.

Reporter: Why?

Schumann: Robert dedicated it to Liszt, and I regard Liszt as nothing but a showoff.

When I edited my husband's complete works, I scratched out the dedication. Liszt has the decline of piano playing on his conscience.

Reporter: He is credited with being the first pianist to play from memory.

Schumann: This is untrue. I was the first. Some people called this -- I think you would now say -- a "gimmick," and pianists who could not memorize their music referred to me as "insufferable." But it meant nothing to me. I will admit, though, as I got older and my memory became unreliable, I was not ashamed to use the music -- especially when I performed piano concertos. It wouldn't do to lose one's way with the whole orchestra there.

Reporter: You were known for playing the great repertory -- Beethoven and Bach -- at a time when most concertizing pianists played their own music, to show off their technique.

Schumann: This is true. After Mendelssohn, that's Felix, introduced the idea of playing Bach in public, I tried to include Bach on all my recitals. Ms. Serra-Brooks will play the "Chromatic Fantasy" in recognition of this.

Reporter: You were a child prodigy, I understand.

Schumann: I did not learn to speak until I was 4! But I started to play the piano at 5, and my father, Friedrich Wieck, realized my talent. He put me on a strict practice schedule of two hours a day, and I began to play concertos in public at 8. But my father never allowed me to read. My life was all music, music, music.

Reporter: Your husband, Robert, came to study with him.

Schumann: Yes. I was only 9 at the time, and he thought of me as a little sister. But poor Robert ruined his hand with a contraption that was supposed to strengthen his fourth finger. Instead, it tore the tendon, and that was the end of his concert career. But he really wanted to compose, so perhaps it was all for the best.

Reporter: When did you marry?

Schumann: In 1840. I was 21. My father objected violently. He even took us to court! But in the end, we won.

Reporter: You had children?

Schumann: Seven children! Marie, Elise, Julie, Emil, who died when he was 14 months old, Ludwig, Eugenie, Ferdinand and Felix. Ms. Serra-Brooks will play on her program some of the music for young players that Robert wrote for them: pieces from the "Album for the Young" and the "Kinderszenen" ("Scenes of Childhood").

Reporter: Did any of them become musicians?

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