Since first I saw him
Half-light and rain.
The path of the street shines along the rim of guttering. Look up.
Behind the glass, a girl, a little girl, a young woman, maybe, is looking back. She can't see you, she won't object. You can look as long as you like. The light is bad but she's distinct enough, hair pulled back and her eyes full almond shapes, the size of bay leaves. Wide. She has a generous lower lip, a gypsy mouth; skin pale as cheese. You see braids and ribbon, the sheen of dark hair slatted with something that might be pearls, can almost smell the lavender, pomade. Nine, perhaps? This dark, at this distance, it's impossible to be sure. She shifts, half in shadow. Whatever else, she's certainly a child. No one is with her. Nothing moves and rain glints on the paving. Once in a while, she presses a hand against the glass, blurring an outline on the pane. Her mouth opens a little as though she might speak. But nothing comes. There is only stillness, the silent house. This curiously undiverting undiverted child, watching. Waiting.
This is a hand. My hand.
There are web partitions between the fingers. The function of the skin is to protect and cover. The function of the joint is to flex; of the muscles to clench and release. The nerves and circulatory channels cannot be seen. Their function is sensory evaluation, animation. Life. Long tendons reach the fingertips, slip through a bracelet of bone in the wrist.
Everything comes from the shoulder.
She looks at her hand, these fourteen crooks, the chicken-leg muscle under the thumb, its tight parcel of buried bones. So many bones.
Listen! You can hear it plain.
Someone is playing exercises.
His hand, the solid pressure he exerts upon the keys. Not Czerny, not Hummel -- he plays his own. Simple but effective, the same half-melodies over and over, designed for discipline, the honing of muscle. Aesthetics be damned: training is what comes first. His fourth finger sticks and it starts again, staccato next time, contrary motion, sliding between major and minor, just to keep his fingers trim. No pauses; no sooner does one finish, than it turns on its heel and starts again. This is the start of everything: stubborn pursuit of self-defined perfection through tedious hours of the same, the same. Practice, patience, what-ever you like to call it. He has his own name. He calls it endurance and it abideth for ever. The little G minor triplets passage runs into the distance, vanishes like a mouse. Then he catches it by the tail and drags it back, backwards. Clever, a mental arithmetic that falls into place quite naturally after a while, happens almost without thought. And while it's happening, something else slips in alongside. Listen again: something married to, but not one with, the keys. Something human for a start. Take a moment, allow yourself: it's there, quite clear. A woman, singing. Her voice is high, expressionless, saving itself for more. A voice that puts itself through its paces: a ladder of five ascending notes, tonic to dominant, back again. That done, it cranks up a semitone, does it fresh: a five-note bloom and fade again, another semitone, again. Soon it's as high as you think it can go and -- it does it one more time. It's not Johanna, silent Johanna. Johanna wouldn't have sung if her life depended on it. It's not a student because a student would have been with Papa, working in tandem, not elsewhere, trying to swim against the piano that ignored everything but itself. Whose, then? The same answer comes back every time. Mother. Her mother's voice. There's no one else's it could have been. Does knowing make the voice more beautiful, more keenly felt? Perhaps. Another, surely there will be one last flourish, and the woman will appear entire around it, if only in your imagination; the voice will come into itself. So you wait. Your ears strain, waiting. Only the piano keeps going, churning the same cycles, oblivious. For whatever reason, the voice has gone. You can't even remember it. The texture of the sounds, the edge of it against the ear. Gone.
That memory is made of sound before it's made of anything else, she has no doubt. That it is not as ephemeral as it appears she has no doubt either. After the kiss, the glass of lemon water, the scent of orchids is gone, it's gone. But a fragment of music somehow remains. And she knows that when she is alone in bed, in the early hours before dawn, music comes whether she likes it or not: a sliver of Chopin, one stubborn phrase of Beethoven, the edges and elbows of countless songs. And these. Her earliest memories, maybe, but something etched inside the skull, heard again and again till they stuck for ever and one in the same. Father raising his inventions to the sky. Mother, in another place entirely, singing.
Sing. One word. Sing!
She doesn't speak, has never spoken. Four years old and not a word.
Some people say she's deaf or simple; others that she's both. Poor Herr Wieck! She hears them herself. Leering down with faces like owls, mouths open wide so the rotted places in their teeth show. Hello! they roar. Hello, little lady! in warm clouds, heavy with pig fat, garlic, tobacco. She peers out at them, protecting her nose behind the grey mask of someone's skirts, unblinking. Unfocused. After that, they give up. They turn to father, the baby with a face like a bloater, knock horseshit from their shoes -- anything but persist with this awkward child. Never speaks. Never smiles. Thin as a stick with monstrous eyes; they can't even say she's pretty. Never mind. They give her sweets anyway, let her father take them away, wag his finger in mock-warning, let the talk turn to other things. Weather, they say. Who's married, who's sick, who's died. Business ah! Business. The fascinating Subject of Business and How it Thrives. And even at four, she knows what business means. Business means pianos. It also means Mother and all those notes, tickets, money and students, but mostly pianos. This talking, mouths chewing verbal cud, always runs for some time. After that, there is remarking about the state of the roads, who has dropped in or out of the subscription series, concerts and optional cooing at Gustav -- this last always brief. Gustav is only a baby and, by definition, not interesting. He doesn't cry, yet. He squeaks like a stood-on puppy; only the housemaid listens. She picks him up and claps his hands together till she has something better to do, then she puts him down again. He can't even sit upright. So much for Gustav.
Then what? They scan with their eyes, working out the farewell strategy and she's still there, oblivious to the blatancy of it, staring. Every time they turn round, eyes. The child's entire repertoire. Last is an exchange about Frau Wieck's father in Plauen and that's the sign. When the talk turns to Grandpa, it's almost over. Absent people are the ends of conversations. Sometimes sick people, sometimes dead, but the merely absent will do. Alwin is an exception. Alwin is not here but no one will ask after Alwin. Asking after a child is not much done and this particular child less than most. Too small to walk, too big to carry, Alwin says goodbye in the hall and stays there. His white pudding face watches over Johanna's shoulder till Papa shuts the door and the face slides away and you hear him cry. Alwin cries all the time. No matter. That the girl-child says nothing has its good side. And when he looks down, to include her in his deliberations, to indicate more fully for their amusement whom he means, there she is, looking back. She watches them put their hats on and when Papa puts his on too, it's sure: the talking is done. That's what hats-on means. Done. To prove it there are farewells, the looking-over of shoulders, waves. Then there is walking. Where you walk is away. The sound of walking is footfalls to the Eilenburg Road, brass keys clanking in Father's pocket. Nothing but footfalls for miles.
* * *
Höhe Lilie. Mountain Lily.
Their letters come addressed to a flower.
Grey walls rising three floors. Mountain Lily. More the latter than the former, thinks Friedrich, when he thinks of his house name at all, which is seldom. What people think of his house is not his concern. It's a plain house, neither elegant nor grand. Sufficient is the word that springs to mind: this house is pleasingly adequate. There is a door and matching shutters in dutiful loden; ten solid apartments and loft space, all necessary. There are music rooms, workshops, the warehouse; a spread of bedrooms, a sitting room, parlour, kitchen. One servant's room, one servant, three big windows, eleven pianos. That's what bulks up the space. Pianos. They're not slight beasts, not dainty. Varnished edges sharp enough to cut, snap-shut lids, shin-battering pedals, stops, stands. Watch boys lifting them for transport and you'd see -- pianos, even small ones with painted lids and silver candle sconces, all nymphs and weeping trees, are brutes. Unwieldy lumps. Stand between them and they crack, moan, breathe out wood; a little girl could get lost among their brown bull legs. That she never does is just as well, for the pianos keep coming. He trades one, puts one out for hire, two more appear. Teaching, trade, sale and barter; livelihood, aspiration; this house is made of pianos. That's what people come here for. The hall is full of silhouettes; cheaper than miniatures. One bears a passing resemblance to Schubert, another Beethoven. Everyone has these. As for the rest, Lord knows who. But trying to concentrate, to think in this place, is impossible. This house has no peace. It rings and resonates, echoes from all its corners. Pianos. Voices. Sound.
Someone does. She has never heard anyone refuse. The very idea.
Girls come with their hair curled tight, sheet copy under their arms; young men with more hope than talent and what they come for is him. For Father to tell them what to do and he does, he certainly does. Sing! It's the same for everyone, even the pianists, especially the pianists. Sing! They make scales and arpeggios, domino shapes of sound to make their throats and fingers supple, their pitch true. The voice is your beginning! he shouts. It's how every lesson starts. They sing till the whole street can hear them, it carries through walls. Later there are only pianos: the same pieces faltering, recurring, snipped into bits. Bad days, there are crashes and howls, even curses. Father is a passionate man. He kicks things, usually instruments. The old ones. Better that than Other Things, he says and you know he is offering a joke. It's also not a joke because he's right. Father is always right. This is how it is: a reliable constant. He takes full responsibility, he says, for being in the right. If he is not, they may apply for refund of fee and no one ever does. Proof.
During the day, all day, the music rises. Standing over the practice room ceiling, upon the floorboards of elsewhere, she can feel it buzz beneath the soles of her canvas shoes. Music makes sensation, it vibrates along the bones. There are hearts on the toes of her slippers; the clean, delicate stitching that is her mother's own. The laces are white and loose but nobody minds. Or is preoccupied. Johanna is always there, but rocking a crib, building a pyre of sticks for a fire, grating something green. There is a chair to play with, shutters to hide behind. There is a kit violin, pegs, balls of crushed paper, a frazzle of old strings. Ivory inlays, fresh covers for naked keys, scatter the table like dead giant's teeth. They can be looked at, even touched, these things: tuning pegs, metal prongs, studs and buttons, shreds of red velvet in wooden boxes fixed with brass. These things are particular; the very look of them fills her with warmth. Treasure. Not that she knows the word herself. She calls nothing anything, gives no clue she would like to. Princess, hero, fairy tale -- the same. Why should she know? No one reads to her. Johanna has never learned and in any case uses speech like pepper: sparing, seldom, sometimes not at all.
Wieck reads, he reads a great deal but only to himself and things so tedious he sometimes throws them at the wall and goes out walking to escape. Letters too! They can make him spit. That words can stir such violence; mere black marks on a page! A remarkable thing, but that passing observation is enough. A teacher, a dealer of pianos, a musician, a composer in his own way -- father has too much to do already without pointless observation of the commonplace, thank you. He's important. Once he lived on bread and water, hid his shirt cuffs in public lest the fraying show, but he built his Life with Unswerving Dedication and Selfless Effort and now -- well, look at him. He signifies. Music changed his life for ever and he'll tell the story to anyone. He's not proud. Six free lessons from Milchmeyer, and his destiny, he says, was altered. Milchmeyer was a cripple in a metal crate but a Great Man nonetheless, a Great Pedagogue such as one meets once in a lifetime and to whom Great Gratitude is owed. Spohr too -- Spohr is a Great Man and Weber. He knows because they answered his letters, they took the time. Great Men all. Great Men have shaped Our Lives. He's in a good mood when he tells her these things: his face looks less solid. He doesn't read to her, perhaps, but he tells her tales about his life, Great Men and Jesus. If she can't hear or comprehend, what's the loss? He can speak enough for a household, the voice of one trained to know and disseminate the will of God, so who need add or interrupt? He speaks because he speaks. He does it well. He'd tell an empty room, maybe, and the child is at least more than that.
Mother does not read because she is a singer. She has the house to run, Hanna to tell what to do, all this singing and playing that father directs her in, night and day. There is a lot to direct, she can see that, and Vigilance is Eternal. Between come concerts but mostly Mother's work is Vigilance: the training of the voice, practice, digital dexterity, programming, the concert to come. And her name is pretty as a petal. Marianne. That's everything there is to know. Everyone. Friedrich and Marianne. Mama and Papa. Alwin and Gustav are only little boys who make too much noise and need things all the time, and nobody mentions Adelheid. Adelheid had no birthdays -- what is there to say? The Lord giveth etc and acceptance is a lesson that none may avoid.
After that, there is only one left to name: Johanna. Hanna, the boys say; Hanna, easy for baby mouths. Mama and Papa are easy words too but it's Hanna they say first. Johanna smells of fat and ashes. Her breasts are a mattress of flesh. When she reaches behind for the buttons at the back of your dress at night, one arm on each side, you can hardly breathe. She's warm and she's there. At bedtime, when the people are coming, she takes them upstairs. They have nothing to contribute to these soirées but absence and they know it very well. Gusts of cold air come upstairs from the front door while they undress; through the skylight, the sound of hooves. Trilling and tail ends of practice come through the floor, the sound of adult men roaring greetings. Nonetheless, she must sleep. And Johanna nips out the candles with her fingers, not afraid of the flames, to make the dark.
In the frazzled stink of tallow is another country and the child lies in it, given up to thinking, listening -- the things they suspect she does not do. Listening involves not moving. Not moving to a Very High Degree. Some children can lie so still you'd think they'd stopped breathing, and this one's better than most. She lies in the dark like a dead thing till the dark sucks her in and she supposes that is sleep. It never seems like sleep. It seems like waiting. Words come, sometimes, as she lies there and she hears them clear: Insolent. Deceitful. Proud as sin. The wash of Father's voice made eerie in the darkness from his bedroom down the hall. Silence, muffled only slightly through three walls' thickness. Indolence itself! And she wonders why he is up so late, what kind of lesson it can possibly be. There is no music now, just loud words, a sound that could be crying. A kind of lesson the child does not yet understand. Her breathing hurts when it happens, like something struggling to climb out of her from the inside; she clutches her nightdress over her chest till it passes. She sweats and her eyes leak till the quiet comes back, and her own silence is part of it. That way the peace will come back quicker. She doesn't know where this certainty comes from; it's true, that's all. Some old knowledge held in the lungs, the ribcage tells her. So she waits, still and silent, till the last shout fades, till the quiet tells her only she is awake, and she can lie down again, rest a while, wait some more. The boys snore like piglets, turning the air hot with their breath, and there is the scent of milk and bile, wet wool. The more she stares at the dark, the darker it gets and she sleeps, despite herself, she sleeps, her little hand over her mouth, not knowing whether her eyes are open or shut.
Then morning comes, all blue with pale stripes, the rag rug underfoot, fallen quilts, the boys grizzling. There is light like a happy thing through the window where the shutters don't meet and Johanna with a facecloth, a dowsing in a jug, as though the night never was. Johanna picks up fallen clothes, checks them for loose ends, signs of unravelling. Johanna cooks and mends. She washes, irons and starches. She clears the grate and leads it, builds fires, polishes brass, wood and iron surfaces, washes glass with vinegar. She orders kitchen supplies, deals with tradesmen, draws up household inventories, minds children, arranges hair when necessary, makes shirts, aprons, caps, slippers and bibs. Johanna sews. She pulls you away from the fire and the window if you wait there too long. She cleans their teeth at night, the length of her pinpricked fingers slathered in salt. Huge, bloody as sausage, the nails bitten past the quicks to half-moon slivers, red-rimmed. Johanna's hands. After years, decades, the child they ministered to will be able to conjure them at will. She will be able to recall the smoothness of her face, the smell of her, heady as last week's soup, that her eyes were grey. But no voice. No matter how hard she tries: nothing. Johanna didn't speak enough to leave a trace. She's been told again and again: Didn't speak so you'd notice, the approval with which it was said. Then again, she must have said something, at least now and then; she must have uttered their names. Her name. How do you discipline a child without speaking her name?
It means limpid. Light.
Her father chose it.
Clara. Say it. Clara. He holds a watch in front of her face. It swings to and fro on a chain. Gold or brass, perhaps, beautifully polished. The child's eyes make half her face dark. They tilt at the corners like a Slav's.
Clara. You may hold Papa's watch if you say it.
The reflection in her pupils shows the face of a man, doubled; twin timepieces, swinging.
* * *
No one at home thinks she's deaf.
Not in their heart of hearts. The child takes instructions, clears her plate, comes when she is called. Eventually. She doesn't laugh much and, thank God, seldom runs. She is not as clumsy as most of her age, can walk good distances unassisted and has no perceptible need of toys. As for her silence (here the man of the house raises himself to his full height), some would say that is an admirable trait in a woman. Then he looks at his wife. He looks hard. Family, he says, that's what matters; people in town may say what they like. People are always saying something. It's beneath his dignity to say anything back. Time will tell, he says. We'll see. What he sees before long are the lines between her brows. He notices more than once, little furrows. It seems they only appear when he does. He tries experiments, watches her with Johanna, Alwin, and it's true. With them, there's nothing. Her forehead's flat as a field. When he comes back -- so do the lines. He does it several times for sheer curiosity, to see this semblance of adult concern on a little girl, and it makes him smile. They make her look like a spaniel, he says, a pup. The lines are consistent, however: as though she is trying to make sense of the unfathomable. She knows I take her intelligence for granted, he says, not like some. Here, he says, gives her a penny. The frown stays put. It has to be admitted: something about the observation is infinitely pleasing.
Not long after this, he decides to act. This plan has been waiting its moment and the frown lines are it. He will use the concentration he inspires and, to begin that use, he reaches for the dead centre of the keyboard. One note, clear and resonant. C. He looks her in the eye. He plays it again, sings it.
He plays it again, waits. Waits. Then her face lights like the sun from behind a cloud and her mouth opens. She sings. C, she sings. C for Clara! Again. Again. He does this for three minutes, choosing five different notes. He times it, never strays more than a sixth, returns to where he began. Then he smiles. What's more, she smiles back. A very small smile, true, but discernible. Her brow, he notices without even trying, is completely smooth. We'll see, he says. We'll see.
What everyone sees already is the child takes after him. There is no mistaking her paternity. She has her mother's nose, which for ever means her mother's profile, but the rest of her face is all Friedrich, God help her. That apart, she doesn't give much away, which is, after all, as it should be; he would give nothing away if he could help it either. That's something else people say, and Friedrich knows. He doesn't care. People say a great deal more than their prayers, he says, and that's the end of it. Especially if one has a presence. He says this last part as though it might be contempt but it's relish too -- you can hear it. He is a Figure in his Community and his community is not inconsiderable: Leipzig.
It's not Dresden and God knows it's not beautiful, but Leipzig has its points. Hard work and trust in God can get a man far in this place: the Gewandhaus, the orchestra, the university where Goethe was a young man, the scrawl of book and music publishers, the handspan of newspapers and textile merchant money backing it up -- the place has enough. And, let us always remember and be grateful, it's not Pretzsch. God forbid he should ever have to return to Pretzsch. True, the average Leipziger has a taste for gossip but people gossip everywhere; it is not to be avoided. In any case, gossip matters little or nothing. Diligence, Patience and Craft, he says, these are what matter; not what idle people say. They have a counted-stitch motto of these very words beside the mantel, low on the wall so the child can see. A pattern of browns and blues, nothing she can read. But the words are shapes she knows already. She can touch the threads with her fingertip. Meanwhile, her father says -- he looks at his watch -- work on the concerto, the second movement in particular. Attend to your poor arpeggios. Sewing can wait. Directives before he leaves. It's a habit. Frau Wieck has a concert in two weeks; but then she always has a concert in two weeks and the rest of the time there is plenty else to do. She puts the dress down, the panel she is stitching unfinished. Her needle glints in its dark-blue folds.
Herr Wieck looks at his daughter, addresses her alone. Apply the highest principles and expect favours from no one, child. No one.
No one. A vast word for a small head.
He looks at her watching him, her hair parted like a split damson. Whether she hears him or not, she understands. He is sure she understands.
No one save Papa, he says. He smiles, broad, wide. His eyes glitter. Save me.
* * *
When he calls her he calls her by name.
Clärchen, Little Clara. My Clara.
First-borns, they say, make solid citizens: prepared for, fussed over; complicity with the adult world is assured. Second-borns are rebels, dissenters. The near miss, it seems, grates. Thirds and fourths fare more according to personal whim, strength or weakness; and the youngest, wherever they occur, can twist the world round their effortless, pretty fingers. Monday's child, of course, is fair, Tuesday's is graceful and no one wants to give birth on a Wednesday if they can help it. Predictions and games, where's the harm? They shield folk, however temporarily, from implacable statistics. Which everyone knows not from learning but what they see, and what they see is that children die. One in four. Stillbirths to accidents, complications and disease, hands fresh from the cavities of cadavers to those of labouring women, wiped once or twice on still-bloody aprons. One in four won't make the age of five. Visit the graveyard and the evidence is everywhere, every coffin maker has stock in varying degrees of tiny size. Women die too, especially in hospitals -- dear God, none but the desperate, the destitute or the dead enter hospitals -- the whole business of medicine and its institutions is fraught. Rumour has it they guess half the time and so they do, but people fall sick, people feel pain and one must do something. Patients, however, are wary. Unless death is likely in any case, the processes of birth must do as they will and that means one in four. Town and country, rich and poor, in no order one could reasonably foresee, avoid, account for; without resort to numbers, everyone knows the odds.
Friedrich lusted for Clara irrespective of her sex.
Before he knew what she was, who she was, he knew what she would be: the greatest pianist he could fashion, his brightness, a star. He never allowed himself to think she would not survive. He had worried for Adelheid and what had it meant? The crunch of his miniscule fists, the blue cast of his lips. Adelheid died before there was much to see, but what there was, Friedrich remembered. He remembered very clearly. White-blond, unlike either parent. Some children are like that; they lack a stamp of physical belonging. As though they were built in error. His first-born, then, was a failure.
Clara arrived on the first day of the working week, full head of dark hair first, eyes open if the midwife was to be believed. The weight of her in his arms, when he held her, was solid. His true first-born, he thought. He felt her struggle against the shawl. And there and then a tightness in his chest welled up, so sudden, so powerful, he was forced to sit lest he fall. It was a sensation he had never experienced before and it frightened him more than a little. He sat with his eyes closed, listening to his own breathing as it shuddered under control, steadied itself. The smell of her, like warm fruit, soothed him. But soothing was softness, and softness counted for nothing in this life. His eyes still closed, the moment suggesting itself, Friedrich prayed. He absorbed the subtle scent of her and prayed for iron. She would see strength, this child. She would acquire it, too. This time, it would be different. Done, he looked down at her wide-open eyes, her jet-black head, saw her looking back. It was not foolish to think so. This child was here for the duration.
What her mother thought he never asked. The Lord gave and the Lord took away, and why was not a question. Marianne, he felt sure, was grateful for Blessings Bestowed. Marianne's life was full of Blessings -- he reminded her often -- including a body that healed quickly, a mind that soaked up notes like a blotter and the capacity to perform well. These were not to be buried beneath maternal obligations. The housemaid was a suitable nurse, dumb as a sheep, perhaps, but capable. He was sure Johanna was capable. After three months of screaming colics and night feeds, Marianne was sure too. She bound her breasts and handed the child over. Johanna it was, then, who saw to feeds and chewing rusks, the awkwardnesses of mittens, bibs and bonnets. She boiled wetting cloths and nightdresses, tiny pinafores and gruel. She worked the baby's legs and arms, kept an eye on the stair edge, placed ornaments on higher shelves, cleared up vomit, spills, shit and fingerprints; saw off wind and night terrors with equal efficiency if she heard them. By the time of Alwin's arrival she was practised; by the time of Gustav's, mechanical. When Marianne took to sleeping in the afternoons, Friedrich found the little girl trailing him. Stopping when he stopped, waiting. What's more, he let her. He had plans for the child and they could begin now, more unconventionally than he had imagined, but certainly now. He showed her the workrooms, let her sit in on lessons, encouraged her to listen if she could not articulate. He swung his watch like Mesmer, repeated her name.
* * *
Father taught. Father talked a lot in a noticeable voice. He instructed. He had a straight back, a scratchy face. His boots were shinier than any other boots she had ever seen or could imagine; they made music on the cobbles from their leather soles. Father walked. He certainly walked. He walked off tempers and to increase his joy of living. He walked to cafés and meeting houses, to avoid excessive coach fares and to enjoy the Rosenthal. And after all that, there was more. Walks were not just walks, dear me, no. They were meetings and connections, parades and snubs. They were A FUNCTION OF SOCIAL ORDER. EXERCISE IN FRESH AIR. Strengthening the body in general and the lungs in particular, walks made PROTECTION AGAINST DISEASE AND CONTAGION. They MAINTAINED PRESENT HEALTH AND PERSPECTIVE, CONTROLLED YOUTHFUL EXCESSES AND ENCOURAGED CRITICAL REFLECTION. Walks were lessons and discipline, sound preparation for a sound and godly life. And walks were silent. Along the river, through moors and woodland, over pebbles, tracks, fields, bells and walking sticks were all one heard and rightly so, rightly so. On their walks, the Wiecks walked.
Start at the green door. When it closes, follow the heels in front (black, regular, heavy of tread) right through the Neumarkt, past the hawkers and water boys, the porters and haulers. Buy nothing. Keep walking. Past the gutterless streets, the two crossed hunting horns on the house that marks the end of University Square, past the newspaper offices, the broken wall scrawled with foreign words, the names of homesick soldiers, to the city gates, then on again till the road turns brown, becomes indistinguishable from dirt. This is one way to the edge of Leipzig, before the road to somewhere else. It's nowhere. Other people stop here, make circuits round the town like dancing bears. Not you. You keep walking. Soon, there is no road at all, only footpaths, hedgerows, puddles. Stand still and the toes of your boots disappear, sink whole into mud that sucks when you try to reclaim them, draws down. Keep walking.
The memory is clear to the end of her life and why is no mystery. They did this every day. Father and daughter, she from the age of four with her white baby bonnet and loosened strings. When it rained his coat (mud green, the colour of a river in spate) smelled like wet chickens. His skin stank of leather and the stick he carried in his hands. Her memories carry blisters, the sensation of skin loosening, tearing away from the tissue beneath at every step, the tang of wet woodland filling her nose. Her feet were damp: the price of owning only one pair of stout boots, of not drying them as fully as she might. But wet boots were her affair, no one else's. She would not complain. She bit her lip as she saw her mother often do, did it without thinking, and kept going, the hem of her pinafore turning darker with every step, the trackless mud paths splashing. Up and overhead, however, was a lattice of leaves with light razing between, a watery sun promising more. Up there was the whole sky, and Father himself, lofty as a monument, his hat brim an eclipse. Grey hair flared at his temples, the studs on his heels clapped like hooves and he was handsome, she thought; a man not to be trifled with.
Once he caught her looking at him, not watching her feet at all but him, and whether he was pleased or not was hard to say. His face changed not at all, but he stared down the length of his considerable nose and spoke: The sky is growling, listen! The sky is growling. These words, their strangeness. That the sky might growl, might be a threatening thing despite the fact that God lived there, was impossible to believe. For a moment, and only a moment, doubt made a trapdoor in her stomach. What, she wondered, split-second dazzled and terrified, what if God did not help them when the growling came? And then, as she thought it, it did. Thunder. The sky rolled darker and the low rolling noise of a coming storm made her turn her head, and single spits of rain smacked close to her eyes. Seconds later, the sky opened like a tear in a shop awning and she heard his footfalls behind her, picking up speed as he moved away. Afraid of being left here, she turned on her heel, saw him ahead of her and started running. Perhaps her foot caught on her skirt hem, perhaps she slipped on rotted leaves; perhaps she had no excuse at all. But she remembers falling, tumbling headlong, the trees flipping over her head and a cracking of twigs loud in her ears. There was pain, but nothing pressing; a peppering of dirt on her hands.
And when she raised her eyes, sure that now he had marched away without her, there he was, raised to his full height, looking back. He glanced at her hands and eased back his shoulders. Up, he said. Up. And Clara stood. She refused to cry out despite the stinging, refused to allow any halt in her stride. She hitched her dress to her ankles and merely walked. In the time it took to reach him, something was decided. You'll do, he said gently as she reached his side. You'll do. Whatever it meant, it pleased him. Only then did he reach out to her. He dusted her hands, smoothed her coat over her flat child-hips ignoring the downpour as though it was not there. When they set off once more, he walked closer to shield her and she was quite sure. Father was not afraid of anything. Everything came right. Lest he feel forced to slow down, be disappointed that he had misjudged her, she widened her step. He looked down, then, watched her doing it. She was quite sure he was smiling.
And Mother? Ah. Mother.
Mother sang. Mother rocked her sometimes, rocked without her sometimes. Mother stayed at home with Mozart, swollen as a sow. Mother played. Mother played.
Clara would never remember her mother taking the stage pushing her belly in front of her, but she would recollect the fullness of her dress and the body beneath, a handing over of flowers, a suggestion of embrace. That they had gripped her mother's body while someone was living inside it always came as a shock; a queer, unseemly thing to be able to recall. It spoke of something intimate, a closeness at one time unremarkable. One embraced Mother, she was the shape she was. It may have happened only once, but it happened. She recalls a baby, a red face and wizened hands, upturned saucer eyelids purple and twitching. Which brother is uncertain. She remembers a picnic in a muddy field, the sleeve of a gauze dress caught on a thorn bush, a torn fingertip leading to outraged misery, Father shouting. A hand clutching her own, tight enough to hurt. She recalls her mother standing next to her, far back from the platform, the crowding close of people. When Clara thought of her mother, she thought of singing, the anchors she once thought written notes made on the page, cloth. She thought of terrible fear and pity mixed. She thought of Woyzeck.
Whose idea it had been she could not say. But she had been there. She forgot it for years but it came back, piecemeal, slow, from the bottom of mud. And what came was this. A man between soldiers, their blue jackets shutters on either side of his white face; stand-on-end hair, a dust-pale shirt, black-red lips. He talked to himself, or at least his mouth moved. His teeth were brown. In prison, they said, he had bitten iron bars. The imprisonment was uncontested nonetheless. Woyzeck had killed a woman because she would not walk in public with him, and because she would not love him as he wished. He had taken her to the riverside -- she went, it seemed, without suspicion -- and there, at the water's edge, stabbed her till the tide turned purple. Afterwards he ran away. He hid the knife in his shirt. But they found him talking out loud about what he had done and they took him to the Rathaus to decide what to do. Voices did it, he said. They had incited him; angels and devils beneath the ground. He was misunderstood, the world despised him, and the voices had told him the source of his misery and how to put it right. They locked him up immediately, watched him pace his cell. He tore at his hair till it stood on end. He talked incessantly to what was not there. His warders said Woyzeck was mad, from lack of love, from motherlessness, from bad luck, maybe, but mad all the same. Dr Carus, however, did not. Dr Carus -- Clara knows Dr Carus, likes the chime of his name against hers, that he comes to their house and sings, plays the piano prettily -- said his voices were nothing particular: loneliness was all that crazed him and since Dr Carus was a doctor and his opinion counted, Woyzeck was found sane enough to be publicly killed.
All this she did not know as she stood there, at least not in detail. Of course not. She saw only what she saw, heard only the voices on all sides. The afternoon Clara recalls is mostly a man, a platform, a terrible sword. And she knew that words had been the cause. Something had spoken in his ear and he had listened. Woyzeck, the whispered-to, the murderer, standing on a purpose-built raft in the middle of Leipzig, a show for the public gaze and she, somehow, had seen. She recalls him kneeling down, his shock of hair red as brushfire, his shut eyes and these whispering, silent, red-black lips. The rest is only telling. He refused a blindfold so the sword was to be drawn behind him. It was thought kinder. He had written a prayer and spoke it aloud. After that, perhaps sensing the movement of the swordsman, he had shouted aloud. Think of me on your wedding day. What did it mean? A foreigner in a foreign land, hearing things, talking nonsense in his final moments. That they cut off his head in one slice, that her mother had held her hand, that her father had been there -- all this was theory. A four-year-old with a nun's expression, one of the citizens of Leipzig come to see justice dispensed, there to learn, she seemed singularly to have failed.
Her father had not been irritated by the crowds or the watching, the holding high of children that they might see; he found the whole thing merely vulgar. Even if they had not held up the head afterwards like the bloody French, the crowding and selling of souvenirs was difficult to thole. Woyzeck's last words, however, amused him and he repeated them often. Love may well be a path to ruin, he said crisply. Undisciplined passion most certainly is. He looked down his long nose at Marianne, the bride of his heart, pulling on his gloves. Beware, he said, smiling after a fashion, the primrose path of wedding days.
* * *
Not long after this, then. Not long.
There was a journey to see Grandma in Plauen, her mother all in grey. She recalls the colour, the scrub of the cloth against her face, the cold crush of its linen folds. It must have been summer because of the flowers, something fresh and yellow in a vase, Easter long gone. Of the events prior to this journey, the decisions that led to it, she knows nothing even now. That something serious had happened, something to split a life in two, did not show. Plauen was only Plauen; they had been to see Grandma before. Viktor in the crook of Mother's arm, still feeding from her body when he got the chance, Grandmother throwing a ball. Alwin and Gustav had not come too but this was nothing new. The baby was new, he required to be shown; his brothers were not an issue. Mother smelled of blood and the dog followed her. The dog would not sit still if she came near. People visited as ever but their talk was lower, more hushed and someone, someone unplaceable, took her on their knee and rocked her. It made her uncomfortable, a stranger swaying her back and forth.
Over days, the whole visit became cloying. It was too long, too purposeless. Too clearly not home. The birdsong was too loud and the air was always sticky, pending thunder. After a while it dawned. There was no music. Home was stuffed with it: the same phrases of the same concerto for days on end, ringing on in echoes in spaces in your own head. Here in Plauen the piano lid stayed shut. Mother didn't touch the keys at all. A book appeared in Clara's mind, red morocco covers with embossed lettering, W-E-B-E-R, each figure raised and dusted with gold. The pages inside were thick, their edges curled and dark with use. Perhaps she missed the book, the music it held inside. Sometimes she was almost moved to speak, but didn't. Not more than a baby herself, but she knew already. This terrible hiatus. There was only so much longer it could go on.
Saxon Law, Napoleonic Law. It's all the same.
Children are property; men are property owners.
It was certainly the law.
Soon Clara, newly five, sits next to strangers near open window spaces of a post-chaise. She wears the new boots that were the present from her grandfather, her best pinafore, the apron Grandmother stitched with her own hands. It's not cold but Mother's face looks bitten and her hands shiver. All Grandmother does is sniff. Someone opposite wears a coat like a ploughed field, doesn't speak for the whole journey. He spits on the floor and Mother moves her feet. Blots of phlegm shine like eggs, sliding as the chaise rocks. He says nothing, this man, only coughs and spits, and does not admit anyone else is there. Mother, however, talks a lot -- Look, Clara, the trees! The rabbits! Soon you'll see Alwin again; won't it be good to see Alwin? -- talking far too much, truth be told, wrapping Viktor tighter in his cowl. How Gustav will have missed you! For a moment when she says this Grandmother seems to laugh but it isn't that. Nothing feels like a joke. The man with the coat has a yellow face and when his eyes meet hers, an accident, she looks away. When the man coughs again, she fetches a scarf up to Clara's nose, holds it there, tight. Grandmother takes the baby and Mother fusses in the bag beneath her feet. The bag has stockings and dresses, pattens, a winter cape. She saw them packed. Why, she has no idea. The winter cape stays in Plauen, too awkward to ferry back and forth, but not this time. This time everything, everything of Clara's at least, is coming too. Where Mother's bags might be never occurs. They will be somewhere. They're not a child's concern. Through the open window space a distant steeple hoves into view, back out again. The trees turn russet, horses run in the fields. The coat-man coughs. His whole body rattles. There is nothing to play with, nothing to see.
Then comes Altenberg; Altenberg with fresh horses and pie sellers, pumps for water, an inn. This time, there is also Hanna in her old cap and dun skirts, with a bag on her arm, her knitting, and the sight is so pleasing the child breaks rules and runs. Johanna stands there, laughing to see her do it -- as if she would forget her Johanna even after these months! As if! And Johanna strokes her cheek as though they had arranged to meet here, as though nothing was unusual in this place, this happenstance, at all. She has bread and apples in her bag, a pastry twist. Clara may choose. Since no one says they are not, she assumes them birthday presents, maybe from Papa too, and thinking it fills her up so she wishes only to own them, not eat. In any case, there's the rest of the journey to go and the carriage jolts. It would not do to be sick, the same length of journey to go. For that's what's coming. It's clear now. What else can they be doing in this place? Altenberg, a crossroads, the way to somewhere else. All five together; they are met up as they should be and they're going home. No one else seems to know, however.
Mother and Johanna stand apart; don't greet each other. Even when Clara holds up the pastry to Viktor's lips, knowing he is asleep and can't eat pastry in any case, no one smiles. When the porter shouts for passengers and it's time, Clara turns to wait for their first move. She watches their faces. The horse brasses clank. Mother and Grandmother do not move. Something calls in the wood, one bird to another, and everyone stands as still as a picture. The driver tests his whip.
Just as Clara begins to be uncertain they are leaving at all, Johanna's hand slips into her own, tugging. Tugging the wrong way. Clara watches her mother and grandmother stay put, feels herself inched forward, away from them without her co-operation. Johanna keeps pulling, more definitely now, and Grandmother, still within touching distance, calls as if from far away. You'll see Mama soon, she says, very, very soon. Viktor is held out, a package being shown off, and Clara can't understand. Why should she look at Viktor now? And despite her rheumatism, her weakness in the joints, Grandmother kneels. Clara has never seen her grandmother kneel and is faintly appalled. What is she doing? Viktor is staying with Mama, Mother says. Goodbye, Clara. Johanna's hands are clinging like mud, sucking her away. We will see you soon. Very soon. Without being able to account for the footsteps that take her there, Clara's boots find the first of the coach steps and begin to stumble upwards out of habit. Grandmother is struggling to her feet again and Viktor is waking up. Clara can see a hand emerge from the layers, its scorched redness against the white. He cries and no one comforts him, no one says anything at all. The horses move from hoof to hoof and, from inside the carriage, someone's hands are reaching down. They bracelet her arms and Clara pushes up on her toes to help. It is what a good girl does. She helps. As she rises, lifting out of sight, the child checks over her shoulder one last time. There is a glimpse of Grandma folding like paper, hands lifting to cover her mouth, Mother's face the colour of milk, then nothing but arms, black woollen sleeves against them, the scent of leather. Something is wrong. Johanna pushes, someone in the carriage hauls. Something is terribly wrong.
After that? The sound of rain.
The cold seeping through the woollen blanket over her knees.
Johanna, silent as stone. That's all.
Presumably he collected her. Presumably someone held her, even if in passing, as they helped her down. If only for that short period of time, it's something. If she had not been so sure on her feet they might have carried her, which affords embrace by default, but she seems to have had no aptitude for that kind of artifice, no way to ask. Her father's daughter, she returned to the house at Leipzig on her own two feet, blisters starting on her heels. A new house with no flowers in its name. This house had no name at all. Papa was up and waiting, of course. He did not ask where her mother was. Maybe he knew. Maybe everyone knew but her. Her brothers were already asleep, he said, leading her up stairs she only half remembered. He would take her to her room. Brother. Her room. She had been in Plauen too long, could picture only Viktor, her grandmother's bed, yet that was not his meaning. For here she was, going up different stairs entirely, to a room that smelled like staleness and crumbs, not babies; a room that was nonetheless hers. Hers. You are home now, he said. With Papa. Home with Papa where you have always been. And he drew the shutters. And always will be. She heard them thud shut. A jug of cold water sat near the bed, a blue flannel. One candle. Johanna prised what was left of the pastry from Clara's hand, pushed gently till the rim of the mattress was near enough to lift her towards it in one swoop. Her feet did not reach the floor. Slowly, one eyelet at a time, Hanna worked on the laces of her boots.
* * *
Next day she ate no breakfast. Her father noticed but did not force. A man who was once a domestic tutor, who understood children, he knew best when to leave alone. The violent shaking of the coach, airless interiors and poor roads -- the after-effects of travel on a child's system were only to be expected. Besides, fasting had its limitations; he saw no need to insist when nature would do it without his intrusion. In time, he told Johanna, in time. She'll eat when she's hungry. Soon after, he found her standing at the window, her chin barely reaching over the inside sill. What held her attention? Outside, he saw only a man grooming a dray, carters unloading wood. No carriages. No one coming. She kept looking out nonetheless. He fetched his hat, then issued Johanna with the day's directions. The housekeeper now, the only woman of the house, she needed little telling, but checking was never wasted, in his opinion.
On his way out he saw a bundle of what appeared to be rags in the parlour. Not rags. His daughter, flat on her stomach. It took a moment to realise she was peering under the couch. A mouse, silverfish, something must have caught her eye. Something small. Who can tell what happens in the mind of a child? He had left full orders for the day, set to begin at eight. Let her lie watching silverfish till then, he thought, suddenly indulgent. Johanna would set her right only minutes from now. To be perfectly sure, he warned the new housemaid to check for vermin, reminded Johanna to set Clara to polishing the forks, then left with his house and spirits to rights. The sky was clear, cloudless. Herr Wieck would not show it was anything else. He walked to the Coffeebaum, ticking lists in his head, making plans, many plans. First, exercise: the best medicine for a troubled digestion. It was clear the child's digestion was at fault. After lunch, whether she had eaten or not, he would take her out. He would take her out for four miles. After that, sleep. After that? He made many plans.
Six days after her fifth birthday, then, near four o'clock in the evening, her father led Clara to the piano. He pulled his daughter, his brightness, next to him, tilted her chin, raised her right hand close to her face and looked at her. Hard. Five, he said. Five. Look.
He raised his hand to the window that she might see the spread of his fingers, the bright translucent blood colour in the spaces between.
The thumb is One. This here is Two. This, Three. He counted out loud till each was called something. Five, he said. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Then he raised her left hand and did the same again.
Clara, Clärchen, this child chosen for greatness, waited till he was done, then she looked at him, her face steady, her mouth a tight line. I know this, her eyes said. I know this already.
To his credit, Friedrich laughed.
* * *
Clefs are the keys to the kingdom.
Not quite a joke, but close. Kingdom. When he said it she fancied vast stretches of territory, huge brass locks tooled with iron studs, tumblers the size of fists sludding into place. The gates to other, more magical, worlds. Clefs are the keys. Her head filled with pictures, ideas: what these keys might open if they became wholly her own. That they would she had no doubt. No one did. The thing was never in question. It was only a matter of acquisition.
First, I stress the necessity for the Young of frequent open-air Exercise. Second, I am opposed to forcing or delaying the Work of Active Education. If a Child is attracted to something, and can understand it tolerably well, teach! Do not worry unduly about his Age! Remember it does no good to allow a Child entirely his own way, but neither is it good merely to drill him. One must take pleasure in one's Calling, and interest the Pupil in the Work before him. Find his Natural Enthusiasm! As for Moral Education, the most important -- I stress that to teach the Child to be a Good Man is the Highest Goal of Humanity. The power of the Christian faith to this end will be denied only by those with no Religion at all, so teach that too. There are those, of course, who say Children should be taught no Religion before the age of ten because Children lack the necessary understanding. To them I say: Religion, and especially with Children, should be a matter not only of Understanding but also of the Heart. God, Religion and Virtue vibrate together in response to the slightest touch when one is young. Spare no reasonable rod. To do so is to give in to easy sentimentalism that will later give cause for regret. A Child remembers little of Childhood, of how things begin, of the Necessary Coercive Discipline of the new: they retain only the Good Effects which result. The Mind and the Tree bend best when young. And Children forget. They forget. That may be borne in Mind.
In whose mind, though? Whose?
This sickly boy, the runt of five brothers. Nobody else in the family played or even liked music much; no one in the whole town, when he came to think of it. Pretzsch. Between Wittenberg and Torgau on the Elbe. Nowhere. From his bedroom window he watched coopers spring-load barrels into shape, his neighbours cobbling shoes, metalworkers and hedge-cutters, sawers and bangers, people who butchered meat. Almost everyone in town had brown nails and the tanner's were black. Friedrich's were white. The sight of them flicking the pages of books, pale as the paper itself, gave his mother pleasure. Quiet pleasure, but pleasure nonetheless. Sometimes he read aloud from these books while she worked in the kitchen, mixing blood into pudding meal, boiling dough; by and large, though she never said, they bored her. Some of them bored Friedrich too, but that was beside the point. When he looked out of the window, saw what surrounded him, he knew one thing. Books were his future. Nobody laughed at the short-sightedness, the occasional sickness of an academic, it was taken for granted -- that's how Bookish Sorts were. His hands were hopeless, his father said, not much troubled; he'd better be good with his head and where head workers went was college. What for? Not music. He liked music -- who didn't -- but music wasn't work. Music, like doctoring and jurisprudence, was a pastime for rich boys, a marriage market enhancement for girls. Someone needed to teach such but it wouldn't be Friedrich. Friedrich had never had a lesson in his life. He could self-teach all he liked, but without lessons, real lessons, who in their right mind would call him professor?
Religion, on the other hand, that was a living. Religion was what every clever boy from a nothing background studied: it made him into a something. Snotty clerks from Paris had pared down the opportunities, it was true, posts and promotions in that direction were not what they were, but what else was there? Besides, he looked the part. The skin of his face broke out, it peeled and worried at him, his hair was always needing cut: the church was clearly his natural home.
Fifteen, then, with one jacket, the legs of his trousers a comedy, he left home for Torgau and learned. He learned to walk everywhere, talk loudly to cover the noises from his growling gut, hide his threadbare shirt cuffs under the shiny rims of his jacket sleeves. He learned how stupid and lacking in anything of foresight, vigour or intellect those who surrounded him were. He learned not to point it out. He learned the value of geniality and found he was good at it: for all he hardly drank and gambled less, he was popular. People who could tell a joke, he found, were. He practised anecdotes, caricatures and casual asides in his shaving glass, keeping his chin keen. He played the school's clavier and let drunkards sing to his accompaniment, as though he didn't mind at all: for an hour's playing, teaching himself before the others were even awake, it was fair trade. And playing the clavier mattered. Not just because it did, but because it was the thing.
Once a week, a local carter brought him bread, his mother's handprints baked on the crust. Before long, he found something to go with it. His landlord's little daughter needed a tutor, a cheap tutor; the landlord's wife made good soup. Soup wasn't money but it was soup, and exchange wasn't robbery. Soup for reading would do. It came as a surprise how well teaching suited, however. The way the child looked at him when she grasped a new idea was gratifying; this growing clarity between her brows came from him. He was forming something, he felt, as he watched her struggle over her diphthongs, spit out sense: forming her. Soon, a boy from a richer family earned him mutton on Sundays, a place at the table to eat it. And places at tables meant introductions, something he'd never have achieved by birth. He met minor officials, prissy administrators and lesser dignitaries, all with children and tables of their own. A student at Wittenberg, a proper university boy now, it was no more than he deserved. He was, he fancied, a real pedagogical catch, and those who paid him found few reasons to argue. He drilled the children well, threw religious teaching in for nothing and, apart from a tendency to mount a high horse now and then, had no real vices. He learned the value of good notepaper, a legible hand, how to spell soirée.
He saw the rage for pianos -- every girl in Vienna played, they said, every house held a Pleyel or a Graf, a Broadwood, a Stein -- was no passing fad. Burning now, he begged six lessons from Milchmeyer; Milchmeyer, with his callipers, the rims of grease round his stockings; who thought he knew how much it meant to the poor boy to give him something for nothing; who told him there was nothing in this life to fear; Milchmeyer who would never know exactly what he started, but who did it anyway. He wrote to Spohr, Weber, Meyerbeer, yearning to hear something of fellow feeling. He learned a little of composition, a lot of musical theory and he spoke to Bargiel, the house piano teacher. He spoke a great deal to Bargiel. Mozart earned his bread this way, made rank count for nothing against talent. If the French had assisted nothing else with their butchering each other, their revolting and tearings apart, they had at least achieved this: ownership of land and title, possession of wigs and swords no longer governed everything. Despite what his parents believed, futures these days were no longer fixed. You could earn them. And music, the teaching of notes and fingers, was a highly desirable commodity.
By the time his religious studies were done, young Friedrich knew something. He knew something spiritual and something material, one and the same, and he knew it better than he knew anything else. God no longer wanted Friedrich for a priest, if he ever had. Lord no! God wanted Friedrich for the piano. What else explained his fascination, his feeling of kinship for the instrument? Something about its hamstrung innards, its rickle of ivory slats, kept drawing him almost against his will. Dependent and tyrannical, willing and resistant, the piano soothed and irritated in equal measure. You could spend your life trying to tame the brute, coaxing it, pursuing its relentless demand for mastery. What music it could make: an orchestra in a box! It was peerless. Yet it was nothing, no more than a stranded whale, without a human operative. Without him.
Further, though he would never have said it out loud, there was something about the piano Friedrich admired. It wasn't too strong a word. There was something unyielding, something stoic in the demeanour of the pianoforte he admired very much. Yell at it in frustration, kick it now and then; weep, beg the beast to yield something beautiful this time -- the piano went on being exactly what it was. No pity, no giving save what was deserved and not always that much. Exactly like God, he thought once, once only, then banished the thought as blasphemous. It needed no philosophy, this feeling. And what he felt was this: singing was a Profound Thing, a Passionate Thing, the body itself as music; but the piano, this stiff black box in the corner of the drawing room, since first he touched his fingers to the keys, watched the hammers flail like anemone fronds, was Meant for Him. Realising its earning potential was merely the final push in a jump he'd have taken anyway, sooner or later. As things stood, sooner made sense from every angle. It took some time for him to write to his father, crafting the right line. He hit it eventually and, when he wrote the words, he wrote them with satisfaction. I will, it seems, make of my hands a hopeful thing after all.
Meanwhile, Friedrich taught. From one minor member of the nobility to another, a Hauslehrer chafing only slightly at his livery, he listed rules and plotted his next life, as teachers do. While war altered the landscape, the rules around him, while teachers were ten a penny and roaming the streets like tinkers, he taught as though his life depended on it. Afterwards, while Germany went about the business of making itself afresh, he found his business partner; within months, a wife. He'd travelled to the eye infirmary in Leipzig for treatment and when they cleared the pus out of his eyes he saw her. Marianne. A French name. Something, call it romance for the sake of argument, seemed a viable option. She played, she sang, she looked decorative, she was eighteen. Eighteen. Eleven years younger than himself, a little headstrong, but (here he preened himself when he told the tale so folk would appreciate the humour) possessed of excellent taste. She laughed at his jokes. And she was well connected, well trained. Her grandfather was a flautist, a composer: the name Tromlitz was known.
With no further need for its medical services, his eyes keen as blades, he came back to Leipzig again, again. There were food shortages, threats of more; walls needing to be rebuilt. But the town was tough, its people were tough. They were survivors. They'd nurtured Bach and books, had no nobility to speak of; its censors and town clerks did not swagger as much as in other places he could name. There was a university. A great battle had been fought and won here, Leipzig writing itself further into the roots of the future. There were many families, many daughters. Many, many claviers. On the fourth trip, old Tromlitz introduced Friedrich to half the Gewandhaus orchestra and Marianne wore a muslin sheath, a French collar round her slender neck. He had no doubts left. Leipzig would suit him very well indeed.
* * *
Herr Wieck has a fine house, a busy house. It sits on the slope of a hill, is solid and dry. Anyone can show you where it is, over the warehouse. He makes his living from Steins, Broadwoods and dummy keyboards, buy, sale or rent. Finger stretchers, strings and tuning forks, old bits of baby grand, physiharmonicas, second-hand violins, whole actions, manuscript loans, books, a lending library of sheet music straight from Vienna -- he does it all. He holds soirées where all sorts turn up -- publishers, composers, the opera director, editors of music rags, students, doctors with refined tastes, their hangers-on and, if they can sing, their wives and daughters. They play till the small hours so the whole street hears. He wrote a letter to Paganini once; got within touching distance of Beethoven. His wife ran away, it's true (they recall that third appearance at the Gewandhaus, the concerto when she sat before the keys at some distance -- mere days before their third was born) but they'll say this: she left with good reviews. Excellent reviews. He's the best teacher in Leipzig -- in Saxony! Anyone will tel
This impassioned novel gives voice to Clara Wieck Schumann, one of the most celebrated pianists of the nineteenth century, who today is best remembered not for her music but for her marriage. "How often you must purchase my songs with invisibility and silence, little Clara," says Robert, and, for Clara, the price of his love is dear. Shrouded in alternate layers of music and silence, the Schumann union was anything but a lullaby, marked by her valiant struggle for self-expression and his tortuous descent into madness.
With Clara, a deeply moving fugue of love, solitude, and artistic creation, Janice Galloway "has taken a melodic line and scored it for an orchestra" (The New York Times Book Review).
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
1. Were you familiar with the real life story of any of these characters? If so, how did you find the novel's treatment of them? If not, were you inspired to learn more about them?
2. What kinds of details are provided in the first scene? As Clara looks at her reflection in the water, how does the author paint a striking and full picture of our heroine? "Touch [the surface] and it breaks. For all that, it's not fragile. Watch and what scatters on the water's surface comes whole again, the same as before." How do images like this shed light on what is to come for Clara?
3. In what ways does the author's writing style -- succinct, controlled prose that evokes startling images -- reflect the world of the novel itself? How does the contained yet beautifully evocative writing help to reveal the nature of Clara's playing?
4. In the early 1800s, the stereotypical crazy man -- a sex-crazed maniac akin to a beast -- is the only version of insanity or mental illness that people recognized. In what ways do these popular conceptions of "madmen" hinder Clara from seeing the extent of her husband's illness? How do you think Robert's life (and therefore Clara's life) might have been different had he been born in modern times? Do you think he would be diagnosed with a mental illness?
5. Robert Schumann was, if not a musical genius, then certainly a prodigious talent in his own right, and yet he was an utter failure as a conductor. How does his exp see more