doubt and composition

The presenters on ABC Classic, my favourite radio station, sometimes provide little bits of information about classical composers in between the music. Since I know very little about music history, I find it quite interesting, and will often make an effort to stop and listen to what they say.

This week I learnt that Clara Schumann, one of the world’s greatest composers and pianists, experienced a lot of self-doubt about her worth as a composer, and, despite her obvious talent, not to mention her own enjoyment of composing, felt that it was not a suitable endeavour for her (or other women — such were the times back then).

She was also limited by needing to support her family (she had seven children) after the death of her husband, Robert Schumann, at a relatively young age. She spent much of the rest of her life playing piano recitals/concerts in order to stay afloat financially.

A quick-ish search of the internet revealed a lot of other information about her life that the radio presenter did not mention — including her apparent neglect of her husband after he committed himself to an asylum after a suicide attempt, and her supposed emotional coldness toward her children.

But, from what I’ve read, it seems that she was raised by a very over-bearing father (her mother passed away while Clara was a young child). Not only was he strict and controlling, but he was a music teacher with exacting standards, so it’s no wonder that Clara became a musical genius, but also little surprise that she prioritised music the way she did (one article I read said that she chose to play a concert rather than be with her dying son).

The troubles and struggles of her life are lamentable, and it makes me wonder how her life might have been better had she lived in different circumstances. The radio presenter, when talking about Clara Schumann, said that it was a great shame that she didn’t continue composing because she was obviously a brilliant composer, and she very possibly could have given us so many more wonderful works.

As it turns out, other great classical composers also experienced a lot of self-doubt (as I learnt from other radio presenters at various points in time). For example, Sergei Vasilevich Rachmaninoff, one of my favourite composers, struggled with depression for much of his life. And Franz Schubert, who wrote many symphonies throughout his life, was not immune to criticism, and also found himself in a lot of debt toward the end of his life.

I always found these little information tidbits kind of comforting. It’s sort of like reassurance that a lot of great minds doubt their own work, but it doesn’t make their work any less brilliant. And even if there’s a voice in your mind telling you that your work is worthless, the impact you have might be more far-reaching than you could ever imagine.

4 thoughts on “doubt and composition

  1. I always feel badly when I learn brilliant, gifted people are tormented/depressed/self-doubting/whatever. It seems a shame and unfair. It’d be nice if there was a sort if magical cosmic tally that we could consult to see what cumulative good we are doing, to rejoice or adjust accordingly. Then you might know what endeavors to drop or pursue.

    • Yeah, I do feel sad for them when I think about how troubled they were, but it also gives hope for the rest of us (not that I have any aspirations to be a composer or concert pianist). I wonder how they would feel if they could somehow know the impact they have had on other people, many years after they died.

      A “ magical cosmic tally” would certainly be helpful, but it seems like the kind of thing that’s only ever revealed to us in hindsight, not in real time.

  2. It’s sort of baffling to read that some of the greatest creative minds ever suffered from the torment of self-doubt. I know it happened and happens, but for the depression and the genius to live side-by-side within a person seems too much. We all do what we can, I suppose– with no guarantees that it’ll be easy.

    • Yes, it’s like all the praise and acclaim in the world doesn’t matter if the notion of “not being good enough” is already fixed in your mind. A real shame. Sort of like history’s famous painters who never sold much in their time, but became well-known after they died.

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