Nancy B. Reich, whose seminal 1985 biography of Clara Schumann established her as an important musical figure independent of her husband, the composer Robert Schumann, and helped turn the musicological spotlight on female composers, died on Jan. 31 in Ossining, N.Y. She was 94.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Susanna Reich.
Throughout her career, Dr. Reich fought to redress belittling portraits of Clara Schumann by earlier authors and to have her recognized as a significant composer, pianist and educator, as well as a central figure of German Romanticism.
The decades that followed the publication of her book, “Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman,” vindicated her efforts with an explosion of both public and scholarly interest. Doctoral dissertations, anthologies and histories of music by women proliferated. Scholarly editions of Clara Schumann’s music for piano appeared, fueling an increase in performances.
Dr. Reich’s death coincided with the beginning of a yearlong festival in Leipzig, Germany, for the bicentennial of Clara Schumann’s birth there. She died in 1896 and left behind compositions including songs, works for solo piano, chamber music and a piano concerto.
But when Dr. Reich first turned her attention to the subject in the 1970s, Clara Schumann was noted primarily for her relationships with men. These included her father, the stern pedagogue Friedrich Wieck, who groomed her for pianistic stardom from an early age; her husband, with whom she had eight children before his death in a mental institution in 1856; and Brahms, with whom she came to be bound by a love that was deep but probably platonic.
In her book, Dr. Reich relegated the Brahms strand of the story to a single chapter. “It was a most significant chapter, to be sure,” she wrote in her introduction, “but it was not the consuming central relationship that so many people have suspected.”
Her take was a far cry from the “example of noble, pure and true womanhood” that the first biography, completed in 1908, made her out to be. A typical assessment of her status was found in John N. Burk’s “Clara Schumann: A Romantic Biography” (1940), which prized Robert’s work over Clara’s career as a touring virtuoso, even though she made much more money through her concertizing than he did with his compositions. For Mr. Burk, Robert was “an artist for eternity” while Clara was “a concert-giver for the moment.”
The musicologist Judith Tick said in a telephone interview that Clara Schumann “was seen primarily as a muse,” adding: “Her life was assumed to pivot between two poles, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. And Nancy’s book destroyed that, while tempering the sensationalist assumptions about Clara Schumann and Brahms.”
Nancy Bassen was born on July 3, 1924, in the Bronx to Hyman Bassen, a writer and labor activist, and Ida (Orland) Bassen. After Hyman’s death in 1931 the family moved to Ithaca, N.Y., where Nancy’s brother, Jonas, was a student at Cornell University.
Ida ran a boardinghouse for Jewish and black students who were not welcome in college dorms.
After the family moved back to New York City, Nancy attended the High School of Music and Art, where she played violin and viola. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in music at Queens College in 1945, the same year she married Haskell Aaron Reich, who later became a physicist.
Dr. Reich’s husband died in 1983. Her longtime companion, the biochemist Maurice M. Rapport, died in 2011. In addition to her daughter, a children’s book author, her survivors include a son, Matthew, and three grandchildren.
In a telephone interview, Susanna Reich said her mother’s ambitions for an academic career had been cut short after she completed a master’s at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1947. When she applied for a doctoral program at Columbia, her daughter said, “the interviewer asked her if she was married, and when she said yes, the interviewer told her to go home and take care of her husband.”
Finally, in 1972, when Dr. Reich was 47, she obtained her Ph.D. from New York University. Buoyed by the women’s movement and intrigued by a stash of letters she came across, she dove into the life of Clara Schumann. Her research often took her behind the Iron Curtain, since many collections of documents were kept in what was then East Germany.
“She had to register at every police station in every town she went to,” Ms. Tick, the musicologist, said.
The sources themselves called for psychological detective work. While Clara Schumann left copious letters and diaries, many of those from her childhood were supervised, or even written, by her father. As a married couple, Robert and Clara kept a joint diary. In her work Dr. Reich collaborated with a psychologist, Anna Burton, in reconstructing the picture of a musician who was as conscious of her exceptional status as she was conflicted about it.
“It’s a very modern story,” Dr. Reich said in an interview with The New York Times in 1996. “Here was a girl growing up with a working mother who was taken care of by a maid, a child of divorced parents. She was left a widow at 36, but she was very independent and refused all loans. When Robert was sick, she went back to the concert stage to pay for his medical bills. She was a working woman. She worked with her hands.”
Dr. Reich taught at New York University and Queens and Manhattanville Colleges and was a visiting professor at Bard and Williams. She never won tenure, even though her book, revised in 2001 and translated into German, Japanese, Hebrew and other language, was well received.
Liane Curtis, a musicologist studying the English composer Rebecca Clarke and the president of the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, said in a phone interview that it was Dr. Reich who gave her the idea that “having a woman as a subject was worth devoting a big portion of your life to.”
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