This is the second installment of a three-part essay.
In 1859, at the age of twenty, Wilma became the first violinist in a group known as the Neruda Quartet, comprised of various Neruda children. While touring together, Wilma and her sister Maria met a wide variety of famous Europeans, including Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark in 1862. Sometime during her travels, Wilma met a Swede named Frederick Wilhlem Ludwig Norman. He was a conductor and composer, remembered today as one of the great Swedish symphonists of the late nineteenth century. He had known Robert Schumann during his student days in Leipzig and was now a teacher at the Royal Music Academy in Stockholm. Wilma and Ludwig fell in love and married in 1864. Their first child, Ludwig, was born in November 1864, and their second, Felix, was born in May of 1866.
Marriage and pregnancy almost always spelled an end to female musicians’ careers in the Victorian era. Wilma’s contemporary, the violinist Camilla Urso, counseled all serious female musicians to never get married because she felt they wouldn’t be able to balance their personal and professional lives. In an age before birth control, when it was common for women to bear over ten children, this was a legitimate concern. However, Clara Schumann, the remarkable concert pianist who had raised eight children while successfully concertizing throughout Europe, had proved to the world that marriage and a career were not necessarily incompatible. Wilma was intimately familiar with her example, as her pianist sister had studied with Clara. Not many women were willing to follow Clara’s lead, but Wilma was one of the few who did. Even after she had her two boys, she kept on playing and touring. The only difference was that now, instead of appearing as the diminutive “Wilma Neruda” she was the commanding “Madame Norman-Neruda.” Interestingly her sons also took her hyphenated name, so that they were known as Felix and Ludwig Norman-Neruda. Whether that was because of a quarrel with their father, to bask in their mother’s professional success, or for another reason altogether, is unknown.
Unfortunately Ludwig and Wilma’s marriage was not a happy one. Although they never divorced (Wilma was Catholic), they did eventually part ways. Wilma did not hide the fact that she was separated from her husband from the press; the fact was often mentioned in contemporary music biographies of her.
Wilma kept up her extraordinary work throughout the 1870s, playing concerti by Mendelssohn, Spohr, Wieniawski, Beethoven, and others, as well as various demanding sonatas and showpieces. She continued to gain the respect of her male colleagues; in the late 1870s, the great Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate dedicated his Romanza Andaluza and Jota Navarra to Wilma.
Playing the violin, however, was only a small part of her overall workload. It has to be remembered that in those days, there were no travel agents making arrangements for musicians. Virtuosos themselves often communicated directly with orchestras to arrange their programs. And not only did they have to determine their own programs, they also had to know who was playing what concerto in various cities across Europe, so that they would not play a piece that had just been performed. There is a fascinating letter in the UK National Archives written to a concert manager in Holland in which Wilma suggests a program for her upcoming tour there. She gave the manager two programs to choose from: first, the twenty-second concerto of Viotti or the eighth concerto of Spohr, paired with the second two movements of the first Vieuxtemps concerto; or second, the slow movement from Spohr’s ninth concerto or Beethoven’s Romance in F, paired with the Mendelssohn concerto - that is, unless Joachim has recently played the Mendelssohn in Amsterdam, as she knew he had recently visited there. It must have taken extraordinary energy to keep up that kind of correspondence with the concert managers of Europe, as well as keep in shape technically, all while raising her children.
During this busy time she often collaborated with her multiple musical siblings. In one concert program in London in 1875 she played first violin in a trio by Bargiel; two pieces by Schumann rearranged for two violins and cello (with Wilma and her sister Maria, now married and known as “Madame Arlberg-Neruda” on violin, and her brother Franz on cello); and finally, to wrap things up, the Schumann E-flat quintet, with Charles Halle on the piano and Franz on cello.
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