Robena Ann Laidlaw (1817‒1901)

Robena Ann Laidlaw, ca. 1840 (Lithography by F. Eybl, Vienna, cf. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Music Division)

Born on 30th April 1817 in Bretton, the British pianist Robena Ann Laidlaw moved with her family to Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) in 1830, where she was taught the piano by Georg Tag. In 1834, she accompanied her father to Berlin, where Robena Ann Laidlaw performed not only in the salons but also before the Royal Family, and gave her own concerts, inter alia, at the local Theatre. Duchess Friederike von Cumberland (1778-1841), a sister of Queen Louise of Prussia and from 1837 Queen of Hanover, appointed Laidlaw her Court Pianist. In 1834, father and daughter moved on to London, equipped with letters of recommendation from the Duchess von Cumberland for the English Court. In London, Robena Ann Laidlaw became a pupil of Henri Herz but, after intermediate stops in Hamburg and Königsberg, returned to Berlin as early as 1836 to be taught there by Ludwig Berger (with whom Henriette Voigt, née Kuntze, Wilhelm Taubert and Felix Mendelssohn had already taken piano lessons in the 1820s). In the 1830s and 1840s, the virtuoso went on numerous concert trips throughout Europe, such as to St Petersburg, Vienna, Breslau (now Wrocław), Hanover, Dresden, and Leipzig. From 1845, she lived in London where she worked as a piano teacher, and in 1852 married the lawyer George Thomson. After getting married, she ended her concert career. She died in London on 21st May 1901.

In the summer of 1837, Robena Ann Laidlaw met Robert Schumann in Leipzig. In her memoirs, she describes how she was struck by the simplicity of his room, that she found him smoking in his dressing gown, sitting at his desk, and noticed his embarrassment which, however, quickly gave way to a “friendly chat. In Schumann, she saw a “[distinguished and unaffected]” man (quoted after Jansen, p. 323) whose “[conversation [was] always witty and attractive; quite uniquely, he never copied others, neither in manners or words. We spoke repeatedly about E.T.A. Hoffmann, whom he likes a lot. …]” (quoted after ibid., p. 324).

On 2nd July 1837, Laidlaw gave a morning performance at the Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig; in his music magazine Neue Zeitschrift für Musik [New Journal of Music], Schumann praised her “[so thoroughly good and specific playing]”, mentioned her “[amiability]” but also noted that the “[selection of the pieces was not particularly brilliant]” (No. 3, 11.07.1837, p. 12). In her diary, Clara Wieck commented, fairly dismissively, on Laidlaw’s concert on 15th June, with a very similar programme selection: “[It was very empty there, which was not surprising, given the heat and the fact that this young seventeen-year-old girl is still unknown. But what a miserable and tasteless concert that was! A Beethoven Concerto (completely misconceived), Berger Études (obviously good enough for dilettantes to present them to an audience), a Chopin Étude and a Hiller Étude. And at the end the Military Fantasia by Pixis with whom she had taken lessons for some time, but that last piece did not do him much honour because she played it (like everything else) in one go like a machine, and, on top of that, on a very bad instrument – that was the concert!]” (Jugendtagebücher [Youth Diaries], p. 251).

The concert critics in numerous towns were full of praise for Laidlaw’s piano playing, not only her excellent technique but also the balance between tenderness and power she achieved in her playing, and the dexterity of her left hand was sometimes highlighted as well. Robert Schumann must also have been impressed by her, since he dedicated his Fantasia Pieces, Op. 12, to her in 1837, and changed her name, for the sake of a “[softer and more musical] sound” (quoted after Jansen, p. 326), to Anna Robena Laidlaw; nevertheless, she would rather play his works in private circles. To thank him, she sent him a lithograph of her and some cigars which Schumann found extremely good. At the end of 1837, when she presented him a lock of her hair, Schumann would tease Clara Wieck about this in a letter. She did mind actually, because in her instructive edition of Robert Schumann’s piano works (1887), Clara Schumann, at her old age, deleted the dedication in Op. 12.

Cf. Annkatrin Babbe: Article “Laidlaw, Robena […]”, in: Europäische Instrumentalistinnen des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts. 2010. Online Encyclopaedia of the Sophie Drinker Institute, edited by Freia Hoffmann. Online at: [14.09.2020].

Cf. Clara Wieck, Jugendtagebücher 1827‒1840, edited by Gerd Nauhaus and Nancy B. Reich, with the collaboration of Kristin R.M. Krahe, Hildesheim, 2019.

Cf. Dictionary of Pianists and Composers for the Pianoforte, edited by Ernst Pauer, London, 1895, pp. 65 f. Online at: [14.09.2020].

Cf. Friedrich Gustav Jansen: “Robert Schumann und Robena Laidlaw”, in: Die Grenzboten, Vol. 54.4, 1895, pp. 320‒333. Online at: [14.09.2020].

Cf. Musikalisches Conversations-Lexikon, edited by Hermann Mendel, Berlin, 1876, pp. 227 f. Online at: [14.09.2020].

Cf. Wolfgang Seibold: Familie, Freunde, Zeitgenossen. Die Widmungsträger der Schumannschen Werke (= Schumann-Studien 5), Sinzig, 2008, pp. 151‒154.

(Theresa Schlegel, 2020, translated by Thomas Henninger, 2020)

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