One of Lucy Parham’s most successful Composer Portraits has been Beloved Clara, about the relationship between Clara and Robert Schumann. Since 2019 is the 200th anniversary of Clara’s birth – and the Venus Unwrapped season – Parham felt Clara deserved a portrait of her own. ‘After all, she lived for another 40 years after Robert died, and her life story is fascinating,’ she says.
Clara’s mother left the irascible musician Friedrich Wieck when Clara was young, and he turned his daughter into a musical ‘project’. ‘He was a sort of tiger father – he would fly into rages if she played badly,’ says Parham. ‘But he also took her to operas and made sure she was learning things necessary for a concert pianist’s life.’ The reason Friedrich famously disapproved of her betrothal to Robert was that he had raised her to be a soloist, ‘and you’ll be miserable as a housewife,’ he told her. Ignoring his advice, Clara married Robert and produced eight children (four of whom predeceased her), funding the family by giving concerts all over Europe, and composing for piano, orchestra and choirs.
Her compositions are sometimes compared unfavourably with those of her husband, but as Parham points out, ‘She was a great concert pianist, first and foremost. Would anyone expect today’s great pianists to be knocking out symphonies as well?’ The vast majority of the text in I, Clara is from her own writing. ‘Hearing her words read out makes the composer into a real person; it’s like seeing a black and white film in colour,’ says Parham.