His better half Housewife superstar

Lucy Parham is one of the few pianists to play works by both Mr and Mrs Schumann.
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The Independent Culture
A hundred years after her death, the romantic trappings of Clara Schumann's story are well known: her childhood-to-adolescence love affair with Robert, their marriage despite her father's ferocious opposition, and then their life together before his collapse into insanity and early death. Oh yes, and Clara is supposed to have composed some music too, isn't she? Except that nobody seems to play it very much.

Enter Lucy Parham. Since winning the piano section of BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1984, Parham has been steadily carving out a career as one of the more talented and independent-minded pianists around. Not content with giving a Wigmore Hall recital of Clara's (and Robert's) music this Thursday (as close as possible to the anniversary of Clara's death on 20 May), she's also the compiler, scriptwriter and presenter of the five programmes in Radio 3's Composer of the Week about this remarkable husband- and-wife team.

"There are really three stages of Clara's life as a composer," says Parham. "When she was young, she was trained as a child prodigy by her father, and so she wrote music which reflected that - fiendishly difficult virtuoso showpieces - although there are signs of her own musical voice coming through as well.

"Then, when she married Schumann, there's a change of emphasis, and her style becomes more inward. She was already composing less, which isn't so surprising considering that she and Robert had seven children in 10 years. And after Schumann died, she was so busy providing for the family by teaching and performing that she hardly wrote anything at all.

"There isn't really enough of her own later music to give a chronological overview of her life in a sequence of programmes like Composer of the Week. And that's why I've included Robert's music in the Wigmore recital as well. In any case, I'm sure Clara would never have thought in terms of a whole evening of her own music. I think she never really had much confidence in her powers as a composer."

Did that reflect a condescending attitude on Robert's part? "It's hard to say. Not necessarily. They used to work on projects together: there's a cycle of 12 songs, Liebesfruhling, of which he composed nine and she the other three, and hers are really beautiful. Also, Robert sometimes borrowed some of her ideas for his own music - verbatim. That's a tribute of a kind!

"When Clara was 14, she'd composed her own Piano Concerto in A minor, with a cello solo in the slow movement. That foreshadows exactly what Schumann did in his own Piano Concerto in the same key. But then she'd sometimes borrow ideas from his music too."

The atmosphere in the Schumann household in Dusseldorf grew more difficult as Robert's mental instability increased. Even so, there were happy interludes: "According to Eugenie, their youngest daughter, everyone had quite a lot of fun," says Parham. "There's a nice story about Brahms coming to visit and keeping the children entertained by sliding down the banisters."

She also feels that Clara's piano-teacher father, Friedrich Wieck, has had an unfairly bad press. "He wasn't just an ogre. After all, he'd effectively created her career for her. And when he insisted that Schumann was unreliable husband material, he had a point. Schumann was unreliable, and Clara knew it. After his death, she produced her own editions of his piano music and left out all the pieces describing 'Estrella' because she knew that this meant Ernestine von Fricken, to whom Schumann had once been engaged."

Lucy Parham's recordings of both Robert's and Clara's Piano Concertos is due for release later this year. As to why no one else has yet performed or recorded what would seem such an obvious and interesting pairing, she reckons the answer is simple enough: "People are snooty. Then as now.'' She also recently found a stage of her life coming full circle when she chaired the judging panel for the piano final of this year's "BBC Young Musicians" competition, as it's now called.

"It was quite strange sitting there listening to the finalists and thinking, 'That was me 12 years ago.' And I'd forgotten how unnerving it is, trying to play your best with television cameras trundling all round you like Daleks."

But it brought back some good memories? "Oh yes. Winning the piano section was ideal for me at that stage. The last thing I wanted was to risk being over-promoted and then do a donkey drop and disappear without trace. It was more a platform for making haste slowly. Everyone's different, but that's always the kind of career I've wanted."

n Lucy Parham presents R3's 'Composer of the Week', Monday-Friday at 12 noon, and plays works by Clara and Robert Schumann at the Wigmore Hall, London W1, on Thursday at 7.30pm (Booking: 0171-935 2141)