Darner of socks and other roles: readings and music of Brahms, Schumann and “Beloved Clara”

Schumann, Brahms: Beloved Clara. Lucy Parham, Gabrielle Drake, Martin Jarvis, Chipping Campden Music Festival,  8.5.2011.  (RJ)

Behind every successful man there is a wise woman – or so it is said. During the Robert Schumann bicentenary last year I often wondered how much the composer would have accomplished without his wife Clara; she was, after all, his inspiration, his wife, the mother of his seven children, the main breadwinner of the family – and doubtless also darned his socks.

Clara’s pivotal role came over strikingly in this sequence of music and prose devised by Lucy Parham and Jessica Duchen which draws on the letters, diaries and music of the Schumanns – and also of Johannes Brahms, the other man in Clara’s life. Lucy is  steeped in Schumann’s life and music, as was evident from the passion and empathy she brought to the first movement of his Piano Sonata No. 2 in which he pours out his tender feelings for his wife.

The readers were Martin Jarvis and Gabrielle Drake. Martin Jarvis, who has collaborated with Lucy Parham on a CD of Beloved Clara, brought out the excitable and unstable aspects of Schumann’s character with nerve-tingling clarity, while his Brahms came over as a stoic, yet troubled, observer as he described the final meeting between Clara and her demented husband. Lucy’s gentle playing of Romance in F at this juncture added poignancy to his account.

Gabrielle Drake portrayed the tripartite relationship through the words of Clara herself and those of her daughter Eugenie. The arrival of the youthful Brahms in the Schumann household in the early 1850s was a shot in the arm for the couple as Robert’s mental condition deteriorated. Robert hailed him as a composer of genius and Lucy Parham’s exuberant playing of the Scherzo from Brahms’ Third Piano Sonata seemed to encapsulate the excitement his music must have generated.  He was also a great hit with the Schumann children, as we learned from Eugenie’s description of him performing gymnastics on the stairs of their house.

Brahms was evidently a great support to Clara as her husband’s condition worsened, but after the latter’s death a rift ocurred between them. Was it was because Brahms proposed to her, was turned down and then left in a huff? The script left it to the audience to speculate on what actually happened, but the haunting Capriccio in F sharp minor seemed to provide an answer of sorts.

It was left to Eugenie to reveal what Brahms’ friendship had meant to Clara who had confided in her how “he shared my sorrow and cheered my spirits”. There was clearly a strong bond between them, even though it didn’t lead to marriage; Clara may have felt society would frown on a match between a widow and a man several years her junior.  This was a pity in many ways. “Today I have buried the only person I truly loved,” affirmed the bachelor Brahms at her graveside.

Some music-lovers may consider it nonsensical to relate the lives of composers to their music, citing the example of Mozart who wrote some of his most joyous music at a time of deep despair. However, the music of both Schumann and Brahms so often reflects or is inspired by their own personal experiences, and this sensitive portrayal  engendered a fuller appreciation of three musical icons and their music. Lucy Parham’s impressive and informed playing was the icing on the cake.

After so much tragedy and dashed hopes in the second half of the sequence the evening concluded in a blaze of glory with Liszt’s extrovert transcription of Schumann’s song Widmung (Dedication), a reminder of the first weeks of the Schumann’s marriage when optimism reigned. The three protagonists may have experienced more than their fair share of tragedy, in their lives, but it was not all gloom and doom, and what an enduring legacy they have left us!

Roger Jones