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Trio: A Novel About the Schumanns and Brahms

Trio: A Novel About the Schumanns and Brahms
By Boman Desai
AuthorHouse; 818 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

Author Boman Desai approached his sprawling two-volume novel Trio, a dramatized history of the Schumanns and Brahms, as a biography for people who hate biographies and a novel for people who hate novels. Either way, it’s a work for people who love Classical music.

Starting with Clara Wieck as a 9-year-old traveling piano prodigy, volume one takes us into the life of music at the dawn of the Romantic period. It’s 1828. Robert Schumann is young and passionate but undisciplined. Still unsure of his future (will he be a lawyer or a writer?) he finds himself falling for a maturing Clara and struggling with the notion that his child-bride might earn more money than he. Desai shows how ferocious Clara’s father Friedrich was in opposing his daughter’s marriage to Schumann. The couple’s ultimate victory is sweet indeed.

Other composers appear either as part of the central plot or in interpolative chapters. Mendelssohn, brilliant and graceful, makes his benign presence felt, perhaps most poignantly when he meets a young Queen Victoria. Liszt, resplendent in his Mephistophelean glory, comes across equally as cunning schemer and genuine nice guy. Wagner, on the other hand, is well-nigh evil, the villain one loves to hate.

Robert and Clara’s story, of course, does not end well. But Desai does not focus simply on Robert’s harrowing descent into madness but also on Clara’s difficulties in raising a houseful of children without a husband. Included is the magnificent scene in which she marched through a war zone to return her children to safety.

Volume two chronicles Clara’s relationship with Johannes Brahms within the broader politics of music in the late 19th century. It was the New German School of Wagner and Liszt against the conservative hold-outs Clara and Brahms. Things begin passionately for the pair, but they soon realize they aren’t right for each other. Bittersweet, too, is Brahms’s bachelorhood. Why did he never marry? Why was he not right for Clara, the woman he could so easily enthrall and frustrate? Among the intellectual and political elite of central Europe, Brahms always remained one step from the shipyards and cheap apartments of his lower-middle class upbringing.

Desai does a wonderful job describing the music. Of course, any descriptions come up short when compared to the real thing, but the language of Trio is so vivid it makes one want to explore a composer’s repertoire. Schumann’s Carnaval and Sonata in F-sharp Minor and Brahms’s German Requiem and Symphony no. 1 get some evocative descriptions. So do the performers themselves: Clara’s meticulousness, Liszt’s power and bravura, Brahms’s perfection at the piano as a cocky young virtuoso and sloppiness as a old man. Mendelssohn’s spot-on imitations of Liszt and Chopin are breathtaking as well.

In his afterword, Desai makes it clear that despite thorough research, there are some apocryphal scenes. In these cases he draws reasonable conclusions according to the scant evidence we have. Trio is a novel about some of the greatest figures of Classical music. Like the music, it is meant first and foremost to be enjoyed. And on this account, it does not fail.

This book review appeared in the summer 2011 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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