Boman Desai : Trio: A Novel Biography of the Schumanns and Brahms


August 16, 2017

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Boman Desai authored a book titled “Trio: The Schumanns and Brahms” Below is a review by Kirkus

“A novel that explores the complex relationships among classical composers Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann and the latter’s pianist/composer wife, Clara.

51fu-oSBNqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_When Schumann, then a young law student, first meets Clara Josephine Wieck, she’s a 9-year-old child. She’s already gaining a reputation as a pianist, though, and when he sees her play, he comes to the realization that he must devote his own life to music. He convinces Clara’s father, Friedrich, to take him on as a piano student, and he moves in with the family. Gradually, the bond between teenage Clara and Robert becomes romantic, but Friedrich furiously opposes their union and forbids them to see each other. He has reason to believe Robert is dishonorable, and he also thinks that the musician is incapable of adequately supporting his daughter financially. However, after time apart, Clara and Robert commit to each other and plan to marry against her father’s wishes. Friedrich does everything in his power to stop them, including taking them to court. After composer Felix Mendelssohn testifies on Robert’s behalf, Clara and Robert wed, but their relationship remains fraught with challenges. Robert wins fame for his original compositions but is unable to make much of an income, and he’s emasculated by Clara’s superior earning power. Clara, too, becomes frustrated that she’s sacrificed her career for his and frets about his deteriorating mental health. When Robert is committed to an asylum after a failed suicide attempt, his friend Brahms serves as a messenger between him and Clara—and falls deeply in love with her. Author Desai (Dancing about Architecture, 2013 etc.) has produced a magisterial work, which is clearly the result of astonishingly thorough research. Although the story revolves tightly around the three main figures, there are also fascinating cameos by such musical luminaries as Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, and Fréderic Chopin, and he memorably depicts the ego-driven rivalries between them. Each has a unique personality, and the author does a lovely job of dramatizing their quirks. Still, the character of Clara steals the show, and she emerges from the shadow of her husband’s much grander reputation as a musical genius in her own right.

A riveting dramatization of musical history.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

About Boman Desai

Boman Desai was born and raised in Bombay (now Mumbai) but has lived his adult life in Chicago. After studying architecture and philosophy and getting degrees in psychology and English, he was set to become a market analyst when a chance encounter with Sir Edmund Hillary, his earliest hero, brought him back to his vocation: writing novels. He took a number of part-time jobs ranging from bartending to auditing to teaching to find time to write. He got his first break when an elegant elderly woman personally submitted a number of his stories to the editor in chief of Debonair Magazine in Bombay. The stories were all published, but the woman disappeared, and her identity remains a mystery to this day. He has published fiction and nonfiction in the US, UK, and India. His work has won awards from the Illinois Arts Council, Stand Magazine, Dana, Noemi, War Poems, and New Millennium (among others). He has taught fiction at Truman College, Roosevelt University, and the University of Southern Maine.

Genesis of the Book

a405de67b79d15ee4bb343f56dc85e60You may have heard something about TRIO, my book on the Schumanns and Brahms, but if not I would like to tell you something about it. It has a long history, fortunately concluding happily, but I will try to keep it short.

I published my first novel in 1988, The Memory of Elephants (relating the advent of the Parsis from Iran to India and the spread of the diaspora, first through their adopted country, then through the world) and cast around immediately for other books to write. During a weekend visit to Columbus, Ohio (from Chicago, my home town), I came across a biography of Brahms in a used bookstore, and since he is my favorite composer I thought I should learn something about him. I bought the book, but returning to Chicago, getting caught up again in the straight line of my life, I put the book on the shelf and promptly forgot about it

Five years later, coming across another book on Brahms in another used bookstore right here in Chicago, (1) I was reminded that I already had a book on Brahms, (2) that there was no point buying a second book if I hadn’t read the first, but I told myself that (3) if I bought the second book it would be with the intention of writing something about Brahms, and (4) I knew that if I didn’t buy the second book then and there I was going to come back for it later. The decision to write about Brahms had been made WITHOUT my consent, the urge very likely germinating during those five years when I thought I had forgotten about the book.

I bought the book and subsequently every book I could find on Brahms until I can say today that I have read every book in the English language on Brahms, in print and out (except the musicology). I soon reached a point where I could tell what was on the next page before I turned it – no surprise since I was reading many biographies of the same person, getting different perspectives on the same life, and felt ready to write my own book, but considering how many biographies had already been written on Brahms, and that I am primarily a novelist, I chose to write the book in the form of what I call a Novel Biography, a novel for people who hate novels (who read about only “real” things) and a biography for people who hate biographies (for the intrusions of footnotes, authorial speculations, and other such distractions).

I also realized that no biography of Brahms would be complete without an understanding of his relationship with both Schumanns, Clara (with whom he fell in love) and Robert (to whom he was greatly indebted for getting his first six opuses published within weeks of their meeting). I subsequently read everything I could find about the Schumanns, including lengthy diaries and correspondences. In the days, before telephones and telegraphs and the like, diaries and correspondences were invaluable sources of information. The Schumanns, in their Marriage Diaries, even placed an F in the margin for the nights they had sexual relations. I didn’t need to make anything up. If anything, I had too much information. The challenge lay in organizing the multiple materials into a comprehensive, dramatic, and engaging read.

It took 27 years from the time the book was a gleam in my eye to the publication of TRIO in a single volume in 2015. (I published it originally in 2 volumes in 2004/2006 because the publisher could not then accommodate a book of its size in a single volume.) In publishing the book in a single volume, I took the opportunity of streamlining it further and adding a Chronology ranging from 1685 (birth of Bach) to 1949 (death of Richard Strauss), focusing the greatest detail on the years covered by the book: 1828 (the year of Clara’s first recital at 9 years of age) to 1897 (the year of Brahms’s death). I inserted the 83 chapter headings of the book within the Chronology to show how the history and story ran in tandem. Very briefly, I would call it a book for the beach, the summer, the winter, a holiday, a holiday in itself, a book in which one may live for a while – a narrative of love, insanity, suicide, revolution, politics, war – and, of course, music.

I won’t go into the publication trials, but agents and editors weren’t willing even to look at the book unless I cut it to the conventional 300-400 pages, but the book would then no longer have been unique. As it stands, there is not even a contender on the horizon. I published the book myself and, little by little, it does appear to be gaining a following. Best of all I was able to secure an endorsement from Zubin Mehta – who, when I finally met him, inscribed the book with a Bravo! Getting a Bravo! from Zubin Mehta has to rank among my most cherished accolades. He not only gave me the Bravo! but earlier this year emailed me to ask where he might purchase six more copies of the book.

TRIO has also received other accolades. Kirkus Reviews, the doyen of reviewing agencies in the US (arguably, in the world) awarded it a star (awarded to just 2% of the books they review). They also selected it for their list of Best Books of 2016. Here’s the link to their review:

A Harvard professor emailed me to say this was the book Tolstoy would have written had he chosen the subject.

You may read more about the book if you wish on Amazon (12 reader reviews, all of them 5 stars):

Surprisingly, though this is my longest book by far, more readers have been kind enough to let me know that they have either read it twice or plan to read it again.

Even more surprisingly, the Fresco Opera Theatre of Madison, Wisconsin, adapted the book into a chamber opera called Clara last year, which ran for 3 sold out performances. We hope to stage it again once we’ve retooled the script a bit.

But there is still no way I can compete with the iron bones of the publicity machines of Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Viking among so many others – which brings me to the point of my email. Considering the Parsi enthusiasm for classical music, a friend suggested I write to the various Fezana Member Associations to ask if they might help publicize the book, either with an ad, or drawing attention to it through their mailing lists, or whatever else they might think of. I am open to all suggestions.

I have also done dramatic readings (replete with a German accent) from TRIO, including one at the Zoroastrian Association of Houston and another at the Nehru Centre in London which Zerbanoo Gifford helped organize, all of which have gone splendidly.

Boman Desai