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