The ghosts behind ‘Ghost Variations’

Today I present a special guest post by Jessica Duchen author of Ghost Variations (20 September 2016, Unbound) about the spine-tingling and captivating historical circumstances on which her novel draws.

ghost-variations-coverOujia boards, messages from dead composer Robert Schumann, a lost final concerto and a talented violinist heroine who attracted the finest composers and musicians… This piece has well and truly whetted my appetite for the book, as I imagine it will yours! So, over to Jessica.

I first spotted the name “Jelly d’Arányi” so long ago that I don’t remember the context. But I do remember my reaction. Her name was JELLY? I guess that’s what most people think. Of course, it’s not Jelly as in jelly-and-ice-cream; it’s pronounced Yelly, as in yelling. It’s still bizarre, though, and it’s not even particularly Hungarian. I’ve been stumbling across traces of her in one sphere or another almost my whole life – but never imagined that she would become the heroine of one of my novels.

Still, there she is: Jelly d’Arányi, the violinist who inspired some of the greatest music written for her instrument in the first quarter of the 20th century. Born in Budapest 1893, she died in Florence in 1966, but spent most of her life in Britain. She pops up in music history books, concert programmes, sheet music. Ravel’s virtuoso showpiece Tzigane is dedicated to her. Bartók fell in love with her. The elderly Elgar had a crush on her. She worked with Pablo Casals, Myra Hess, Sir Adrian Boult: musicians as legendary as she was. She might sidle into view, too, in accounts of the world in which she moved: the Bloomsbury set, aristocratic households, ambassadorial ones, intellectual ones even though she scarcely went to school.

She was friendly with George Mallory before his untimely death on Mount Everest, and with Aldous Huxley, who seems to have put a tongue-in-cheek portrait of her into his novel Crome Yellow. She was close friends with “George” Yeats, the wife of the poet WB Yeats, whose esoteric interests were many and varied. And she her sisters Adila (known by her married name, Fachiri) and Hortense were everyone’s “darling little Hungarians” when they first settled in the UK a few years before World War I. A painting of her by Charles Geoffroy-Dechaume hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

A recording of Jelly d’Arányi playing Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice

Although she appears often in other people’s biographies, she was rarely accorded one of her own, other than The Sisters d’Arányi, by Joseph Macleod, written in the mid 1960s. The author’s affection for the by then elderly violinist and her vivid, humorous personality, somewhat disengaged from the world around her, is unmistakable. But the book includes a chapter headed “The Truth about the Schumann Concerto”. I read it, and nearly fell off my chair.

It seems that in 1933 Jelly received a message via a Ouija board purporting to be from the spirit of the composer Robert Schumann, asking her to find and play a violin concerto of his that had not been performed for many years. She had never heard of it before and her enquiries soon proved that it was real, but suppressed and held in a library in Berlin. After Schumann’s death in an asylum near Bonn, his wife, Clara, had decided to leave the piece unpublished, believing that it betrayed traces of her late husband’s mental illness.

The remaining Schumann family insisted the work must not be published, and there seemed little that Jelly could do. But she had drawn attention to the work’s existence, and as the Third Reich tightened its grip on Germany and banned the music of Jewish composers, the Ministry of Propaganda devised a special use for the missing concerto. Meanwhile the publisher, Schott’s, sent a photostat to the most newsworthy young violin star of the day, Yehudi Menuhin, who fell in love with the piece and wanted to give the first modern performance himself. Jelly, having started her quest with the most innocent of intentions, found herself sucked into a race to the premiere with Menuhin on the one hand and, on the other, Joseph Goebbels.

But meanwhile, her sister Adila and her friend Erik Palmstierna, the Swedish Minister in London, both avid spiritualists, also seized on the concerto for their own purposes. When the news of the “spirit messages” broke to a derisive public in September 1937 via a book by Palmstierna based on messages that Adila had channelled, Jelly had to disentangle herself from a controversy that wouldn’t have been out of place in the fiercest Twitter storms of 2016. She eventually gave the UK premiere of the Schumann Violin Concerto in February 1938 – but neither she nor her world would ever be the same again.

This was clearly a novel waiting to be written. I was fascinated by the confluence of heroine, topic and time. This was the 1930s, with the world on the cusp between peace and war. Schumann had written the concerto when he himself was about to tip from mental instability into a full-blown breakdown and suicide attempt. And Jelly, who turned 40 in 1933, was watching her own glittering career slide out of control as a succession of mishaps, injuries and mental stresses assaulted her. All of them were at the tipping point together.

The novel spans five years in Jelly’s life and writing it has spanned five years of mine. During that time I’ve watched food banks open in otherwise affluent parts of London where people can’t afford to eat; the rise of a dangerous nationalist in the US hell-bent on becoming president; and the UK making a myopic and self-destructive move to leave the body of unity that has ensured peace for some 70 years. We’re not living in a rerun of the 1930s; the differences today are as clear as the similarities. But I sense the echoes and I don’t like it much.

Yet Schumann has the last word. The final movement of his violin concerto is a Polonaise: a Polish national dance. The concerto’s modern premiere was given (not by Jelly!) in front of Hitler. Less than two years later he invaded Poland and World War II was declared. Yet the music’s triumphal conclusion held the seeds of defiance and victory. Ultimately fascism would be defeated. The spirit of freedom and humanity would survive all the tragedy and destruction and win through in the end. Music may not bring peace, but it can fly the flag for it directly under a dictator’s nose. Long may it continue to do so.

To buy Ghost Variations

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