Hello dear blog reader, a warm welcome to my first post of 2017 following my winter hibernation. I warn you it shall definitely not contain any references to the general awfulness of 2016, what I achieved and didn’t in 2016, the books I read in 2016 and the much longer list of books I wanted to read but didn’t, or my plans, goals and resolutions for 2017. Perhaps it should. But I’m sure you’ve read plenty of this sort of thing elsewhere, so I shall breeze past all that and move swiftly on to…
My first book review of 2017!
I recently had the pleasure of reading Ghost Variations, the latest book from Jessica Duchen, published in September 2016 by Unbound Digital. (Her guest post The Ghosts behind Ghost Variations appeared on my blog in October.)
The strangest detective story in the history of music – inspired by a true incident.
A world spiralling towards war. A composer descending into madness. And a devoted woman struggling to keep her faith in art and love against all the odds.
1933. Dabbling in the fashionable “Glass Game” – a Ouija board – the famous Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi, one-time muse to composers such as Bartók, Ravel and Elgar, encounters a startling dilemma. A message arrives ostensibly from the spirit of the composer Robert Schumann, begging her to find and perform his long-suppressed violin concerto.
She tries to ignore it, wanting to concentrate instead on charity concerts. But against the background of the 1930s depression in London and the rise of the Nazis in Germany, a struggle ensues as the “spirit messengers” do not want her to forget.
The concerto turns out to be real, embargoed by Schumann’s family for fear that it betrayed his mental disintegration: it was his last full-scale work, written just before he suffered a nervous breakdown after which he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. It shares a theme with his Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations) for piano, a melody he believed had been dictated to him by the spirits of composers beyond the grave.
As rumours of its existence spread from London to Berlin, where the manuscript is held, Jelly embarks on an increasingly complex quest to find the concerto. When the Third Reich’s administration decides to unearth the work for reasons of its own, a race to perform it begins.
Though aided and abetted by a team of larger-than-life personalities – including her sister Adila Fachiri, the pianist Myra Hess, and a young music publisher who falls in love with her – Jelly finds herself confronting forces that threaten her own state of mind. Saving the concerto comes to mean saving herself.
In the ensuing psychodrama, the heroine, the concerto and the pre-war world stand on the brink, reaching together for one more chance of glory.
As the title suggests, this certainly is one hell of a strange story. It’s also quite captivating and beautifully written – I had to abandon my other two reads (also historical fiction set in a similar period) to see this one through to the end.
The novel is a skillful re-imagination of historical events, telling the story of the rediscovery of the last work of Robert Schumann (the violin concerto in D minor) from the night it came to the attention of renowned Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Aranyi in 1933 to her performance of the piece in London in 1938. After Schumann’s death, his wife Clara instructed that the violin concerto be removed from public view for 100 years, due apparently to concerns that his last work might reveal the unstable mental state in which it was written. (Schumann completed the piece in 10 days in 1854 then attempted to drown himself, and was confined to an asylum until he died in 1856.) By the 1930s, the existence and location of the written music seems to have been forgotten by virtually everyone.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the story is how Jelly d’Aranyi (the grandniece of famous violinist Joseph Joachim) finds out that this piece of music existed. She was playing ‘the glass game’ (Oujia board) with her sister Adila, an avid spirit-world believer who frequently hosted séances. (Jelly lived in London with Adila and Adila’s husband and daughter.) Believing she has been urged to do so by Schumann’s spirit, Jelly makes it her mission to track down the music and bring it to the attention of the world. Whether or not you believe that the restless spirit of Schumann actually descended on the d’Aranyi sisters, the early chapter of Duchen’s novel describing that night is compelling and it’s hard not to keep on reading.
The novel follows what becomes Jelly’s mission to perform the work that she feels such a deep connection with, despite the many obstacles in her path. These include the media and political storm that broke out in 1937 when the world learned of the ‘spirit messages’ and the violinist’s intention to premiere the German-written concerto. Duchen paints a vivid, sympathetic portrait of a renowned musician who feels compelled to see her self-appointed task through despite public criticism and her struggles with self-doubt, loss of confidence in her abilities and increasing physical frailty.
Jelly d’Aranyi never married, reluctant to put her violin second to some chap who might want her to look after him instead of her own talent. Another reason she stays single is no doubt her great sense of loss after the death of her Australian love Sep Kelly in World War I. Years later, her other close male friend becomes seriously ill – there’s a heartrending scene in the book when Jelly plays the violin to him. Like many of that era who were deeply affected by the early deaths of loved ones, Jelly seems to be seeking ways to reconnect with those she has lost, and find meaning in life without them.
The backdrop to Ghost Variations is Britain and Germany in the 1930s, a period which has ominous resonances with today’s dire political climate. The Nazis are targeting Jews in Germany; the intending publishers of Schumann’s last work attempt to resist Nazi plans to use it for their own purposes. One of the novel’s fictional characters, Ulli, works in Germany for the concerto’s eventual publishers and promises to help Jelly – to do this he must face his fears of the ruthless Nazi regime and in particular Goebbels, the Nazi’s head of propaganda. This strand of the novel is full of tension and poignancy, and brings an interesting unpredictability to the storyline.
I would definitely recommend Ghost Variations to all those who enjoy a vividly-told story based on real events, with touch of the inexplicable – and to anyone who is like me fascinated by the lives of great composers and musicians. Apart from d’Aranyi herself, the novel contains a host of prominent musical figures – the conductor Sir Adrian Boult, musicologist Sir Donald Tovey, pianist Myra Hess, violinist Yehudi Menuhin and others. The author’s extensive knowledge of music and music history informs the writing in the best way possible, leaving room for her characters to come wonderfully to life within the richly evoked pre-war setting. Duchen also refers to the much written about, tragically-entwined trio of Robert and Clara Schumann and their friend Brahms, also in love with Clara. (Schuman originally used a five-note melody to send ‘musical messages’ to Clara early on in their relationship when they were forbidden to see each other; this became a mode of communication between all four. The so-called ‘ghost theme’ reappears on the slow movement of his violin concerto.)
Since finishing Ghost Variations, I’ve been inspired to listen to Schumann’s violin concerto for the first time (the 1938 Menuhin recording and a recent one by Baiba Skride with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra). I found it stirring as well as melancholy, also unexpectedly moving. (Did Clara, unable to bear listening to it, need to put it as far away from her as possible?) To think that this music might still be languishing in a library had not Schumann’s spirit (or some more down-to-earth explanation) compelled Jelly d’Aranyi to find it! I’m very glad she did – and that Ms Duchen decided to share the fascinating story in her novel.
I pre-ordered a copy of Ghost Variations from Unbound.
To buy Ghost Variations
The book is available both in e-book and as a paperback.
About the author, Jessica Duchen
Jessica is a versatile author with a musical bias. Her output includes novels, biographies, plays, words&music projects, poetry for musical setting, music journalism and more. Born in London, she studied music at Cambridge and piano with Joan Havill.
Her novels often focus on the cross-currents between family generations, with music a recurring theme. The latest, GHOST VARIATIONS, is “the strangest detective story in music”, based on the true story of the bizarre rediscovery, and Nazi propaganda conscription, of Schumann’s long-suppressed violin concerto.
Jessica’s biographies of the composers Gabriel Fauré and Erich Wolfgang Korngold for Phaidon’s 20th Century Composers series have met with wide acclaim. Her writing has appeared in in The Independent, The Guardian and The Sunday Times, as well as BBC Music Magazine and Opera News, among other publications. Her music blog “JDCMB”, http://jessicamusic.blogspot.com, has attracted more than 2m readers.
She is now writing an opera libretto, SILVER BIRCH, for the composer Roxanna Panufnik – a commission for Garsington Opera 2017. Her play A WALK THROUGH THE END OF TIME often pops up at music festivals to introduce Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and has been performed by actor teams including Harriet Walter & Henry Goodman and Janet Suzman & Michael Pennington.
Jessica lives in London with her violinist husband and two big fluffy cats. She loves long walks, cooking, ballet, theatre and scouring second-hand bookshops for out-of-print musical gems. Special passions include Russian literature and Nordic Noir.