Book Review: Ghost Variations – Schumann’s Spirit Communicates from Beyond the Grave 💀🎻🎼

“My name is Jelly d’Arányi. I am the only woman who has ever had my name. I am the only woman who shall ever live my life. And live it I have, and I do, and I shall.” ~ Jessica Duchen, Ghost Variations

Ghost Variations: The Strangest Detective Story in Music is a perfect book for Halloween.

This book is not a traditional ghost story replete with creepy sounds that go bump in the night; Ghost Variations is derived from an actual occult experience in 1933, during which an important message from a genius musical spirit ‘speaks’ at a private séance conducted with a Ouija board.

An original Ouija board

As I was researching the violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, I came across Jessica Duchen’s fabulous novel, which is narrated predominantly from the point of view of the violinist Jelly d’Arányi, a siren Hungarian virtuoso, who as grand niece of Joseph Joachim, made a name for herself as a soloist based in London.

I was totally absorbed in the book from the outset. It is beautifully written,  impeccably researched, as well as being musically and historically authentic. The colourful characters (both real and fictional), come off the pages in high definition life.

It’s hard enough to write fictional characters, but to base a work of fiction on mostly real people and events must be even more so…

I read Ghost Variations in a handful of sittings; it totally drew me in to the fictional tale of this real life violinist – slightly past her prime – living an extraordinary life in the Art Deco zeitgeist.

Based on her character in the novel I would love to have met Jelly d’Arányi. I feel Jessica captured her ‘essence’ perfectly: vivacious, glamorous, gracious, kind, musically brilliant but not a diva, vulnerable, courageous, and paradoxically both naïve and worldly.

She has known love, but is dedicated to her Bergonzi violin and her art: music.

The novel is set in the late thirties; Jelly is unmarried and approaching forty with arthritic joints that hamper her playing.  She finds her own fame fading simultaneously with the rise of the young violin superstar, Yehudi Menuhin based in America.

Jelly lives with her sister Adila Fachiri, her lawyer husband Alex, daughter Adrienne and pet dog Caesar in Netherton Grove. Their home is affectionately dubbed Hurricane House, a warm and bohemian base for Jelly as she travels across the UK for her paid concerts as well as a series of cathedral charity concerts during the depression.

Portrait of Jelly d’Aranyi by Charles Geoffroy Dechaume

The story begins after a concert when Jelly, her secretary Anna and their hosts, play a glass game. Jelly, although skeptical, still takes part, but when the spirit of composer Robert Schumann mentions her sister, she gets cold feet and leaves the room. At first she cannot accept the spirit messages are real, and tries to put the episode out of her thoughts.

However, events conspire and in a glass game with her sister Adila (known for her psychic abilities), and their close family friend and spiritualist, the Swedish Ambassador, Baron Erik Palmstierna, the voice of Robert Schumann comes through to Jelly, telling her to find and play his forgotten violin concerto.  Although still troubled, this time, Jelly cannot ignore it.

The paranormal nature of its emergence adds all the more mystery and conflict to the story, an imagining of what it must have been like for the talented Hungarian sisters in a time when psychic phenomena was frowned upon.

Jelly and Adila start to research the concerto, the last significant composition by Schumann before he descended into apparent madness, written for their revered great uncle Joachim. After Schumann’s death alone in the sanatorium, Brahms, Joachim and Clara decide not to publish the work, and it is placed in the Prussian State Library in Berlin by Joachim’s heirs, with the instruction that it not be performed for at least 100 years.

1850 photograph of Robert Schumann

When Jelly tells her musical companions about the circumstances preceding its rediscovery, she is met with mixed reactions. Donald Francis Tovey decides that the music itself is the most important thing, not its method of discovery, and helps her locate the score with the help of established German publishers Schott.

Baron Palmstierna visits the Prussian State Library expecting access to the suppressed manuscript, only to be told of its strict embargo, which Schumann’s last remaining daughter, the elderly Eugenie Schumann is adamant should remain unplayed…

Meanwhile Jelly is losing another love, Tom Spring-Rice to a fatal illness (after having lost Australian Olympic athlete, pianist and composer, Sep Kelly during the First World War). She is emotionally fragile, and comes to believe that by performing the world premiere of a long lost violin concerto she can also regain her dignity and rediscover herself.

However, in the wake of the baron’s visit to Berlin, knowledge of the concerto has come to the attention of the Nazi’s, who wish to use it for their own sickening nationalistic purposes, and the world premiere of the piece is awarded by Goebbels to a state sanctioned musician, Georg Kulenkampff, after it has been extensively edited by him, and also secretly by Paul Hindemith.

“Sleeping beauty had been awoken by the wrong prince. Could the spirits not see into the future? Could they not have known, when they chose to speak through the glass game, that the first person on whose ear the concerto would fall might be Adolf Hitler?” ~ Jessica Duchen, Ghost Variations

There is a brilliant and chilling scene towards the end of the novel in which the Strecker brothers, Ludwig and Willy and their colleague Ulli Schultheiss from Schott meet with Goebbels and members of the Reich regarding its publication and performances.

They know that their competitor Breitkopf & Härtel are also angling for first publication of the concerto, and so propose that Yehudi Menuhin also play it in America. Ulli puts his neck on the line to push for Jelly d’Arányi’s moral right to play the London premiere, being the grand niece of its dedicatee.

Being the vile Nazi pig he is, Goebbels is unhappy with his suggestion and threatens Ulli with his demise; but he ultimately agrees, as the music will by then be in the public domain.

Other scenes that reduced me to jelly (if you excuse the pronunciation and pun), is when she receives a visit from Moshe Menuhin, Yehudi’s formidable father. He brusquely asks her to give up the London premiere so Yehudi can be the first to play the concerto in London instead. Jelly refuses.

“Would you save a beloved friend’s life only to see him taken prisoner? I know Yehudi will play it well, but that concerto is not home again until it is here with me.” ~ Jessica Duchen, Ghost Variations

After the publication of Horizons of Immortality by Erik Palmstierna in conjunction with Adila Fachiri in 1937, in which a whole chapter is devoted to the story behind Jelly finding the ‘lost’ Schumann concerto, there is a media frenzy and backlash against her, and Jelly’s nerves are shredded even before she is due to perform the London premiere with Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

As Hitler ramps up his anti-Jewish activities and propaganda, Jelly is subject to increasing racial animosity in London as her foreign accent is being noticed and commented on more frequently. The pre-war situation becomes more tense, but it is nothing compared to the vitriolic reaction to her revelation of ‘voices from the other side’.

The man she loves is trapped in Germany, sitting in the Charlottenburg Opera House, dreading Kulenkampff’s world premiere on 26th November 1937, at which Goebbels and the Führer are also present; knowing deep down he must somehow escape the abhorrent pall of Nazi Germany.

Opernhaus, Berlin c. 1912

Ulli’s despair is poignant, when in London he had promised Jelly that she would be the first to play the concerto, but power and politics have deemed otherwise:

“If Kulenkampff and Böhm, those most rational musicians could not make sense of the concerto, how could anybody?
And yet… within this musical jungle lay a naked beauty so exposed that it seemed almost indecent. Schumann’s soul might be damaged and suffering, but he still gave its entirety. Could it ever have been right to leave this music unheard?
And yet, and yet… there was madness here, a precipice lying ahead in the fog and snow; a spirit filled with love, but lost, unable to master itself. For the first time Ulli began to wonder what happens when insanity is unleashed through art into the soul of others. What exactly did Joachim and Clara know about this piece that made them put it to sleep?”
The transition sounded and the Polonaise emerged into the daylight. The Führer was smiling.
Ulli forced himself to listen to the detail. Kulenkampff’s version was considerably altered, wheras Yehudi had eagerly declared that he wanted to play every note exactly as Schumann had written it, without even the hushed-up Hindemith adaptations. Kulenkampff, ignoring Schumann’s funereal metronome mark, played it as a true Polonaise; yet though his delivery was graceful and elegant, its triumph felt empty. Everything would be alright, it seemed to say, when Ulli knew full well that it would not: only a few months after creating the blazing conclusion, Schumann threw himself off the Dusselforf bridge into the black Rhine.
Final chord. Kulenkampff, domed forehead shining with sweat, his bow aloft, gaze locked for an instant with Böhm’s. The orchestra standing, tired, inscrutable. The Führer, on his feet. The whole audience rising to ape him. And applause. And… Ulli sensed sensed their puzzlement. This was no triumph. That slow movement, exquisite, yet out of kilter; was this concerto after all an insane work for an insane land? What had they done, letting it out?” ~ Jessica Duchen, Ghost Variations

The Kulenkampff recording:

Sadly there was no recording of Jelly’s London performance. Menuhin’s American recording from 1938:

It is 16th February 1938, the date of Jelly’s London premiere of the concerto, described in a crescendo of emotion which has been building throughout the book; fascinating for musicians and non-musicians alike.

Ghost Variations has a strong literary and musical theme, but it is written like a psychological thriller. This is something I also tried to achieve with my novel, The Virtuoso.

I’m in awe at Jessica Duchen’s deft vocabulary and skill in layering in her protagonist’s emotional and musical challenges against the backdrop of a violent time in history: the two are clearly inseparable for Jelly. The novel leaves you rooting for victory and redemption for our gutsy heroine.

We meet Jelly’s real cohorts in music, the larger than life pianist Dame Myra Hess and the indefatigable pianist and music professor, Sir Donald Francis Tovey.

Jelly and Myra in a BBC studio on World Violin Day in 1928

There are so many wonderful touches in the story, from how the sisters talk to each other in their everyday dialogue, the affectionate terms such as ‘Sai’ and ‘Onkel Jo’, to learning about how Bartók had written his violin sonatas for the sisters, and how Jelly had been muse to French composer, Maurice Ravel, who composed Tzigane, his gypsy themed, Czardas type melodies in his virtuosic showpiece for her. Jelly was also a muse to Elgar and Holst.

Ulli’s greetings to the bust of Wagner at Schott’s headquarters in Mainz are entirely plausible, since the Strecker brothers’ father had actually been a close personal friend of the composer.

Jessica explains more about the title of the novel:

Also in 1939, another previously unknown work by Robert Schumann was finally released to the public. It was a set of solo piano variations on the theme that Brahms had adopted from his own Opus 23 Variations (as played to Jelly by Myra in chapter 5). It became known as Geistervariationen – Ghost Variations – because Schumann believed the melody had been dictated to him in his sleep by spirits. What Schumann, in his disturbed state of mind, seemed to have forgotten is that he had already written the germ of this melody himself, in the slow movement of his violin concerto. He was writing the variations when he made his suicide attempt in February 1854.  The day after his rescue from the Rhine, he gave the manuscript to Clara. She preferred to leave it unpublished.

Score of Geistervariationen.

Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations), or Theme and Variations in E-flat major for piano, WoO 24:

The suppression of the concerto after Schumann’s death was probably on balance a good thing, after all it led to a grand unveiling of a piece that may have been more maligned in the direct aftermath of Schumann’s illness, not to mention making a wonderful premise for a modern work of fiction!

It’s as though Schumann’s spirit had re-emerged triumphant after eighty years to right the musical injustice of his unheard violin concerto in D minor.

To put it using Sir Donald Francis Tovey’s vernacular from the novel: there’s no nuff and stonsense in this musical, literary gem!

“She had to be no more tonight than the active component of her violin. No extraneous emotion – and no rustling dress – must upset the flow from Schumann’s mind to the audience’s. A musician is the truest medium there is. She, her technique and the Bergonzi were his channel now from world to world.
She let her sister massage her hands, one at a time. In the hall the orchestra was warming up; some overture was opening the programme, she couldn’t remember which. She tried to blot out all that was extraneous, all that was physical. The concerto existed in sound alone, nothing that could be seen, claimed and owned. Everyone wanted to pierce it with a pin and fix it to a velvet board, but it belonged to everybody and nobody. It was the sum total of all that had passed: imagined by Schumann, nurtured by Clara, fired up by Brahms, twisted by Onkel Jo, guarded by all those gatekeepers, meddled with by Goebbels and Hindemith and even perhaps Ulli. Yehudi, she knew would play it perfectly – so perhaps she and he were allies after all, desiring the best for the work – and whenever it was played, it would be born anew.”

 

Jessica very helpfully elucidates on which characters are real and which are fictional, as well as factual information about Jelly’s life and the fate of her family, friends and colleagues, at the end of the book, plus her extensive bibliography.

It’s well worth reading, and was listed as John Suchet’s favourite read of 2016. Ghost Variations on Unbound.

The Strad 125 Years: Pioneering Female String Players

I’ll bid you a ghostly farewell with a vintage recording of Jelly and Adila playing the Bach Double Violin Concerto:

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