Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Ghosts of War

Tracing the path from FS Kelly's death in the Battle of the Somme, through the rediscovery of the Schumann Violin Concerto on the eve of World War II, to the exile into which that tragic conflict threw so many composers including Bartók: the concert The Ghosts of War is one of my dream events made real. It's been built around my book Ghost Variations and the story of Jelly d'Arányi, who was deeply connected with not only the concerto but also the other two composers. On 1 June I'm narrating the concert for the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra in Oxford Town Hall, with the conductors Marios Papadopoulos and Hannah Schneider (who will do the Kelly) and the stunning Russian violinist Alena Baeva as soloist in the Schumann. I do hope you can join us! Booking here.

Here's some more about the concert and the personalities behind the pieces, to help whet the appetite...


THE GHOSTS OF WAR


Jelly d'Arányi in the 1920s. Portrait by Charles Geoffroy-Dechaume

From the death of composer Frederick Septimus Kelly in the Battle of the Somme, through the bizarre rediscovery of Schumann’s long-suppressed Violin Concerto on the eve of World War II to music that Bela Bartók composed in exile in 1940, this concert traces the inter-war years through the extraordinary figure of the great Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi (the heroine of my novel Ghost Variations, which inspired the programme). 

One of the most significant musicians of her day, muse to such composers as Ravel, Szymanowski, Holst, Vaughan Williams and Bartók, d’Arányi was born in Budapest in 1893 and in her heyday premiered many seminal new pieces of music. But in 1933 she claimed to have received spirit messages purporting to be from the composer Robert Schumann, asking her to find and play his long-neglected Violin Concerto. In her quest to find this work, which had never been published, d’Arányi found herself trapped in a race against the Nazi regime’s Department of Propaganda, which wanted to conscript the newly discovered concerto for its own purposes. The concerto’s rebirth was almost as traumatic a tale as its birth; it had been Schumann’s last orchestral work before the mental collapse that led to his hospitalisation and death. Its modern premiere was eventually presented in November 1937 in front of Hitler and Goebbels. D’Arányi gave its UK premiere at the Queen’s Hall, London, in February 1938.

Flanking the concerto are works by two of the most significant figures in d’Arányi’s life. Frederick Septimus Kelly was described by d’Arányi’s family as “her only fiancé” (if in the French sense of 'suitor' or 'boyfriend' rather than 'intended'...): a highly talented Australian composer and pianist, he studied at Eton and Oxford and frequently met the d’Arányi sisters to rehearse and perform chamber music. On the outbreak of World War I he became an officer and survived Gallipoli, composing a violin sonata for d’Arányi while there. His most famous work, however, is the exquisitely beautiful Elegy in Memoriam Rupert Brooke, written in tribute to the poet, who was a close friend and died in 1915. Kelly met his own tragic death at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. D’Arányi kept his portrait on her piano for the rest of her life - even though there was no sign that Kelly had ever actually returned her feelings. 

Jelly plays Kelly

Bela Bartók was close to the d’Arányi family in Budapest before they moved to Britain: as a young man he was frequently at their home to give piano lessons to their middle sister, Hortense. He was enraptured first by the eldest of the three, Adila (herself an eminent violinist under her married name, Adila Fachiri); but later, when the youngest, Jelly, grew up, she became a crucial inspiration. For her he composed his two impassioned sonatas for violin and piano, which she premiered with him in London respectively in 1922 and 1923. This time the unrequited love was his.

After the outbreak of World War II, Bartók left Hungary and spent his last years in America, where he had to struggle for acceptance and survival. In exile, he composed his magnificent Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who conducted its premiere in 1944. Despite the distance of several thousand miles, the work seems to overflow with the energy, lyrical beauty and exotic colours of Bartók’s - and d’Arányi’s - native Budapest, the dazzling rhythms of the Hungarian language and the soulful, rhapsodic qualities so characteristic of Hungarian folk music. 

The Schumann Violin Concerto’s modern rediscovery seems highly symbolic. D’Arányi’s career was on the brink, tipping from greatness to decline in a combination of physical and psychological pressures; the work is by a composer about to experience a catastrophic breakdown; and it was revived for a world poised on the cliff edge, ready to tumble into the madness of fascism and war. Yet the concerto’s Polonaise finale carries a message of hope that bore a startling relevance to those times and to the future. It was a story crying out to be told, especially in a world that can seem once again to be on the brink of madness. In Ghost Variations I wanted to pay tribute to these great musicians, but also to capture the resonance that their world carries for our own. 

https://oxfordphil.com/events/128153638/the-ghosts-of-war-2019-06-01