Thursday, October 29, 2020

'Immortal' is out, and so is its Wigmore digital launch

It's publication day for Immortal. I am overjoyed to say that we are sending it out into the world with a digital launch presentation from the stage of the Wigmore Hall, thanks to the unbelievably kind invitation of John Gilhooly. 

I'm joined in a unique words&music presentation by the rising star pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen, who plays the Beethoven Piano Sonata in F, Op. 10 No. 2. It was a memorable day: both of us were back in the hall for the first time since lockdown and I certainly felt a little strange performing to the empty auditorium, where I've enjoyed so many unforgettable concerts in better times. I hope you enjoy hearing the readings from the early part of the book when Josephine and Therese meet Beethoven for the first time, become his pupils and hear him improvise; and Mishka's playing is out of this world.

My profound thanks to Mishka, John, my lovely publishers Unbound, and the entire Wigmore Hall team for making this possible.

Meanwhile, Immortal is now available from all good bookshops. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Hologram future?

Eugene Birman has sent me a fascinating piece about how a university research project that he initiated pre-pandemic has been reimagined for the Covid-19 era - using holograms. Is this the future? Who knows - I can hardly see more than a few days ahead at the moment and I am sure I'm not the only one - but what's certain is that it is emblematic of the creativity, originality and sheer determination with which so many people in the arts world are responding to the situation in which we find ourselves. I hope that we can take heart, build on the positives and find a way forward, possibly one that will break down boundaries in all kinds of new ways. I am not the planet's most optimistic person at the best of times, but I do have hope. Which is different. Over now to Eugene's guest post. JD


A guest post by Eugene Birman

There can never be enough ink spilled on the global catastrophe in which the performing arts finds itself at the moment. From my own vantage point in Hong Kong, where pandemic and protests have, in concert, over the past 12 months effectively cleared the entire live performance calendar, the term ‘catastrophe’ is particularly apropos because the public life in the city is essential to its functioning - with the smallest average home size in the world, the street is our living room, and the concert hall our home theatre system. Yet to focus on what we don’t have distracts from a conversation on what we could have. Today, the ink spills in the direction of some positive, practical thinking.


Eighteen months ago, back when a trip to London was about as easy as one across Hong Kong harbor, I initiated a university research project with installation artist Kingsley Ng in how arts and computer science could reflect on global climate change, a guilt-free musical discourse on the indisputable facts. We had a plan - a big data-fueled art and music installation on how we relate to air in Hong Kong, which, with no heavy industry of its own, has lost its clear skies increasingly to smog from an industrializing world. 


Theatre of Voices would sing it, we would work with groups of young people from the Hong Kong Children’s Choir - the real stakeholders of our current-day decisions - to design a text to sing that they actually wrote, and bring audiences in small groups on a narrative adventure through a lush and lavish greenhouse in the center of the city, the Forsgate Conservatory. ARIA 空氣頌would combine symbolism, star performers, and a scheduled premiere in September 2020 during the Autumn Festival, which, away from its colored lanterns, is traditionally a time to reflect on our connection to the Earth.


History, evidently, took a different course. The complete closure of the city’s external borders meant bringing Theatre of Voices to perform live would be impossible. Strict guidelines on social distancing inside enclosed spaces, the impossibility of rehearsing the children’s choir due to restrictions on assembly and closed schools, and then a third wave of infections in the latter half of July: I suppose the right idea would have been simply to postpone to some far-off date in a less dystopian future. 


But somehow we insisted on adapting to this whole thing, and with the frankly unprecedented support and encouragement of the city’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department as well as Hong Kong Baptist University, not to mention a tireless team led by curator Stephanie Cheung, the project in its pandemic-proof, but conceptually unaltered, state will go live in mid-November. 


The key, I think, was to preserve the live element. Certainly, streaming performances have allowed musicians to at least continue to exist in the public consciousness, but we do not experience them as an audience as much as we simply consume their content. Back in May, we started investigating the possibility of rendering Theatre of Voices as holograms, keeping their presence as performers in the physical space intact. 


By the end of August, we had 335GB of video and audio footage, meticulously shot in Copenhagen to Kingsley’s specifications. The Hong Kong Children’s Choir somehow learned a microtonal score over Zoom, with rehearsals beginning live only the second week of October due to relaxed gathering restrictions. And while we’re not quite sure whether a public audience will be permitted for the live event or not, should they be, they will experience the show at most 20 to a group, allowing for ideal sightlines and plenty of separation. Having the holograms allowed us to increase the live shows from three as initially planned to eight nights with perhaps two shows per night; those 335GB are working very hard for us.

It’s been sufficiently mentioned already that the new reality of travel, even if temporary, asks valid questions of whether star performers genuinely need to carve such a global (carbon) footprint. They certainly look convincing in their hologram form in the greenhouse tonight - artistically expressive, with the added adrenaline of having to learn and record an eighty-minute work in the space of a week. And in a work about the environment, it’s what we should have done all along anyway. 


Fundamentally, the decision to postpone events and cancel seasons is generally understandable, but relies on the naive idea that the world next September will be precisely like the world in 2019. What if it won’t? As social distancing grows untenable, so will streaming become insufficient and further delay, impossible. What then? The post-pandemic concert is, in fact, a puzzle for our lonely present.

Eugene Birman


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Not quite normal

Back in the Royal Festival Hall: Chineke! takes the stage

I'm astonished to realise that my schedule this past week has been a closish mirror to business as usual - without feeling remotely as if it is. It has included, among other things, a couple of interviews, but on Zoom rather than face to physical face; and two concerts to review, both with world-class performances, but in front of scant, distanced, masked-up audiences, and one evening featuring the new-look pandemic-era 21st-century orchestral layout in which every player has their own music stand. There was even a press launch to "attend" - for the centre in Vienna's new exhibition about Jan Kiepura and Martha Eggerth, with their son Marjan and his wife Jane Kiepura taking questions, but beamed in from all corners of Europe and America direct to my study in sunny Sheen. 

I was a guest on Radio 3's Music Matters the other night after the Chineke! concert, but broadcast live from a corner of the Royal Festival Hall that used to be where the receptions were held (Radio 3 is in residence at the hall for a fortnight). Instead of standing with glass in hand gazing out at the London Eye and anticipating a packed-out concert with standing ovation, we were tucked into a corner with tables, microphones and wires, trying to figure out how to get the microphone black foam 'socks' out of their packaging. I caught my 11.03pm train home, but instead of the usual scrummage of passengers sporting theatre programmes, John Lewis bags and excess alcohol-breath, there was...nobody. Nobody else at all. 

It's good that we can find ways, now and then, to keep on keeping on, but my goodness, it's weird. "Are you optimistic for the future?" asked Tom Service on Music Matters. I had to struggle for a few seconds, and then explained that I'm not a particularly optimistic person in any case, but that even if I'm not optimistic per se, I look at the quantity of creativity and invention and adaptability around us and that gives me hope. Hope is different from optimism. 

Here are a few links if you want to read some more or listen back to the broadcast:

Review of Stephen Kovacevich's 80th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall...

Review of Chineke! at the RFH with Jeneba Kanneh-Mason and more...

BBC Radio 3 Music Matters, live from the Royal Festival Hall...

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

'Immortal': the difficult stuff

I was saddened to hear the other day that the celebrated musicologist Maynard Solomon has died, aged 90. I have admired his writings for many, many years, I love his book on Mozart and have found his articles about Beethoven absolutely invaluable when working on Immortal, especially his explorations of the composer's conversation books. He sounds a fascinating person and I am only sorry that I never had the chance to meet him. Here is an excellent obituary from the New York Times.

This is a good moment to put some "difficult stuff" about Immortal briefly under the spotlight and get it, hopefully, out of the way.

Maynard Solomon's theory of the Immortal Beloved was that the woman in question was Antonie Brentano, the wife of one of Beethoven's closest friends and supporters. There were two principal reasons: first, that she was definitely in Prague on the right day in 1812; secondly, that Solomon undertook a sort of posthumous psychoanalysis of Beethoven which seemed to support this theory. His suggestion has been much approved and amplified, notably by the writer and scholar Susan Lund, who has worked on Beethoven since the 1970s and has written a novel, a play and a factual book about it. 

Josephine - 'Pepi'

The theory has also been widely contested, even objected to, the alternative being that the Immortal Beloved was Josephine Brunsvik. Chief among the scholars exploring in this direction was the late Rita Steblin, whose articles and books have been a mainstay of my own information (I was devastated to hear that she died a year ago, leaving some important research unfinished). Before that, Marie-Elisabeth Tellenbach had written a fascinating, extremely detailed book on the Josephine theory and the zealous John Klapproth translated into English some crucial early texts on the subject, including La Mara (1920s) who had published some of Therese's memoirs. Some of these writers entered into spirited and occasionally angry exchanges with Solomon on the Josephine v Antonie topic. 

But if you saw the BBC's Being Beethoven series recently, you will have noticed (or you might not - it went by very fast and in almost sheepish tone) that one of the Viennese academics acknowledges, after much "we don't know who she really was", that they do now think there is a 90 per cent likelihood that the Immortal Beloved was Josephine. Ninety per cent is not a small figure. The doubt remains because the traces of this affair were extremely well concealed at the time. It's impossible to prove the final ten per cent without digging up Beethoven and the person - or indeed more than one person - who may have been his illegitimate child and doing a DNA test. I doubt that is going to happen any time soon. 

The fascinating thing about either theory, Antonie or Josephine, is that both present Beethoven with a possible "love child" at the crucial moment. Antonie's youngest son was born about three weeks before Josephine's daughter in spring 1813. So whichever of these infants was the one to whom he could never be a father, the likely outcome - his obsession with adopting his nephew - still applies and makes sense.

It's true, too, that we don't know for certain, and that last 10 per cent of doubt is why I have tackled Immortal in the way I have: a fictional first-person narrative from a not necessarily reliable observer, leaving a little room for a question mark around the potential of Antonie. I'm not a zealot about this (I've died on a few hills before and this isn't going to be another, especially not when we are facing the biggest crisis to hit the world in my whole lifetime...). I do know that the Josephine theory looks, walks and quacks like a duck; the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn favours her as the likely solution; and I can't deny that I am not wholly in favour of psychoanalysing someone who is not present to speak for himself, though I find the nephew explanation perfectly plausible. 

Antonie Brentano

Let's cut to the chase: the problem with the Josephine v Antonie dilemma is that it is not really about Josephine and Antonie, or not any more. It is about today's factions. The fact is that if the Immortal Beloved was Josephine, it means Solomon's solution is not correct, which would be a painful admission for his disciples and admirers. Moreover, on Josephine's side it's unfortunate that Klapproth - who died several years ago - entered into some startlingly belligerent and rather wild-toned arguments about it, even with scholars of the calibre of Jan Swafford (whose book stays sensibly neutral on the issue, though seems unusually in favour of Bettina Brentano). It's not impossible that Klapproth harmed his own cause through sheer obsessiveness; moreover, his translations are not of the quality one could wish for, but their existence may perhaps have prevented others from producing more lucid ones. 

Rita Steblin's clear, rational, scholarly writings have clarified much, however; she confirmed that Josephine expressed a wish to consult someone in Prague at the right time, and furthermore revealed that as late as 1818 Therese was mooting to her sister a possibility that they could consider going to London with Beethoven (see her article in The Musical Times, summer 2019). Steblin's involvement was key to the turnaround. There are probably power struggles rumbling away beneath the entire situation, and it's quite likely that they could involve the reverence sometimes accorded to senior male scholars, the propensity back in the 20th century for squishing away the women who see things differently...and much more besides.

This is a topic that can get under your skin. I'm not surprised it provokes obsession - and some of the texts in existence are almost terrifying in this respect. That was one reason that I hesitated for several years before plunging into writing Immortal. It is dangerous, disturbing and disruptive. 

But it's also a fantastic story, strong and important enough to become known beyond academia, especially as it potentially casts fresh light on some of Beethoven's music. I've found that it's better recognised in Germany and, indeed, Hungary (the Brunsviks were Hungarian) than it is in English-speaking countries. Few writers of my outlook would be able to resist it, we are. 

Immortal is a novel because it couldn't be anything else. It travels from the spheres of Jane Austen at the beginning towards the emotions of Tristan and Isolde at the end. If you like it, great; if not, a pity; either way, it is not intended as a definitive statement on the ultimate truth. I'll leave that to academia and, possibly, the DNA lab. Meanwhile I heartily recommend that readers should also explore the writings of Solomon and Lund, weigh up the theories and decide for themselves. In the end, that's all we can actually do. 

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Letting Music Live

Where? Parliament Square, London; Centenary Square, Birmingham. When? Tuesday 6 October, 12 noon. 

Time to show parliament what's what in the music world, which is in graver peril than ever before. Under the auspices of a new banner, Let Music Live, convened by violinist Jessie Murphy, 400 professionals - chiefly freelancers, as most are - will be setting out to show that music is still alive and ready to work...

The arts culture sector contributes enormous amounts to the UK economy every year, but has yet to receive anything more than a kick in the teeth from the government. Despite that promise of £1.57bn of help, months later not much actual money has yet been distributed to the people who need it - if any. And that's the ones who do "qualify". Even performers who are household names in the musical and theatrical worlds have had no work or income since March and still fall through the "safety net", such as it is, "qualifying" for no support whatever. 

Please note that due to social distancing restrictions numbers are strictly controlled. Anyone who wants to attend Parliament Square must please contact the organisers first at

400 freelance professional musicians from all parts of the industry will be joined in support by leading musical figures including David HillRaphael WallfischEmma Johnson and Tasmin Little, to perform in Parliament Square and Centenary Square, Birmingham, shining a light on the need for targeted support for freelance musicians and all those who work in the arts and entertainment sector. They are also joined in solidarity by the Musicians' UnionThe Musicians' Answering ServiceEmily Eavis and more.
Conducted by renowned director David Hill in Parliament Square, the freelance musicians will perform a short section of 'Mars' from Holst's The Planets before standing in silence for two minutes. The 20% of the piece that they will perform represents the maximum 20% support that freelancers receive from the government through the SEISS grant. The two-minute silence represents the 45% of musicians currently not covered by the SEISS grant (MU). The event will be Covid-safe, adhering strictly to social distancing regulations, facilitated by support from #WeMakeEvents.

The arts and culture industry contributes £10.8 billion a year directly to the UK economy (ONS), with growth in creative industries previously running at five times that of the rest of the economy. With effective short-term support, freelance musicians will continue to make a positive impact.
For every £1 directly spent on music and events, an extra £2 is generated in the wider economy (ACE), powering a network of businesses across the country. Supporting freelance musicians means supporting the wider economy.

Let Music Live calls on the Government:

  • to recognise that freelance musicians are an economic asset. It is essential they invest in freelancers so that they can continue to support the intricate network of businesses that rely on arts and events for their footfall.
  • for sector-specific support to reopen, including a subsidised concert ticket scheme while social distancing restrictions remain, and Government-backed insurance for live events and theatre performances.
  • for targeted support for those skilled workforces forced to remain closed by Covid restrictions, so that freelance musicians are still there to bring music to everyone when this is over.