Showing posts with label Immortal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Immortal. Show all posts

Friday, April 03, 2020

Off the wall in 10,000 steps

It's Friday, apparently - not that I'd have guessed. The days are measured out in porridge, coffee, soup, tea and job-lots of 10,000 steps and by 9.30pm I am knackered and ready for a good long sleep. How do I normally manage, out at 3 or so performances a week, back at 11pm or later, navigating busy trains and the throngs of central London?

The 10,000 steps is Tom's insistence (I'd be quite content sitting at my desk checking the book edits all day). Generally, I can't keep up. He is loving his time off with a passion. He does yoga, practises the violin all morning, goes to Waitrose a couple of times a week, puts on the washing, sometimes goes running or demands a good long walk in the park, and has been doing most of the cooking while I'm trapped in 1812 tussling with Luigi and Josephine. I've always known he has more energy than I do, and now I'm glad and grateful that someone has the oomph to mow the lawn.


And so to Immortal... The editing is going pretty well. The big issues are coming out in the wash, so to speak, and I am ever more impressed with the job that the doughty structural editor has done on my 135000 words: where she has made big cuts, I first of all stare with dismay, but then read the new version and think "ah, riiiight..." - because she has found ways of allowing certain things to speak for themselves, instead of being spelled out, which is something I should know but can't always spot from up close. Josephine's first husband's waxworks museum is a case in point. The book is haunted by his ghoulish image of King Ferdinand IV of Naples. The glass eyes of ETA Hoffmann's Dr Coppelius are never far away. But you will need to go and read Hoffmann to learn more about this.

I am continuing with daily (almost) readings from Ghost Variations as my personal Jessanory on my new Youtube channel. Each day I upload 13-17 mins of it around 5pm. The filming is done with PhotoBooth on my computer and it is pretty amateurish, not least because I can't be bothered getting glammed up and the cats may wander in in the background at any moment. Meanwhile, my evening reading is Anthony Trollope's The Warden, which is such a laser-sharp picture of small-town politics and fat-headed journalism that it could almost have been written this century. So with this mental mix, tempered by high anxiety, last night I had a nightmare: I had been filmed for a TV interview with Lang Lang and some other pundit and something went awfully wrong and the video of me was so terrible that some newspaper website ran it whole as a shaming exercise. I woke up shaking and relieved to discover that all I really have to deal with is a global pandemic. I might need to avoid Lang Lang's recordings for a few days.

And so we plough on. I have a few things to write and some of the concerts we had planned for this year are now going to take place next year instead (touchwood). All is not lost. It is still springtime and this weekend is going to be sunny. Enjoy it, and stay safe.
x

Friday, March 27, 2020

Springtime for Ludwig?



Under normal circumstances (whatever "normal" means any more), I'd have to pinch myself to make sure all this is real.

It's springtime. All week there hasn't been a cloud in the sky in which one could seek a silver lining. The magnolias are out and each day on my government-approved-exercise-walk I notice the new leaves have advanced another few bright millimetres. The cats are busy catting, aware only that it's sunny and warmish and they have licence to bounce.

'Immortal' has come back from the structural editor. It is 10,000 words shorter, though I am going to want a few of those back. The editor is the same person who worked on 'Ghost Variations', and she did a splendid job with that one, so I totally trust her. I now have 3 weeks to put right 125,000 words and check a number of historical queries - but all the libraries are shut, so that is going to be interesting. The thing is, all my programme notes, spring/summer concerts and travel plans have gone up in smoke, so I have that weird thing called time to work on the book.

And along with the time I have peace. There are no planes. The nursery school over the fence is shut too, and I no longer have to slam my window against the squealing and squalling of its playtime (yes, I am a nasty person sometimes - tough).

There is no traffic on the South Circular. We can actually breathe. It's wonderful.

Meanwhile as of yesterday I think I may qualify for government support, for the first time in my life. OK, I haven't read the small print yet, but I've been making an average living from self-employment since 1993, and any work I have that is related to live performance has gone. Which is a lot of it.

My husband is at home, being incredibly positive and good company, and willing to do a lot of cooking.

I don't have to go into central London and deal with crowds. I don't have to fight my way upstream at Waterloo Station in the rush hour. I hate that so much that it gives me dizzy spells. I don't miss it.

For years I've been grumbling that there are no arts on TV any more. Now suddenly the BBC is going to start broadcasting the Royal Shakespeare Company. And 'Fidelio' from Covent Garden, and the 'Metamorphosis' ballet starring Edward Watson and a whole heap more. On the internet the National Theatre and the OperaVision channel and the Met and the Berlin Philharmonic and the LSO and even the LPO are busy streaming all kinds of archive material at the touch of a button.

I've learned how to make a video, if in a rudimentary manner. Log on to my Youtube channel each day at 5pm for another episode of 'Jessanory' - I'm serialising 'Ghost Variations', because why not.

They renationalised the railways. They did. I can't help laughing (see 'Hungarian Dances' for why).

I'm not eating junk food, because I can't just nip into Waitrose and buy gf chocolate muffins or whatever (they have implemented a deeply civilised queuing system, but you should only go there if you absolutely have to). I am taking care to get enough exercise, so reaching 10,000 steps per day when I usually, totally, don't. And I am so anxious that the weight is dropping off me in any case. So I'm getting in shape quite by accident.

Frankly, it's beyond my wildest dreams.

There is only one snag. We are all effectively under house arrest because any of us may catch the illness. We may die at any time.

And that is so frightening that we are taking care to appreciate each and every day as if it could be our last.

Take care, dear all, and please stay home. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

In Portrait: Beethoven, from dignity to madness...

If you are already a subscriber to IMMORTAL, you'll have received this in your in-box. Still, it seems to have gone over quite well, so I am reproducing it for those who haven't got it yet. There's still time to sign up as a patron of the book, here [ahem]. Thanks! x



If you're not yet familiar with the website of the Beethovenhaus Bonn, do please take a look at it. This museum and research centre at the composer's birthplace is the world centre for work on him, and their digital library is a treasure trove, available to view wherever you may be. During the writing of IMMORTAL I have spent innumerable hours online, browsing their collection of letters, images and more. Today I'd like to draw your attention to the section on portraits of Beethoven - and the contrast between those created while he was alive, and others imagined after his death. (Above: a caricature of Beethoven drawn by Anne Marie Steen Petersen, from a BRF record sleeve, viewable in the Beethovenhaus online collection.)
Look at the paintings and etchings of Beethoven as a young man from 1801 to 1806, even as a middle-aged-ish one around 1814. He looks...I don't want to say "normal", because you can detect in these images a certain bearing in his posture, a strength of character in his eyes, a person with what we'd possibly term "attitude". But certainly more "normal" than, say, the drawing above.
Was this man arrogant, aware of his own gifts, more intelligent, focused, hardworking and hot-tempered than most of those who came within his daily orbit? Perhaps: but he was, as an individual, quite believable. Then look what happens later. In the famous portrait in which he holds the manuscript of the Missa Solemnis, the cheekbones are elegant, but the scowl is strengthening; a drawing of him full-length shows him stocky and short-legged, almost a caricature. These pictures were all created before his death in 1827.
Now turn to the next section: depictions after 1827. At first they are honest, scowly, but with that distinguished bearing of confidence and assurance - an inner dignity despite all. Then they begin to change. They become more scowly still, and less controlled. The eyes seem to pop or to lower out from under heavy, gloomy brows; the stance has lost its uprightness. The attitudes begin to be wild. The artists seem to think they are depicting someone eccentric, even ghoulish. Some look downright mad.
They are, perhaps, showing Beethoven as people started to think of him as the years went by and whispers were transforming the composer posthumously from strong yet troubled soul to profound nutcase. Everything becomes exaggerated, Gothic, fit for legend, but little else. It makes headlines and encourages gossip if Beethoven is considered crazy or violent. Posterity had begun to strip him of his dignity and intellectual strength - qualities that simply shine out of those early, actual portraits.
I've seen descriptions of him as "physically ugly" time and again. But those Young Beethoven images - why? Physically ugly? No: he is strong, characterful and full of charisma. Besides, the attraction of a male musical star has never depended upon classic good looks (I've not noticed Hollywood-style matinée idols among the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or any recent pop singers, for instance...). Just because he was short and dark, that is no reason that Josephine or Julie or any other female would have failed to be magnetised by him.
Researching the 19th-century opera singer Pauline Viardot for a words&music project some years ago, I was struck by exactly the same thing: writers kept on describing her as ugly. Even today, some articles still have to harp on the idea that she was ugly. But did that matter to the writer Ivan Turgenev, who was passionately in love with her for most of his adult life? Did it hell. It is commentators, not the people themselves, who appear to believe that only a physical beauty that matches classic preconceptions (ie, tall, slender, smiley and probably blonde) can account for attraction; and some have even been known to argue that an appearance considered less than perfect must discount certain candidates from probability when we look back at their relationships. 
The passage of the years builds up layer upon layer of false "tradition", sensationalised impressions, a distortion of reality. You can sometimes hear it in music too: take the way that the historically informed performance movement has stripped away layers of false tradition in Beethoven, whose symphonies, for instance, had somehow grown heavier and slower and more and more portentous until the mid 20th century. By the 1970s, enough was enough and a whole generation of musical researchers set about returning to original sources, intending to divine the truth of the composer's intentions and the way instruments would have been played in his day. The effects were transformative and have changed, probably forever, the way we listen to his music. 
Yet now, decades on, this approach too is building up its own layers of false tradition and imposing certain mannerisms for reasons that are never adequately explained. For example, one sometimes encounters performances in which phrases that drive forward suddenly fade out towards their end. Why? I've never seen any justification for it, in any score or treatise. Just as playing slowly and portentously used to be, mannerisms of this type are now handed down from generation to generation... Musicologists of the 2050s are going to have some fun unravelling it all.  
Anyway - I shall shut up about that now and get back to work. The book is now in the hands of its editor and I am expecting to see the results from her in about a month's time. This is nerve-wracking. I know it's too long. I also know that whatever you are expecting from it, you will probably find it is something different and I hope you're not too startled.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Happy Valentine's Day, Ludwig...

For Valentine's Day in #Beethoven250 year I've written a chunky piece about the Immortal Beloved for Universal's Udiscovermusic classical section. Here's a sample...

Beethoven at the Piano - painting by Julius Schmidt

After Ludwig van Beethoven’s death on 26 March 1827, his sometime secretary Anton Schindler and two close friends combed through the composer’s last apartment, hunting for some bank bonds he had bequeathed to his nephew. They found more than they had bargained for. In a small drawer, they discovered the Heiligenstadt Testament, in which Beethoven had described his devastating battle with deafness in 1802; and with it, an apparently unsent love letter, addressed only to a woman he terms his ‘Immortal Beloved’...

...So well did Beethoven protect the identity of his Immortal Beloved that musicologists spent around 200 years trying to find out who she was. It is still disputed today.

Something else vital was missing from the letter: a date. Beethoven wrote on it only ‘July 6’. No year. Through matching days of the week with the date, possible years were narrowed down to a shortlist and watermark identification finally settled upon 1812. From that flowed several possibilities...
Antonie Brentano? Julie ("Giulietta") Guicciardi? Bettina Brentano? Therese Brunsvik von Korompa? Or her sister Josephine?

RTR here: https://www.udiscovermusic.com/classical-features/beethoven-immortal-beloved/


Immortal, meanwhile, is with editorial, so I'm biting my nails a bit; not many people have read it and I am too close to it to have much sense of how it will really go over. Happily, I now know it is to have the same editor as Ghost Variations, who was fantastic, and I'm looking forward to polishing it up into final form in the months ahead. (More details about it here...)

Friday, December 13, 2019

The real battle: truth versus entertainment

It's the morning after the night before. Happy Friday 13th, everyone. What sort of a place will the UK be three years from now? How the blazes did we get here? (And can Beethoven help?) Above: I'm glad to see his study was even messier than mine.
These concerns do have elements in common with IMMORTAL, which is why I'm devoting this week's Friday update to them (dear JDCMB readers, this post is also going out to the subscribers to my book, as I am too knackered to write more than one blogpost this morning.)
One thing that Donald Trump and Boris Johnson share is that both have been on TV shows - Trump as centre of the US's The Apprentice, Johnson as satirical news quiz host on Have I Got News for You. People are used to being entertained by them. (And they are both blond. People seem to like blonds.) 
It's a peculiar quirk of human nature to prefer the utterly monstrous to the vaguely meh, and to value the entertainment value of the former over the latter's earnest, well-meaning anxieties. The question is: what constitutes entertainment?
Once upon a time, back in the frivolous Noughties when music features in national newspapers could be 1200 words long and might be actually read, I had a little flirtation with a rising trend of the time: contrarianism. Having heard Handel's Messiah once too often, I penned a semi-satirical piece about how irritating da capo arias are and how we revere Handel just because he lived in England, when actually Bach was a whole heap better. This caused such a rumpus that I ended up being roasted over an open flame by Sarah Montague on Radio 4's Today programme. Which kind of proved the point I was trying to make, of course...but the thing is, it should never have been taken seriously. It simply made a splash by being controversial and therefore entertaining. It got attention. And I didn't much like it.
There's been a lot of attention-grabbing contrarianism around us in the decade since. In a world where people want fast-food soundbites instead of meaty material for real-life consideration, a one-second thumbs-up rather than a speech about the fact that the UK is heading for 40% child poverty due to Tory policies, the wrong things get noticed. Entertainment should have no place in politics, but it's a bit late for that now.
Truth versus entertainment is, naturally, a problem in historical fiction. Part of the unwritten contract between novelist and reader is that we have to remember that you want to be entertained. If we did not want to entertain, we would write the sort of musicological tracts that I have often ploughed through in the past year or two for the sake of this book. The dessicated text sometimes needs to be decoded with a musical Enigma machine, and ultimately communicates little to our life experience unless we are music faculty PhD students. I can't even use them for programme notes these days. That writing of course has its place - which is not here.
So - yes - entertainment is required for a novel, even if it is about music. Does that mean not letting the truth stand in the way of a good story? 
Here the waters become still muddier, because around the Immortal Beloved, nobody can say with 100 per cent accuracy that they know what the truth is. That's probably because Beethoven on the one hand and the woman's family on the other did an extremely good job of concealing it. This provides some justification for telling her story as fiction - because essentially, barring a remarkable discovery in someone's attic, it always will be.
As for Beethoven, he too has fallen victim to the entertainment of disinformation: it has always been more popular to think of him as a furious grouch than to look at the many facets of his actual personality. I've found him to be a misunderstood, principled individual whose isolation was the result of his debilitating deafness and the fact that he was always an outsider in Vienna. He was kind and generous; his friends were devoted to him; women and young people loved him, and he loved them. Yes, he had one heck of a temper, bore lifelong grudges and drank too much. I can't say I blame him. 
So... there are two contracts to fulfil in IMMORTAL: one with the requirements of a story based on fact, the other with readers wishing for entertainment. This is why I've written, for once, in the first person. I am, dear reader, your classic unreliable narrator. And I have some remarkable stories to tell you... 
A quick PS re the Handel grilling. I feel a teensy bit vindicated. Recently BBC Music Magazine ran a feature in which around 100 contemporary composers ranked the composers through history who have influenced them the most, and the staff then crunched the numbers into a top 50. Bach was number 1. Handel was...not there at all. Brahms was high on the list. Bruckner was...absent. And Beethoven was, if I remember correctly, number 3. 
If you've enjoyed this post, there's still time to get your name into IMMORTAL as a patron: simply visit the book's page at Unbound and click on the pledge level you want to set it in motion.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Beethoven 250 kicks off in Bonn



It's never too early to start an anniversary celebration the size of Beethoven's 250th, and today at the Beethovenhaus in Bonn (which the best composer museum in the whole world, incidentally) the Universal Classics labels launched their plans for the occasion.

There's plenty to look forward to, including a new set of the symphonies performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Andris Nelsons, and a new Complete Edition involving 188 CDs, plus three Blu-ray Audio and two DVDs. A carnival of famous musical faces are on board, extending to some world premieres of works inspired by the Diabelli Variations are in the offing. Recordings old (Böhm, Kleiber, Bernstein etc) and new (Pollini, Ólafsson, Goerne) are all scrubbed up and ready to go.

The partnership with the Beethovenhaus looks inspiring, too. The museum has been closed for refurbishing - an enthusiastic plan of mine to go there a couple of weeks ago expired when I checked the website - but the newly anniversary-ready exhibition is to open on 14 September.

Meanwhile, I'm happy that for my Beethoven novel-in-the-works, Immortal, Universal has kindly donated two sets of four classic recordings each from the Decca and DG labels as pledge rewards for the crowdfunding campaign at Unbound. The first bundle has already been snapped up! One set still remains, though, and includes recordings by the Takács Quartet, Maurizio Pollini and the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm and Carlos Kleiber. And of course you get a signed copy of the book too. Find more about it here (scroll down the pledge levels to find it).

One thing is certain in these uncertain days: we are going to be hearing a heck of a lot of Beethoven between now and the end of next year: his actual 250th anniversary falls in December 2020. I'm sure there will be the usual complaints and sighs and sniping about anniversary overkill, but this time I really don't care. Beethoven is the best of the lot and we need his indomitable strength more than ever. Bring him on!


Tuesday, July 30, 2019

IMMORTAL: my new Beethoven novel, coming soon...





Dear friends and supporters,
If you enjoyed the historical musical mystery of Ghost Variations, you'll love - I hope - my new book currently in the works.
For the past few years I've been reading obsessively about Ludwig van Beethoven's 'Immortal Beloved' - the unnamed addressee of an impassioned love letter that he wrote in July 1812. Supposedly nobody knows exactly who she was, though there have been many theories. Yet when you start looking, you find things... 
Was this woman's identity anything but immortal? Was she deliberately wiped from history by a family terrified of scandal? Was her tragedy - and Beethoven's - perhaps even greater than we thought? I believe so.
While obscure biographies and some terrible translations lurk on dusty shelves, I wanted to present this book as a novel for its roller-coaster emotions, its vivid characters, its you-couldn't-make-it-up plot - and the mulifarious possibilities offered by an unreliable narrator.
The music is ever-present, the piano sonatas most of all: for that is how the majority of Beethoven's admirers would have known him best, through playing his works at the piano, orchestral performances being relatively rare events. The piano sonatas contain, too, some crucial clues - though you'll have to read the book to find out what they are.
I have returned to Unbound for several reasons: first, a publisher in the hand is worth ten in the Writers and Artists Yearbook, especially when there's a topical anniversary to catch, just 23 months away. Secondly, they have done a brilliant job on 'Ghost Variations' and 'Odette' and I trust them completely. And finally - it's fun! I've cooked up a range of rewards at different levels to tempt you in, starting at just £10 for the e-book and a thank-you in the patrons list. But above that you can order an early-bird discount paperback, or two, or five; come with us to hear Vladimir Jurowski conduct the Symphony No.1 at the Royal Festival Hall; attend the launch party (we love launch parties!); sponsor a character and receive a special thank-you on a separate page; or simply make a donation of any amount you like to help turn this project into reality. More rewards are on the way, too, so watch for updates.
On the IMMORTAL page you will find a synopsis, an extract from the book, the complete pledge list, and a video in which I introduce the project and, er, attempt to play Op.111. 
I do hope you will wish to become part of the IMMORTAL family. Your moral support will be crucial as I plough on with the writing. And knowing that you're waiting eagerly for the results is the best spur of them all.
Thank you so much - and here's the link. https://unbound.com/books/immortal/
Love and best wishes,
Jessica