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

Monday, November 23, 2020

Here in our haven...


It's been a hectic few weeks and a bout of tonsillitis didn't help. So from the tranquility of a plane-less Monday morning, in company with a snoring cat and a violinist practising Paganini downstairs, here's a quick update and some links for a catch-up.

First of all, because of a sudden, belated and unexpected lockdown (thanks, Boris...) everyone's carefully laid plans for distancing audiences at concerts went up in smoke and everything for November got cancelled. There's been a scramble to rethink, reimagine and reschedule. The Up Close and Musical festival at the Fidelio Orchestra Cafe has been moved to May, my 'Immortal' concert with Piers Lane for the Barnes Music Society has been rescheduled for 16 January, and the Nordern Farm performance has unfortunately had to bite the dust. There are a few other dates in the diary for June, but let's cross that bridge when we come to it.

One of the events that I was most sorry to lose this year was the staging of the youth opera The Selfish Giant by the composer John Barber, for which I did the libretto. It was meant to happen in July. Now we are hoping that it will be able to enjoy a performance in some way, shape or form next summer instead. Like The Happy Princess with composer Paul Fincham in 2019, it's a commission from Garsington for their youth companies, and this time it is also a co-commission from Opera North. The story is a transformation of an Oscar Wilde fairytale. It is all about the beauty of nature, how much we need it, how much we need to be at one with it, and how completely stupid it is to build walls between different peoples and different generations. We need to work with nature and with each other to build a better world - because one day we will leave it, and then what is our legacy?

"Here in the garden, our haven, here in the garden, our heaven; here we can be who we're meant to be, where we find ourselves and are free..." When we wrote the piece we had no idea that this year the beauty of nature would become what would sustain our young performers who were indeed cut off from their friends, their schools, their rehearsals and their joy in singing together. They made a film about it, using some songs from the opera. It's called Our Haven and Garsington released it on Friday for National Children's Day. Here it is: https://youtu.be/jJK1Rc1DdFU

Meanwhile, the Zoom launch for 'Immortal' went off with much more zing than I'd thought possible. We had more than 50 attendees from all over the world, which was astounding, and the support of Joanna Pieters, who presented and interviewed, Simon Hewitt Jones, who produced, and Mishka Rushdie Momen, who played, was absolutely incredible. Although I was alone in the study, and Ricki slept in a chair behind me all the way through, I felt as if we'd had a real party. If you didn't see if and you'd like to, the whole thing is now on Youtube, here.

Soon afterwards, I found myself roped into a reimagining of an event for the wonderful Wimbledon International Music Festival, a favourite calendar highlight of mine here in south-west London. Normally the inimitable Anthony Wilkinson brings world-class music to live stages on his own doorstep, but of course this time everything had to be moved online and replanned for the format. You can see the lot for a small fee at their website - and yes, one should have to pay to watch music online, because making these things costs and otherwise there soon won't be any. The festival includes some amazing concerts such as a cello and piano recital of Beethoven by Raphael Wallfisch and John York, a typically thoughtful and eclectic programme from pianist Clare Hammond and a star highlight filmed at Wigmore Hall with Paul Lewis performing the Beethoven Diabelli Variations. If you think there's a Beethoven theme, you're right; the event into which I was parachuted was a discussion with pianist Piers Lane, actor/director/writer Tama Matheson and festival director Anthony Wilkinson exploring the magic of Beethoven and, beyond that, what the arts really mean to us, why we need them and where we go from here. All details here.

Next, a call from The Sunday Times. There's a new biography of Mozart just out, by the splendid Jan Swafford, the musicologist and composer who seemed to capture the nation's hearts when he appeared in the BBC series Being Beethoven. This latest book is 800 pages long, which I didn't completely realise until after I'd agreed to review it, but it is such a lovely read that I felt a bit bereft when I'd finished. The review was in yesterday's paper and is online (£) here.

Yesterday, too, I was on Talk Radio rabbiting about Beethoven and 'Immortal'. There's been an enthusiastic blog tour of book site reviews, and we're waiting with slightly nibbled nails for further reviews to appear in print. In general, though, I would advise any budding novelists to check in advance that their release date does not coincide with a very important American presidential election, because firstly nobody will have eyes for much else, and secondly nothing that you write will ever be able to match up to the bizarre reality unfolding in front of our eyes there.

As the divine Joni Mitchell sings, "something's lost and something's won, in living every day... I really don't know life at all."

Let's keep on keeping on, and remember the beauty in the garden. 

To which end, I've just ordered 80 daffodil bulbs. 

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Zoom launch event for 'Immortal' on Tuesday

"O friends, not those tones!" That particular dog has had its day: soon a new day will dawn. Congratulations to our friends over the Pond for electing President Biden and Vice-President Harris! I've been out in the park this morning and everyone is smiling, despite lockdown. America's big moment can bring hope to us all: change is possible. 

Meanwhile...


Immortal - Jessica Duchen Book Launch

All the book events I had lined up for November have had to be cancelled/postponed due to the new lockdown (details in the sidebar, which I'll update as necessary). So we're having an online celebration instead. It's on Tuesday 10 November at 6pm UK time for round about an hour, and there'll be an interview, a reading, Q&A and hopefully even some music. If you'd like to join in, please register here to receive an email containing the Zoom link, and then just show up in cyberspace with a glass of something or a cuppa or whatever. We will do our best to make it as festive as possible! Hope to see you there.



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 (pictured left), 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!



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, so...here 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. 


Friday, September 11, 2020

Nights in the garden of panic

(A shared post with 'Immortal' at Unbound.)
If you're a subscriber to 'Immortal', which is due out on 29 October, you should by now have received a message from Unbound announcing that the book has gone to press. So there we are: done, dusted and ready to rock. People have been asking how I feel, expecting "great", "thrilled", "proud" and "let's PARTAAY...except we can't..." . 

 The reality is that I'm scared witless. 

 I'm sure I'm not the only person who, throughout this hideous year, hasn't been enjoying the dark. I've woken in the small hours almost every night in a state of anxiety that does violence to my mind, heart and physical state. 

Sometimes it's about the cat throwing up: is it really just hairballs? Next up, so to speak, the collapse of the arts: 64 per cent of the UK's musicians are thinking of leaving the profession, according to the ISM. If you've lived half a century fuelled, inspired and/or paid by music and theatre, the prospects are bleak. Then the knock-on effects: where will we all be in a year's time? Will we even be alive to witness the wreck our country will become if there's a no-deal Brexit? Oftener than not, I'm feeling as if I'm on the Titanic yelling about the iceberg ahead, and everyone's shrugging and saying "but it's not in anyone's interests to hit an iceberg...". 

 But that's not what's waking me in the nocturnal garden of panic. It's something worse: THE BOOK. Have I overwritten? Have I left out something crucial? Have I interpreted x, y or z right? Are people in the right place at the right time doing the right thing? Have I thanked all the right people, and what will they say if I haven't? If not, tough: it's too late. I find comforting words to talk myself down: the book is long because it starts in the 1790s, ends in 1828, and is written from Therese's perspective in 1759, so there is a lot to fit in - and I have actually cut 21,000 words. 

It could easily have been double the length. Gigantic 19th-century novels were fine in the 19th century, but no longer. I excised a whole chapter exploring notions of romanticism and it pretty much broke my heart; but then, I never finished reading Les Misérables because Hugo takes us into a labyrinth of a section set in a nunnery, which goes on and on, and I failed to find my way out. If only someone had said, "Look, Victor, about that nunnery..." 

As for people being in the right place at the right time: sometimes they're not, because if Therese is observing her sister, she has to be there with her. Therefore at some moments I've put her in Vienna although she was, in reality, in Budapest. I am upfront about this in the "author's note". Is there still such a thing as "artistic licence"? 

 I can justify all these questions and alarms all I like, but I still wake up panicking. A Facebook post asking how people deal with anxiety attacks produced such a welter of responses that it's clear innumerable others feel exactly the same way. If you do: my sympathies and solidarity. 

I still don't know which, if any, of our autumn narrated concerts will go ahead - sadly, Oxford at the Holywell Music Room has been cancelled, or at least postponed. I don't know when we can have our launch party or give one special benefactor his private concert. I don't know if the book will be welcomed and praised, or if it and I will be torn limb from spine. You may like it. You may loathe it. It's up to you; either way, there's nothing more I can do about it now. 

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support, your kindness and your enthusiasm for the idea of IMMORTAL. I hope the reality will live up to it. 

 Please excuse me while I go and pop another Kalms.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

BEETHOVEN MATTERS


On Tuesday 26 May 6pm, I'm "Dimblebying" for an online discussion about Beethoven, jointly hosted by the Royal Philharmonic Society and Garsington Opera. Originally this was going to happen live and in person, to trail Garsington's Fidelio, which of course is now a distant dream. But the clever people behind both organisations realised that actually we don't have to go anywhere at all: we can broadcast direct from our own homes, together, and reach viewers all over the globe. The mind is boggling and the Beethoven is flowing: this is the music of hope.

My panel will consist of:

Toby Spence - tenor (he was going to sing Florestan at Garsington)
David Owen Norris - pianist and academic extraordinaire
Freya Waley-Cohen - composer, much inspired by Beethoven's Grosse Fuge
Dougie Boyd - conductor and artistic director of Garsington Opera

You can watch the event live, here on Youtube, or here on Facebook, and RPS members will be able to see it thereafter on the RPS website's designated Members' Area (more details on how to find this and sign up for membership here.) We'll be taking questions from whatever the cyber-equivalent of "the floor" is, at the end, so you can post yours in the comments boxes on either viewing site on the night.

Please join us - from the comfort of wherever you happen to be, anywhere in the world!

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