Showing posts with label Ludwig van Beethoven. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ludwig van Beethoven. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Is Beethoven actually trying to kill me?

I spent last week in Vienna, on the Beethoven trail for my new book, IMMORTAL; what follows is my Letter from Vienna for the Unbound 'shed', which is emailed to all the book's supporters. It's both substantial and quite interesting (I think), so I wanted to bring it to you here too. Delighted to say that the funding is all in place, but if you would like to be part of the IMMORTAL family, be thanked in print, pre-order your copy and receive regular updates on progress, you still can, here.



I came home from Vienna on Friday evening sick as the proverbial dog and barking like one. I was already unwell when I set off the previous Sunday; charging around the city, trying to see everything, walking about 7 miles a day during a nasty cold snap, did me so little good that I wondered if Beethoven is trying to kill me. 
Nevertheless, it was worth every second, because this trip will radically transform the atmosphere of IMMORTAL. Seeing what's available of the pleasant yet very plain apartments that the composer lived in, then visiting the former residences of his princely patrons in a grand city centre where palace piles up next to baroque palace, hammers home the desperately divided nature of that society. Among his chief supporters, Prince Kinsky's extravaganza is phenomenally OTT; Prince Lobkowitz's odd corner block is rather more tasteful (it is now the Theatre Museum, which is handy); and those are just two examples, neither of them the most extreme. 
The fascinating thing about research trips is that what you learn is never quite what you were looking for. One of my most startling impressions was that for tourism purposes, Beethoven is nowhere to be heard (seen, yes; heard, no.) Wherever you find a touristy concert in a church or palace, they are playing... Mozart. Occasionally Haydn, sometimes even Schubert. But Beethoven? Dearie dear - you have to go to the Musikverein or the Konzerthaus to listen to his music. You won't stumble upon it in the street. Nobody touting for tourists' business near the Hofburg is going to say to you "Psst, wanna hear some Beethoven?"
So is he too difficult? Too demanding? Too German? Too...foreign? Beethoven was indeed a foreigner in Vienna. He was an immigrant; he arrived as a student and never went back to Bonn. If not exactly a refugee, he was certainly reluctant to go home after Napoleon invaded the Rhineland (even though Napoleon was his hero for a while). The Brunswick sisters were similarly outsiders. Vienna would have been as foreign to them, from Hungary, as it was to Beethoven. 
Much is intact; much is not. Beethoven's longest place of residence, the Pasqualati House, is high on a hillock beside what used to be the city walls; he would have gazed out over the Glacis and the Prater towards the Vienna Woods from the top floor flat. Today you see only Vienna University, constructed directly opposite some decades later. Josephine's house, the Palais that her first husband built and where she lived on and off for the rest of her life, is long gone, demolished in the late 19th century. On its site you can now find a McDonald's.
But if you walk through the back streets, you come across lanes little changed since the 18th century; straight, well-proportioned channels lined with elegant buildings and occasionally opening onto a cobbled square beside an ancient church. In one such location you discover what used to be the university, run by the Jesuits in Beethoven's time; today it is the Austrian Academy of Sciences. "Beethoven? Oh, you'll want the first floor," says a remarkably relaxed gatekeeper. "It's open, just go in." And there, in what's now a ballroom and lecture theatre, equipped with state of the art AV equipment, is the room in which Beethoven premiered his Symphony No.7 - and in which a gala performance of The Creation was held in the presence of the elderly Haydn himself. There Beethoven broke through the crowds to kneel at his old professor's feet (and not before time).

One could not help noticing that these are some massively significant occasions in the history of music - yet there was nobody else around. I didn't even know, previously, that this place existed. 
Vienna is a layer cake of a city, its historical strata spreading one on top of the other. Century piles after century. The reason I haven't seen the Beethoven sites before is that whenever I've been there I've been looking for Korngold or Mahler or Johann Strauss, or celebrating new year waltzing round the Rathausplatz. My souvenir this time? A Klimt umbrella. Beethoven is subsumed, in a way, beneath everyone he influenced.
The place has its advantages - including a fantastic, easy-to-use public transport system and two of the world's best concert halls - but also its drawbacks. For instance, my specific annoying dietary problem is easier to solve even in Hungary than it is here (honest, guv, in Budapest I found a gluten-free bakery on Andrássy Boulevard). Eventually I came across a vegetarian buffet on the Schottenring that had a good selection, but I've never before eaten so many beans in three days. Otherwise it's tafelspitz or risotto; occasionally a gf cake if you're very lucky. 
Now I am back and setting to work not only on my target of finishing the first draft before Christmas, but also the remedial updating necessitated by the insights of this past week. My feet are covered in blisters, I'm coughing something chronic and I need to sleep for a fortnight, but fortunately writing takes place indoors. If Beethoven is trying to kill me, he hasn't succeeded. At least, not yet.


If you've enjoyed this post, please consider supporting my work in progress: IMMORTAL, a novel in which Beethoven is a crucial character. Please visit its page at Unbound for further details.

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

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Observing Pauline Viardot

Last week I had a call from The Observer to ask me to stand in for their absent critics Fiona Maddocks and Stephen Pritchard, which was both a surprise and an honour.

It looked like a quiet patch at first - just too early for the premiere of Lessons in Love and Violence - but closer examination revealed two concerts that couldn't have been more 'up my street' if they'd tried. One was the shooting-star French soprano Sabine Devieilhe at the Wigmore lunchtime concert in a programme based around the salons of Pauline Viardot, who happens to be a long-standing obsession of mine. The other was billed as a TED Talk with music: Cambridge history professor Sir Christopher Clark joined Brett Dean and the City of London Sinfonia for an evening of Beethovenian exploration at the shiny new QEH. Due to circumstances beyond my control, it was my first trip there since the hall reopened - and gosh, it's good! (And it really does smell like a shoe shop.)


And here's one of my favourite Pauline Viardot songs, Die Sterne, sung in French by Isabel Pfefferkorn with cellist Romana Kaiser and pianist Anna Reichert. I think Viardot's songs are the equal of any in her salon, and a good bit better than some. Devieilhe sang the best-known number, Hai Luli, and one of the Chopin mazurka adaptations, Aime-moi - the latter is a bit of a masterclass in why it's best to write words first and music afterwards - but there's a wealth of fantastic music sitting there, waiting to be explored.