Showing posts with label Robert Schumann. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Schumann. Show all posts

Friday, September 13, 2019


Clara Schumann. Portrait by Granger [who also painted Beethoven]

It's a source of surprise and delight that the single biggest anniversary being celebrated this year is that of Clara Schumann, whose 200th birthday falls today. At last Clara's full significance as a musical titan in her own right is being recognised - as composer of some excellent pieces, as the most important pianist of her time other than Liszt and Chopin, as professor, and as mentor and guide.

Besides, it's not only the strident middle-aged women of the business like me who are yelling about her. Some of the best young pianists and violinists around have taken up her cause and are championing her works, along with singers who are discovering her excellent output of Lieder. Over in Leipzig, the museum in the house where Robert and Clara lived when they were first married is reopening today after a refurbishment and Isata Kanneh-Mason is performing there. Leipzig is holding a year-long festival to celebrate its musical daughter's anniversary and there's a big Gewandhaus concert with Nelsons tonight and also tomorrow night to mark the occasion. And there is a lot more, far too much to list here, because there's something else I want to show you today.

This is a little musicological/narrative digression. First, listen to this: it's what happened when the Romanian pianist Alexandra Dariescu found a special way to introduce the Clara Schumann Piano Concerto to an unsuspecting audience just the other day, playing its slow movement as an encore at the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest - aided and abetted by the lead cellist of the Orchestre National de France.

Now... this work has its ups and downs and the slow movement is definitely an up. But it is much more significant than that. This work demonstrates that Clara's presence and influence are so inextricably embedded in our musical consciousness that most of us didn't even know it was there. Have a listen to this song by Robert Schumann, 'An Anna II'. Though it was published posthumously, it's an early work, written in 1828, at which point Clara would have been nine. She started writing her concerto when she was 13, i.e. 1832.

Sound a little bit familiar after the concerto slow movement? Next, try the Aria from Robert's Piano Sonata No.1 in F sharp minor.

This work dates from 1833-35 and is entitled: "Pianoforte Sonata, dedicated to Clara from Florestan and Eusebius" (as you know, those were Robert's joint pseudonyms of contrasting personalities).

So there is an exchange going on here. It seems very much as if Robert wrote the song; then the teenage prodigy Clara wrote the concerto; and by the time three more years had elapsed she had grown from famous little girl into starry young woman, she and Robert had fallen in love and now Robert returned to the song and turned it into the Aria from the sonata, dedicated to her. At least, this is how it looks. Could it be that Clara, who started composing as a child, had invented it for a piano piece already? Robert did not move to Leipzig until 1830 to take lessons with Clara's father Friedrich Wieck, but he had met and had lessons with him before doing so - he didn't arrive sight unseen. Who got there first? And does it matter? Perhaps it doesn't... but did the teenage Clara perhaps declare her love first - through taking the song for the Piano Concerto? And is this what set the pattern for Robert taking bits of Clara's piano pieces to embed within his own in an ideal of musical unity (the opening of Davidsbündlertänze being a case in point, but far from the only one)?

The first mention Clara makes of her feelings for Schumann in her diary refers to her sorrow and jealousy at seeing him with his then fiancée Ernestine von Fricken, and finding herself inevitably on the sidelines. She was about 11 or 12 then. Anyone who has ever had a first desperate crush, deemed unrequited at the time, would know exactly what the confused young girl was going through. Was her Piano Concerto her first musical message to him - and one that inadvertently opened the floodgates, not just emotionally but musically too?

And now, my friends, try this. Which other piano concerto from the Schumann circles features a cello solo in its slow movement? The melody is different, but the concept comes from guess where... For historical interest, here is Van Cliburn performing in Moscow with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic.

I leave you to make any further inferences yourself.

UPDATE – more musical trails, this time from Beethoven to the Schumanns, over at my IMMORTAL updates at Unbound: (I do updates there every Friday. Progress on the book is good. Do come and have a peek.)

To support IMMORTAL, please click here.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

The strange tale of the Schumann concerto, tomorrow

Very excited to be heading tomorrow to Great Malvern to do a pre-concert talk about the Schumann Violin Concerto with conductor Ken Woods – whose concert with the English Symphony Orchestra includes this haunting work as centrepiece, with soloist Zoe Beyers. We are at Great Malvern Priory, talk at 6.30pm, concert at 7.30pm. Booking here.

Incidentally, I will also be presenting a concert themed around Jelly d'Arányi, World War I and World War II for the Oxford Philharmonic on 1 June, including the concerto alongside music by Bartók and FS Kelly.

As a preview, here is an article I wrote for the Independent in 2016 about the extraordinary history of this long-forgotten work, its traumatic composition when Schumann was on the cusp of mental illness and its bizarre rediscovery in the 1930s when the world itself was tipping over into madness... 

Robert Schumann
Photo from Wikimedia

When I first heard the story of how Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto came to light in the 1930s, I nearly fell off my chair. 
This extraordinary piece, the composer’s last orchestral work, has had a chequered existence. After one airing by its intended soloist, Joseph Joachim, it languished in obscurity for nearly eight decades. Then in 1933 Joachim’s great-niece, the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi (one-time muse to Bartók, Ravel and even Elgar) claimed to have received spirit messages via a Ouija board begging her to find and perform it. 
So bizarre was her quest – extending to the highest echelons of the Third Reich’s administration – that I’ve turned it into a novel, entitled Ghost Variations
The reality is admittedly stranger than fiction. After Schumann’s death, his widow, Clara, put the concerto aside, fearing it might betray its composer’s increasingly unstable state of mind. Always prone to extreme highs and lows, Schumann may have been bipolar, or suffered from tertiary syphilis, or possibly both; academics remain divided on the nature of his malady, though most incline towards the syphilis explanation. In February 1854 he suffered a devastating breakdown and tried to drown himself in the Rhine. Having survived, he requested to go into a mental hospital. He spent his final two years in an asylum in Endenich, Bonn, and died there in July 1856. 
Thereafter, it was up to Clara to decide which of her husband’s unpublished works should see the light of day. In consultation with her two right-hand men, Johannes Brahms and Joachim, she took time to make up her mind about the concerto. Finally she elected not to issue it. Joachim’s heirs deposited the manuscript in the Prussian State Library, placing what was thought to be a 100-year embargo on the work. Schumann’s daughter, Eugenie, insisted that in fact her mother wished it never to be played.
Jelly d’Arányi was 14 when her great-uncle Joachim died. Her elder sister, Adila Fachiri, likewise a celebrated violinist, had been Joachim’s pupil in Berlin. Fachiri was, as it turned out, a psychic “sensitive”, able to receive at considerable speed and intensity detailed “messages” in the then-fashionable Glass Game (ie, a home-made Ouija board). 
Although d’Arányi herself claimed to have received the initial message, she rarely participated in such sessions. It was largely Fachiri and her friend Baron Erik Palmstierna, the Swedish Minister in London, who drove the search thereafter; Palmstierna himself unearthed the manuscript in Berlin; and his book Horizons of Immortality, based on “messages” interpreted by Fachiri, broke the news of the concerto’s revelation upon an incredulous and cynical public in September 1937.
Others, though, also had a vested interest in reviving the piece. Once the concerto was found, its publisher-to-be, Schott, sent a copy to the young superstar violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who longed to give its modern premiere as his comeback after a year’s sabbatical. Meanwhile, the Nazi administration was alerted by the enquiries from England to the fact that something interesting was sitting in the Prussian State Library. Having investigated for themselves, they elected to override any alleged embargoes, as well as d’Arányi’s claim to priority. Germany’s most popular violin concerto, the one by the Jewish-born Mendelssohn, had been banned; Goebbels wished to promote Schumann’s suppressed work as a great German violin concerto by a great German composer – performed by a German soloist, Georg Kulenkampff. Menuhin, in the US, was relegated to second place and d’Arányi, in London, to third. She finally gave the UK premiere in February 1938. 
There was little chance, though, that the Nazis would persuade the public to love this concerto as much as they did Mendelssohn’s. To some – including the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, whose new recording of the work is out next week – the work can represent a testimony to a mind tragically dislocated from reality. And even if you don’t feel it necessarily betrays signs of incipient insanity to such an extreme degree, it is certainly complex, formally intriguing, filled with struggle, difficult to pace in performance.
Either way, it contains much wonderful music. Its slow movement is heartbreakingly beautiful – sharing a shred of melody with Schumann’s last piano work, written soon afterwards, entitled Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations). Schumann believed that the theme for the piano piece had been dictated to him by the spirits of composers beyond the grave – forgetting that he had already written it himself.
Today the Schumann Violin Concerto is finally rising to prominence. Given chances to shine in the hands of today’s leading soloists, it proves that its genuine soul, passion and intensity can ride high, despite its composer’s tragic fate. And even if Jelly d’Arányi did not quite give its first 20th-century performance, her effort on its behalf saved it from oblivion. Thanks to her, we can appreciate and assess it for ourselves.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The original breakup album - by Schumann

Schumann Street: love, loss, recovery
Photo: Spitalfields Music

If you're heading east in London this weekend, don't miss a whole streetful of Schumann and Schumann-derived songs. Spitalfields Music's Festival, which is on now, spans everything from glorious Monteverdi through to the present day, with Anna Thorvaldsdottir as featured composer. But it has an unusual feature based on our Robert's best-loved song-cycle, Dichterliebe.

You know those street parties where you go from house to house and have a different course of a meal at each one? This is the Lieder equivalent and more - with numerous surprise flavours. Bengali folk, rap, jazz and soul all feature in reinterpretations of Schumann and Heine's journey through love, loss and recovery, situated in the Huguenot houses of the Spitalfields district: as the festival puts it, "16 songs, 16 rooms, 1000 journeys".

The festival's artistic director, the conductor André de Ridder, told me all about it the other day. He credits the Icelandic artist and performer, Ragner Kjartansson, with inspiring the idea: "At a festival at the old GDR Funkhaus in Berlin that was underwritten by some famous indie and rock figures, and Ragner performed a song from Dichterliebe on loop for four hours. I know he’s also done the whole cycle in his inimitable way. He was playing 'Ich grolle nicht' to a huge audience that had never heard it before and was more used to a pop festival - a setting that my group, Stargaze, and people like Bryce Dessner are trying to use, because people lap it up. And I was reminded how beautiful, essential and to the point Dichterliebe is.

André de Ridder
"Some songs are only 15 seconds, with very poignant words: a few turns of phrase can capture the really beautiful essence of an emotion. I don’t want to equarte that style with pop asongs, but the best pop songs today capture the essence of an emotion or vibe in very little time or with just a phrase. It made me think this cycle can be presented in that kind of context.

"When I combined that with these houses that are at our disposal in Spitalfields then the idea of House Music started playing on my mind. I decided we could put each of 16 songs into a different house and let the audience make their own way through the sound. You also make it a hybrid withan immersive sound installation, done live with humans rather than speakers. Another layer is immersive theatre pieces, like those pioneered by Punchdrunk. All these ideas came together and landed well on this idea.

"There are about five classical singers out of 16, and a couple will do the songs in the normal style; one will accompany himself, another will do the songs with other instruments. Then there are artists completely new to the composer and the music. They went through the cycle and found the songs that really spoke to them. In most cases we were able to give them the songs that spoke to them most and  they’d translate the accompaniments into their own musical language. 

"In the case of the German rappers, they created their own lyrics inspired by the original Heine. I also said to other people, especially with the songs that are very short, they might extend them with their own stanzas, continuing the text and bringing it into teir world. I really tried to give liberty to each performer to be inspired and develop it with their own practice. I don’t know yet what they’re all coming up with! I’ve only heard about two demos out of 16. So I’m very excited to see what happens.

"The whole theme of Dichterliebe is not unlike artists from our time who, when they made an album, took on another personality - like David Bowie who’d be Ziggy Stardust. They become another person and then in an album express their journey, eg through a breakup. The so-called 'breakup album' has become ubiquitous in our time and in a way that’s almost what Schumann is doing here! There is something about tracing the steps of a poet’s love, overcoming the loss of it and the hope of it and coming to terms with it that’s expressed. Maybe that is the first quintessential, universal breakup album!"

You can find more details and a complete list of performers and where to find them here.

One thing I haven't told you - at least, I don't think I have - is that references to Dichterliebe are implanted all the way through Ghost Variations. For the person who writes to me having found the full list of them, I have a small prize to award: a lovely recording of the Schumann Violin Concerto by my old friend Philippe Graffin. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

A Schumann podcast

Serendipity! The London Philharmonic is playing the Schumann Violin Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall on 8 November (soloist: Patricia Kopatchinskaya, conductor: Alain Altinoglu) and then touring it to Antwerp, Vienna and around Germany. They asked me to record a podcast about Ghost Variations, the concerto and its astonishing history, and the result is up now at their site, and also below.

Before that, you could come and hear David Le Page, Viv McLean and me bringing the story to life in the more intimate setting of the Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zédel, on Monday evening (23 October, 7pm).

Thursday, June 08, 2017

An election on Schumann's birthday

It's Schumann's birthday. Here is Steven Isserlis, one of today's greatest Schumannians, in his Cello Concerto. The composer finished its proofreading six days before he threw himself into the Rhine.

There's a bitter irony that this Brexit-focused general election is on Schumann's birthday. It's hard to know what to do when it is so clear that our country, like Schumann, is on the point of cracking up, in many, many ways. Unless some kind of miracle takes place, it may not recover in our lifetimes.

Please go and vote today. Think of Mrs Pankhurst etc. Voting with brains intact is all we can actually do to try to better our own future.

Incidentally, I stumbled over a fascinating documentary that Steven made about Schumann back in the 1990s. Here's part 1. There's more.

The clinching image of Ghost Variations is the tipping from glory days to terminal struggle (Jelly d'Arányi), sanity to madness (Schumann), freedom to fascism and war (the world) - converging into the same cliff-edge moment. Yet the tipping point is not so easy to find: things happen so slowly, and we are so eager to think the best - the "don't worry, it'll be fine" mindset - that we don't realise what's really going on until it's too late... Schumann's Violin Concerto was the last orchestral work he completed before his suicide attempt and confinement in a mental hospital. It's a story for today and has become so tenfold since I began working on it six years ago.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Black magic #kaufmannresidency

Back on stage! 

The one problem with recitals by Jonas Kaufmann is the absolute scrum at the ladies' loos. The Barbican's facilities are confusing because there are two entrances, one at either end, and sometimes there is one queue, usually two and occasionally three. During last night's interval they brought in ushers to do a spot of crowd-control.

The fans were out in force and for good reason. This concert by Kaufmann and "his" glorious pianist Helmut Deutsch kicked off the Barbican's Kaufmann Residency, four events between last night and 13 February. It was also the charismatic German tenor's first recital in many months, marking his return to performance with Deutsch after his lengthy period of recovery from a haematoma on a vocal cord (his first return to the stage was as Lohengrin in Paris, just two weeks ago). It must have been a relief to many that he was there at all. A slight air of tension hung over the auditorium as the beginning was slightly delayed and an unspoken anxiety of the "er, is he OK?" variety seemed to shiver through the waiting rows.

He was. And he started by thanking everyone for coming along, which got a laugh - many people booked their tickets a year ago and Kaufmaniacs have flown in from all over the world. He then explained that the iPad on its stand was there because this was his first recital in a while and it was simply to make sure he didn't make any any any mistakes. This introduction was to be one of the few light moments of the evening: the artists had selected a programme of dark, disturbing repertoire, the type that excavates the soul and holds it up for forensic examination. Kaufmann's depth of tone and actorly intelligence suits this repertoire exceptionally well. He is, as ever, the ideal tenor for those who really prefer baritones.

Deutsch and Kaufmann: a peerless partnership
Let's hear it for Helmut Deutsch, whose long and distinguished career as pianist, Lieder specialist and teacher seems to have reached its apogee in his work with Kaufmann. This musical magic is utterly a joint effort - and what singer could be so lucky as to have a pianist partner (don't even think about calling him an "accompanist") whose tone is so radiant, whose dynamics are so ideally judged, whose creation of atmosphere is simply peerless and whose support is ideal at every turn. If Kaufmann is Margot Fonteyn, then Deutsch is Rudolf Nureyev, lifting him effortlessly, letting him shine, while remaining a dazzling artist in his own right - though Deutsch is probably a bit more self-effacing about it than Nureyev might have been. The two together become more than the sum of their parts, the partnership a living entity in its own right.

Schumann's Kerner Lieder Op.35 was perhaps the closest set he ever composed to Schubert's Schwanengesang. A sequence of songs rather than a cycle, they are united by the poet Justinus Kerner's undertow of threat and despair: often composer and poet fuse to a degree that it is impossible to be certain whether Schumann is delving into Kerner to craft the poet's essence in music, or whether he has perhaps found in Kerner the perfect means to capture his own. He was much under the influence of Schubert at the time and Schubertian hints surface occasionally in the music: a Rosamunde rhythm in 'Wanderlied', subtle switches between major and minor in 'Erstes Grün' - and not so subtle ones in the set's showstopper 'Stille Tränen'. The final three songs, beginning with that, are united, too, by the rhythm of the text; Schumann makes the last two essentially into one, reiterating a questioning, lost-sounding figure with a cumulative effect that can be deeply unsettling. "Why are you so ill?...Nature heals me, but man will not let me rest," says Kerner. Schumann's likely syphilis? Schubert's? (And can one help but reflect that the music business may have put rather a lot of pressure on our performer of late?) In the final song, 'Alte Laute', the poet says he is trapped in a bad dream from which only an angel can wake him; and right now so is the world, and for a few moments the musicians on stage and their audience were entirely as one.

Kaufmann's core strengths are many, but two were of special value here. One is his quietness: reserving the big, open notes for special moments alone, his eloquence is as soft and dark as mink. It combines with that other magic ingredient, expert storytelling, to the effect that instead of going out to the audience by projecting at full tilt, he makes us go to him, creating an atmosphere of mesmerising intimacy that seems to shrink the hall. Every word and phrase has character and meaning, each song a base shade of voice colour specific to its needs; such is Kaufmann's ability to inhabit the music's secret spaces that you would understand the poet and composer's message even if you couldn't hear the words, though you always can. Control is vital, and the pacing that goes with it: the long build-up from near-whisper to full-on belt-out beauty in 'Stille Tränen' hit home. Kaufmann is a supremely controlled singer; in the partnership of head and heart, it's the head in the driving seat all the way, with the perfect understanding of how to prompt our hearts.

It's difficult to understand why Henri Duparc's mélodies are not performed in every song recital everywhere in the world, or why he might ever be considered obscure or somehow difficult. The French composer, a friend and contemporary of Fauré's, offers a heady synthesis of sensuality and seamless poise, the music bathed in luminous colour. Deutsch found the light within the richly written textures and Kaufmann the subtle lines and shaping: 'Phidylé' is allowed to sleep undisturbed in a radiant dream until the poet anticipates her kiss with a renewed power, 'Le manoir de Rosamonde' is terse, frightening and verging on the tragic as the poet flees the dog-bite of love and leaves its land undiscovered, and the set is framed with two Baudelaire poems about distant dwellings - 'L'invitation au voyage' and 'La vie antérieure', each evoking an idyllic landscape that is simultaneously within the soul.

A fan presents Kaufmann with a bouquet at the end
Finally to Britten, and if you don't know the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, it's time you did. Britten's settings in Italian, written in America during WW2, prove as expert as his English operas, and while this was a chance for Kaufmann to show his stylish Italian alter-ego, he also showed us how Britten's sensitivity was in its element in those moments of self-discovery, rising from the subconscious to catch the artist off guard, faced with the pain of his own passions. Britten's style occasionally can almost resemble Prokofiev here, especially in the third song, 'Veggio co'bei vostri occhi un dolce lume', which could have stepped out of a slow-motion dream-vision ballet; and Kaufmann again excelled in mezzo voce reflection, narrative and revelation, with heroics saved for when they were most needed, such as the final song, 'Spirto ben nato' - noble soul. Yes, exactly: this singing, this partnership, is noble soul incarnate, in its finest sense - happily, undimmed despite all.

One encore - Strauss's 'Nichts' - but there's plenty more to look forward to in the week ahead, which culminates in that composer's Four Last Songs.

And a good interview with Kaufmann in the Sunday Times, by Lynn Barber, here.

Friday, September 16, 2016

When Steven met Schumann...

Steven Isserlis is one of those infuriating musicians who writes as well as he plays. His latest book is just out and it is a revisiting of Schumann's Advice to Young Musicians, as tweaked for the 21st century (published by Faber & Faber). I went to talk to him about it - and also about his new recording of the Brahms Double and original version of the Op.8 Trio plus the slow movement of the Schumann Violin Concerto arranged by Benjamin Britten (yes, really), with Joshua Bell. Feature is out now in this week's JC and here's a taster.

....The question remains whether today's younger generation can share the attitude that music is something sacred, as he and Schumann both advocate. "It's not a sport," Isserlis declares. "I say it in the book and I've said it many times: music is not a sport and it should be taught as a mixture of religion and science. You find out as much as you possibly can about it and approach it with respect. You don't make it a vehicle for impressing people and showing off. 

"Actually I think the new generation has this outlook still more, at least among violinists and cellists," he adds. "They really respect the music. I think we went through a bad phase about 20-30 years ago. But those in their late teens and early twenties today seem to have a much better attitude and are emerging much more rounded as musicians."

Friday, July 29, 2016

Schumann's anniversary, and a spot of Brahms

Darguerrotype of Schumann c1850. (source: Wikipedia)

Today is the 160th anniversary of Robert Schumann's death.

This is the house - the former mental hospital - in which he died, in Endenich, on the outskirts of Bonn, as it looked a few years ago. Its ground floor now houses a music library; Schumann's rooms, upstairs and at the end of the landing, are a museum, which includes the tiny bedroom in which he died, overlooking a peaceful garden; there's a small piano, a covering for it which belonged to Liszt, and pictures and memorabilia of Clara, Joachim and Brahms. Clara was permitted to see him again only the day before his death.

Looking back through the Schumann, Brahms and Clara books on my shelf always turns up some new gem - and today, dipping into Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters, selected and annotated by Styra Avins (this is my 'Brahms Bible'), I stumbled over the information that at a memorial concert for Schumann soon after his death, Brahms himself was the soloist in Schumann's Piano Concerto. There are a few moments in musical history that make me long to time-travel, and that's one of them.

One thing you will find in Ghost Variations (named after Schumann's Geistervariationen, which shares a germ of a musical theme with the Violin Concerto's slow movement) is a brief exploration of how Brahms reflected the cyclic theme of Schumann's Violin Concerto in his own - despite the latter having been written more than 20 years later. It's quite useful to have a musicologist as a character in this sort of novel: in this case, Donald Francis Tovey. If he were around today, his insights would of course be much more profound than that. But this reference is an under-recognised element of the Brahms work, although Yehudi Menuhin spotted the connection as soon as he first set eyes on the Schumann, and it seems worth pointing up a little.

Here's the first movement of the Schumann, played (quite fast) by Henryk Szeryng. Listen for the second subject: this is the theme that transforms, twisting itself through the textures of the second movement and then shape-shifting into the final Polonaise.

And here's the beginning of the Brahms - Szerying again (filmed in Paris in 1962). Listen for the little linking pattern - and what Brahms does with it - from 2:27 to 2:50. Can that be a coincidence? I doubt it...

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Beloved Brahms

Radio silence here attributable to book. It's going back to the editor on Tuesday, but I am going to Vienna tomorrow and the two things don't really match, so the past week has been intensive. Vienna is to be a wonderfully pianoy trip.

Today, meanwhile, is the birthday of a composer who came from Hamburg, but settled in Vienna because that was where composers settled. He is, of course...

Johannes Brahms, 1853
That is roughly how he'd have looked when he first met Robert and Clara Schumann.

As it's the wunderschönen Monat Mai, the sun's shining and the lilacs are coming out, and things are looking up a bit (London has roundly rejected the Tory party's racist mayoral campaign and elected Sadiq Khan, the first ethnic minority person to hold such high office in this country, with the biggest personal mandate in UK political history), here's Brahms's song 'Meine liebe ist grün' - My love is as green as the lilac tree.

The words are by Felix Schumann - Robert and Clara's youngest son, born in 1854 when Schumann had already been hospitalised in Endenich. Felix died tragically young in 1879. Brahms must have been virtually in loco parentis to him when he was born, and I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that there's a torrent of generous love in this music.

Monday, January 18, 2016


You may have wondered why I've been posting clips of late Schumann and asking you to have a special listen. Now I can reveal all...

The campaign to launch my new novel, Ghost Variations, goes live TODAY via the groundbreaking 21st-century-style publisher Unbound.

Our heroine: Jelly d'Arányi
1933. A world spiralling towards war. A composer descending into madness. And a devoted woman struggling to keep her faith in art and love against all the odds.

Ghost Variations, inspired by real events, tells the extraordinary tale of how the great violinist Jelly d’Arányi rediscovered the long-suppressed Schumann Violin Concerto with the aid of supposed messages from the spirit world.
The concerto, Schumann’s last orchestral work, was embargoed by the composer’s family for fear that it betrayed his mental disintegration. As rumours of its existence spread from London to Berlin, Jelly embarks on an increasingly complex quest to find the manuscript, upon which the Nazi administration has designs of its own.

Though aided and abetted by a team of larger-than-life personalities – including her sister Adila Fachiri, the pianist Myra Hess and the musicologist Donald Francis Tovey – Jelly finds herself confronting forces that threaten her own state of mind. Saving the concerto comes to mean saving herself.

Clara and Robert Schumann
We have 90 days from now to crowd-fund the book: If you enjoy my other books, my articles and JDCMB, or if you just like the sound of this one, please come on over and be part of it! This digital e-book publication is worldwide, so it doesn't matter where you are - Sheen or Sydney, San Francisco or Singapore, you'll be able to get your e-copy. 

For a pledge of just £10 you receive the e-book upon its release, are credited as a patron in its pages and gain access to the “shed” (a new blog at Unbound in which I chronicle the book’s creation).

A range of further rewards attend higher contributions.

For example, a special Early Bird deal includes a ticket to join me and fellow patrons to attend the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s performance of the Schumann Violin Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall on 6 February (violinist is Patricia Kopatchinskaja, with Marin Alsop conducting). We’ll have a drink and discussion after the concert. ONLY 9 PLACES AVAILABLE and you need to book by 31 JANUARY. 

You could sign up for an option which gives you a special print of the cover art, access to a playlist I'm creating to illustrate the book, a credit as a SuperPatron and an invitation to the launch party.

Or you could sponsor a character from the cast of real-life musicians: in addition to all the above, you’ll receive an information pack about her/him, compiled and written by me, including recommended reading and listening lists, plus a special credit in the book. Choose from Jelly d’Arányi, Adila Fachiri, Myra Hess, Donald Francis Tovey and Yehudi Menuhin.

To see the full list of pledge levels and associated rewards, please go to:

To learn more about Ghost Variations, please join us for a special evening at London’s Hungarian Cultural Centre on 21 March. I give a short lecture about Jelly d’Arányi (who was, of course, Hungarian) and David Le Page (violin) and Viv McLean (piano) perform some of the music associated with her – including Ravel’s Tzigane, music by Bartók and Brahms, and a spot of Schumann. Admission is free, but booking is required: please phone 020 7240 8448 or email

I look forward very much to bringing you this extraordinary tale and hope that you will be as swept up in it as I have been for the four-or-so years it's taken to write. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Dear JDCMB readers, please get to know this piece

This is the Geistervariationen - literally, 'Ghost Variations' - by Robert Schumann, written at the end of his compositional life just before his incarceration in the asylum at Endenich. Please familiarise yourselves with it. If you read JDCMB regularly, you're going to be hearing a lot more about it in 2016.

The heavenly performance above is by Grigory Sokolov.

Friday, March 13, 2015

My Dream Interviewee No.1...

Yesterday I interviewed a wonderful composer. I love interviewing composers. You can't get closer to the source of the art we love than you can by talking to the people who create it. Let's not forget, music is a human creation. Every note, squeak and silence is a choice made by a person with a pen - OK, these days it's someone with a Sibelius computer, but a choice nevertheless. We are fortunate to go and talk to John Adams, Judith Weir, Philip Glass and the rest - but certain others are no longer with I've availed myself of a new-fangled invention to solve the problem. Here is my Dream Interviewee No.1.

He is ROBERT SCHUMANN. I visited him in my new Parsifal 3000 Travellation, in which time becomes space.

Dear Herr Dr Professor Schumann, it's a great pleasure to meet you.

Mrs Duchen, likewise, likewise. Welcome to Düsseldorf. I trust your extraordinary time machine gave you a smooth journey?

It was, let's say, an interesting experience...but I'm very happy to be here, in the Schumann family living room!

Excellent, dear lady - please have a seat, and Marie will bring in the coffee.

You are very lucky to have such a helpful daughter.

Especially for my wife, Clara, Marie, our eldest, is an angel from heaven. For the little ones, so is our friend Hannes!

I hear he comes round and entertains them by doing gymnastics on the banisters?

Haha, and more, and more... He's a young lion, you know, a veritable eagle whose music will soar into the future. Do you know him where you live, in the 21st century?

Do we know Johannes Brahms? Er, we do...

And how is he regarded?

Well, he is one of the all-time greats - we talk about the Three Bs, and they are Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

I knew it! I knew I was right. I enjoyed being a critic, unlike many others... I edited a magazine too, you remember? That was enormous fun, but hard work, always having to turn away people who thought they could write well, but never actually read anything.

You have always been very literary, haven't you?

There is always music in good words. Without it, they will never rise from the page. Remember that, my writer friend! And there must be meaning in good music. It goes beyond the capability of words, but it must be there. Otherwise we will turn away from it and play music that does have meaning. After Beethoven our question is: what next? How can we possibly follow him?

So, tell me what was it like the first time you met Brahms?

Well, he turned up on our doorstep, unannounced. It was a few months ago, October 1853, and we weren't home, but Marie was, so there is a knock on the door, she trots along to see who's there and on the step is this boy of 20, blond hair, blue eyes, cheekbones and the rest of it, and she is quite impressed. He has a letter of introduction to us from Joseph Joachim, which he leaves with Marie. We read it and it sounds quite positive. Joachim, you know, is the leader of Liszt's orchestra in Weimar and a powerhouse, in his own cantankerous way, even though he isn't much older than Brahms himself. He played under Mendelssohn's direction when he was only Marie's age. We have known him for years, through Mendelssohn, and he sends Brahms to us and the young man just arrives.

I think it was a happier experience for him to come to us than his visit to Liszt. You know what happened? Haha! He goes to Weimar and finds Liszt holding court, playing the piano to all his adoring acolytes. Brahms has been travelling all day and he is tired out. He sits at the back of the room, and Liszt plays the whole of his rather long Sonata in B minor - which, you know, is dedicated to me! - and Brahms does his very best, but despite himself he nods off. Not a good move.

So, he arrived on your doorstep and...

And I gave him some coffee and wondered what it was that was so special about this rather shy, squeaky-voiced lad. He takes out of his bag an enormous sheaf of manuscript paper covered in thick black scrawls, places it on the coffee table in front of me, then goes to the piano and begins a sonata and I nearly fall out of my chair.

I waited until a quiet moment - it's a noisy opening, the C major Sonata, because he is trying to write Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier' - then I stopped him. He looked most distressed. He must have thought I didn't like his music. No, no! I wanted to call Clara, who was attending to her correspondence upstairs, and I told her: you have to come into the music room, right now, this minute. You have to hear this. She did so, curious, and there, in front of me, she gazed across that room and her eyes and Brahms's met for the first time.

Something about him shone. He sat at our piano and he just - shone. He lit the room as if we had raised a hundred candles above him and his clothes and skin were made of mirrors. Clara sat beside me and he began his sonata again. What a voice emerged from it - a giant personality, springing from its parent creator's head fully formed like Pallas Athene! Some would-be composers never find their voice. Others are imbued with it as if in the womb. After about half a minute Clara gave me one sideways glance. You know, I think, when you meet someone who is going to change your life.

Herr Doktor Professor Schumann, it is generous of you to speak about Brahms like this. I would like to ask you about your music, too, of course. Why the alter egos? Why did you introduce Florestan and Eusebius?

Why? That is an interesting question - they have been with me for so long that I can scarcely remember. I nearly became a writer. I used to write, in my youth - I wrote a few novels, but eventually I found music could take out more of myself, if that makes sense to you?

It does indeed...

I have, you know, a remarkably vivid dream world. As a boy I lived in dreams much of the time, and it became a habit. I don't draw much distinction between reality and what I know to be my dreams - because they become reality. That is how you create the world, through dreaming, through imagining.

Do you know Richard Wagner?

I do - a bumptious gentleman, isn't he? He has stolen a lot from my music, I understand, but what he does with it is supposed to be quite good.

Well, he once said - though I don't know if he's already said it - that imagination creates reality.

There you go. Nothing is new under the sun, no? So, to my friends, the poets. I was very young, of course, my father was a publisher and a writer, and the house was full of books. It was, too, full of pain. My sister died, you know. This boy I was could scarcely bear the loss - the weight of the world, of all adult grief, wrapped me closer and closer, like an instrument of torture. And I discovered the worlds of Goethe, Jean Paul and ETA Hoffmann. I would take their books and dive in, as if into a great blue mountain lake with whole universes beneath the azure surface, and there I would swim, free at last, with those worlds of discovery before me, my inner self becoming first one character, then another. I found Florestan and Eusebius in Jean Paul, and each was like me, though totally different. Therefore in them I saw two sides of one person. Human beings have many facets, every writer knows this - today I don't think it is so extraordinary.

But why create music based around them?

Not based around them so much as informed by them, I'd say. Why? Because it is enjoyable to do so. I said earlier that music must have meaning. But that meaning does not have to be weighty and frown-ridden. It might be, on occasion. Yet think of my Clara. She doesn't like it if I experiment too much. She says always: think of the people who play your music, think of the people who buy it. If you are too peculiar, too obscure, they'll choose something else instead. Where does that leave you? I am their puppet-master in the music, sometimes - Maester Raro, mediating between them. I might be playing at my piano - you play music, but you also play at music! - and I improvise, and I invent. The music might be tender, quiet, reflective, so a Eusbius creation; or my thoughts might be turbulent and impassioned, in the guise of Florestan. I am glad if people find this interesting, and it is a way of bringing literary allusion to one's work without having to set about the laborious process of actually telling somebody else's story in your own sounds.

We make quite a lot of this, you know...

Haha! Please feel free to make of my music what you will. I am merely glad to know that it has lasted so well.

Who did you know? Who were your favourite people?

My dear lady, I have to tell you, I have never had a friend, or missed a friend, like Felix Mendelssohn. What a man. What an artist. Nobody could resist his charm - not even my Clara! She used to flirt with him like never with anybody else, and in front of me! There was just...nothing she could do about it. Despite him being, you know, from another race. He was an Israelite. She was of a very sheltered background, my Clara, and she found this distinctly strange, even though he had apparently converted as a child and was indeed more a devout Christian than we ourselves. But perhaps it added to the fascination. Like the Gypsies. Nobody can resist them either. Brahms is transfixed by their musicians.

So, er, Mendelssohn was close to you? 

His death was terrible. So young. Not even forty. I think he worked himself to death - though others say it was the demise of his sister that made him fall to pieces, others gossip that there was perhaps another woman, and still more say that there was a weakness in the family inheritance that caused them to have strokes too young. For us, left behind, the shock has been fearful. I dream of him often and I wake sweating, convinced I shall see him again, convinced that his fate presages something of my own. Clara tells me not to be silly, but the idea haunts me like the ghost of Felix himself...come along, my dear, let's have some more coffee, shall we?

A good idea, thank you.

And how long will you stay in Düsseldorf?

I must go back to London today - but now that I know my Parsifal 3000 Travellation is so effective, please may I come and see you again?

Of course you may. You play my music yourself?

On the piano. Badly. I've played Kinderszenen, Kreisleriana, Papillons, some of the Fantasiestücke, I've bashed through the first and last movements of the Fantasie, though I can't play the March, and at the moment I'm learning Waldszenen. It makes me cry every time.

Ahh. Then you know me better than you think.