Some of you may recall the articles and presentation I prepared in 2010 for the birth bicentenary of German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856).
While researching his life, I stumbled upon a story so bizarre that you couldn’t have made it up if you tried.
Schumann wrote his only violin concerto (D minor, WoO 23) in 1853, three years before his death, for his friend the young violinist Joseph Joachim.
Joachim never publicly performed this work, and retained the manuscript for the rest of his life. Joachim evidently felt the work was tinged with the mental illness that plagued Schumann in his final years and caused his suicide. In a letter, Joachim, while acknowledging that ‘certain individual passages bear witness to the deep feelings of the creative artist’, also writes of it possessing ‘a certain exhaustion, which attempts to wring out the last resources of spiritual energy.’
Schumann’s widow Clara and close family friend, composer Johannes Brahms obviously concurred, as they collectively excluded the concerto from the Complete Edition of Schumann’s works, consigning it to oblivion. Joachim entrusted the concerto manuscript with the Prussian State Library, Berlin, with the understanding that it neither be played nor published until a century after Schumann’s death i.e. 1956.
This is where it gets even more interesting. In 1933 in London, Joachim’s great niece, the violinist Jelly (pronounced Yéli) d’Aranyi apparently got a ‘message’ from Schumann’s spirit through a Ouija board requesting her to find the manuscript and perform the concerto!
She tracked it down to the library, enraging Schumann’s daughter Eugenie who forbade its performance.
To thicken the plot further, in 1937, American violinist Yehudi Menuhin was sent a copy of the score for his opinion, and he fell in love with it, terming it the “historically missing link” in the violin literature.
He also wanted to premiere the work. But the world copyright was held by Germany, now under Nazi control, and they were interested too. After the ban on all Jewish works as “degenerate”, and therefore the popular Mendelssohn violin concerto out of the repertoire, a replacement for it was urgently sought. Goebbels’ Department of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda thought the Schumann violin concerto would be the perfect substitute.
Thus began a three-sided race (d’Aranyi, Menuhin, and German violinist Georg Kulenkampff) to premiere the concerto. Kulenkampff gave the premiere in Berlin that same year, followed by Menuhin in the US and d’Aranyi in London.
Here is a recording Kulenkampff playing the concerto in 1937:
An interesting video compares the two performances:
Unfortunately I am unable to find a recording of d’Aranyi’s performance of the concerto.
An extraordinary story, which I shed light on in my Schumann presentation in 2010. Jessica Duchen, a versatile London-based author with a musical bias, used it as a springboard for a fast-paced detective thriller titled “Ghost Variations”, released recently.
The title is fitting not only because of the reference to the spirit of Schumann allegedly communicating with d’Aranyi, but also because the violin concerto shares a theme with a work ‘Geistervariationen’ (Ghost Variations) WoO 24, that Schumann wrote for piano, the melody of which he believed had been dictated to him by the spirits of composers from beyond the grave, but obviously was a theme from his own imagination that he had forgotten he had already used in the concerto. Brahms would later use this same theme in his piano work for four hands, ‘Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann.’ Talk of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!
Duchen chose a ‘novel’ way of getting her novel published. Unbound (www.unbound.com) is an innovative way of bringing authors and readers together. How does it work? Writers pitch their ideas to Unbound, and if the team like it, they launch it on their website. The project is pitched to potential readers by the writer as well, and if the crowdfunding target is reached, the book gets published. Furthermore, the author receives a 50/50 profit split from each book sale, as opposed to 5-10% of the cover price from conventional mass publishers.
Watch her and other experts shed more light on the concerto’s history:
I am Duchen’s Facebook friend, and when she pitched the idea for her book on her Facebook page, I readily made a small contribution towards her crowdfunding target. Duchen made the target in just 12 days, drawing endorsements from far beyond just her circle of friends and wellwishers. And the reward for my support was that I was among the first to receive a digital (Kindle) version of the published book the day it was released.
The book is a gripping read, and you have to marvel at the detail in the research needed in writing it, and how Duchen manages to get under the skin of the characters in the plot, particularly d’Aranyi. I wholeheartedly recommend it to lovers of music and of good writing. In portraying 1930s Europe in free-fall towards a catastrophic world war, one can’t help see resonances with our own times.
In a recent article ‘Finding the Pearl: Why I wrote Ghost Variations’ for a writing website, Duchen describes her creative journey from the first draft of the novel in 2011 to its completion last year. She draws parallels between the 1929 Great Depression and the financial crash of 2008, and the witch-hunts, fear psychosis and insecurity, and the picking of vulnerable scapegoats upon which to pin the blame, however irrationally.
In her research for the book, Duchen had to scan newspaper archives from the 1930s, and what leapt out at her was the same “press-stirred hysteria” about “floods of refugees (then from Germany) that we are seeing today from Syria and from other conflict zones in the Middle East.
Back then, just as now with Trump and with the rise of the right-wing across the world, Hitler was at first derided as a joke by many who believed that “an unstable deluded fantasist could never take power”.
In her own words: “When I first began Ghost Variations I had no idea it would be as relevant as it has turned out… But perhaps 2016 was its moment after all, because this year brought us our own tipping point. We’re no longer on the cliff edge: we’ve tipped and we’re falling.”
Duchen summarises some lessons she herself learnt while writing Ghost Variations: “If you want to write about the inconvenient truths of today, sometimes it’s better not to hold up a direct mirror. Instead, refract the light you want to shed. Shine it through a prism of a past parallel, or a sci-fi or fantasy world. Good historical fiction doesn’t only concern the past.”
Yet she offers a positive message in conclusion: “I hope it shows there were, and there will be, people who see through lies, moral corruption and mortal danger and stand by higher principles. We’ve come through times of turmoil before; and despite huge, tragic sacrifices and horrors beyond comprehension, still people keep trying to do the right thing. There will be heroes and heroines, there will be life and there will be love. And maybe there is even a chance that in some unsuspected dimension love can last forever. Maybe that’s why I wrote this book.”
(An edited version of this article was published on 5 March 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)