As you know, I’m taking a bit of a break from blogging and working behind the scenes, but I keep reading and might be sharing reviews every so often to avoid flooding later on.
I could not resist sharing this review with you and will probably keep sharing reviews to make sure I don’t leave you bereft of books. Take care, keep reading, and, without further ado…
Ghost Variations: The Strangest Detective Story In Music by Jessica Duchen. Music, mystery, beautiful writing and a story that proves reality is weirder than fiction
The strangest detective story in the history of music – inspired by a true incident.
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.
- Dabbling in the fashionable “Glass Game” – a Ouija board – the famous Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi, one-time muse to composers such as Bartók, Ravel and Elgar, encounters a startling dilemma. A message arrives ostensibly from the spirit of the composer Robert Schumann, begging her to find and perform his long-suppressed violin concerto.
She tries to ignore it, wanting to concentrate instead on charity concerts. But against the background of the 1930s depression in London and the rise of the Nazis in Germany, a struggle ensues as the “spirit messengers” do not want her to forget.
The concerto turns out to be real, embargoed by Schumann’s family for fear that it betrayed his mental disintegration: it was his last full-scale work, written just before he suffered a nervous breakdown after which he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. It shares a theme with his Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations) for piano, a melody he believed had been dictated to him by the spirits of composers beyond the grave.
As rumours of its existence spread from London to Berlin, where the manuscript is held, Jelly embarks on an increasingly complex quest to find the concerto. When the Third Reich’s administration decides to unearth the work for reasons of its own, a race to perform it begins.
Though aided and abetted by a team of larger-than-life personalities – including her sister Adila Fachiri, the pianist Myra Hess, and a young music publisher who falls in love with her – Jelly finds herself confronting forces that threaten her own state of mind. Saving the concerto comes to mean saving herself.
In the ensuing psychodrama, the heroine, the concerto and the pre-war world stand on the brink, reaching together for one more chance of glory.
A bit of information about the writer:
“Schumann’s wonderful violin concerto has a tragic history unlike any other piece of music. In this splendid new novel Jessica Duchen manages to find the fine balance between facts and fiction.Her book reads like a thriller yet it’s also a tribute to great music and musicians.” — Sir András Schiff on GHOST VARIATIONS
“Enthralling…Jessica writes with an unpredictable and original voice and a dazzling perceptiveness” Joanna Lumley on SONGS OF TRIUMPHANT LOVE.
Jessica is a versatile author with a musical bias. Her output includes novels, biographies, plays, words&music projects, poetry for musical setting, music journalism and more. Born in London, she studied music at Cambridge and piano with Joan Havill.
Her novels often focus on the cross-currents between family generations, with music a recurring theme. The latest, GHOST VARIATIONS, is “the strangest detective story in music”, based on the true story of the bizarre rediscovery, and Nazi propaganda conscription, of Schumann’s long-suppressed violin concerto.
Jessica’s biographies of the composers Gabriel Fauré and Erich Wolfgang Korngold for Phaidon’s 20th Century Composers series have met with wide acclaim. Her writing has appeared in in The Independent, The Guardian and The Sunday Times, as well as BBC Music Magazine and Opera News, among other publications. Her music blog “JDCMB”, http://jessicamusic.blogspot.com, has attracted more than 2m readers.
She is now writing an opera libretto, SILVER BIRCH, for the composer Roxanna Panufnik – a commission for Garsington Opera 2017. Her play A WALK THROUGH THE END OF TIME often pops up at music festivals to introduce Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and has been performed by actor teams including Harriet Walter & Henry Goodman and Janet Suzman & Michael Pennington.
Jessica lives in London with her violinist husband and two big fluffy cats. She loves long walks, cooking, ballet, theatre and scouring second-hand bookshops for out-of-print musical gems. Special passions include Russian literature and Nordic Noir.
Watch an interview with Jessica by Melanie Spanswick:
Watch a preview of the Schumann Violin Concerto in which Jessica tells its story:
And don’t forget to follow her and check her page:
I’m writing this review on behalf of Rosie’s Book Review Team. I was given an ARC copy of this book and I voluntarily chose to review it.
I enjoy reading in a variety of genres but have recently realised that I really enjoy historical fiction, as it offers me both, great stories and a background that’s interesting in its own right and that often offers me insight into eras and situations I know little about.
When I read the description of this novel I thought it sounded very different to what I usually read, but fascinating at the same time. A mystery surrounding a piece of music (a violin concerto) by a famous composer (Robert Schuman) that has been hidden for a long time. I love music but I’m not a deep connoisseur, and I didn’t realise when I read about the novel that the story was based on facts (it follows quite closely the events that took place in the 1930s, involving Hungarian (later nationalised British) violinist Jelly d’Arányi, and a concert Schuman wrote whilst already interned in an asylum) and included an element of the paranormal. It’s one of those cases when reality upstages fiction.
Despite the incredible story, that’s fascinating in its own right, Jessica Duchen does a great job of bringing all the characters to life. The story is told in the third person mostly from Jelly’s point of view, although later in the book we also get to hear about Ully, a character that although not based on a real person brings much to the equation, as it offers us a German perspective on the story. Jelly, who lives with her sister, brother-in-law, niece and their dog, despite her many admirers and some failed romances, is single and dedicated heart and soul to her music. I easily identified with Jelly, although our vocations and personal circumstances are very different, but I appreciated her dedication and love for music and for her family, her horror at the social and historical circumstances she was living through, her difficulties fitting in, as a foreigner living abroad, and her awareness of the challenges and limitations she was facing due to her age. There are very touching moments, for example when Jelly goes to visit her secretary and friend at the hospital and gives an impromptu concert there, when she organises a tour of concerts in cathedrals, free for everybody, not matter their social class, to collect funds for the poor, and when she becomes plagued by self-doubt, due to her personal circumstances and to her failing health. Jelly is not perfect, and she appears naïve at times, showing little understanding of issues like race or politics, limited insight into her own beliefs about the spirit world, her feelings and hesitating about what to do in her personal life, but she is a credible and passionate human being, and she gets to confront many of her fears by the end of the book.
Apart from the gripping story and the background behind the discovery of the concert, there is the historical context of the 1930s. As Schuman was a German composer, somehow it became a matter of national importance to recover the concert and claim it as a German work. The changes in Germany, the atmosphere of menace and threat, the rise of dangerous nationalism, and how that was also reflected in Britain, where the sisters lived, was well reflected and built into the book, especially when, at first sight, it seems to be only marginally relevant to the central mystery. As several characters observe in the novel, a piece of music is not ‘just a piece of music’ any longer and everything becomes vested with particular significance, thanks to manipulation and propaganda, no matter what the original intention of the composer might have been. I suspect most people who read this book won’t be able to resist comparing the historical situation then to our current times and worry.
This novel is a joy to read, one of these cases when the story and the writing style are perfectly matched and one can almost hear the music flowing from the pages. A wonderful novel that I recommend to anybody interested in the period and in good writing. I’ll be closely watching this author in the future.
Thanks to Jessica Duchen for this wonderful book, thanks to Rosie for all her work picking up such great books and coordinating all of the reviewers (she’s a saint) and thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment and CLICK!