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...

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Sir András Schiff on 'Ghost Variations'

I've received a rather splendid endorsement for Ghost Variations. It's going on the cover.
"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

(There is still time to pre-order the e-book and get your name listed as a patron, incidentally. Publication due on 1 September.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Meet Cecilia Bartoli, opera's Renaissance woman

My interview with Cecilia Bartoli at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival appeared in the i yesterday. They don't put everything online, so here it is, below the picture.

Cecilia Bartoli as Maria 1. © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli

It is almost impossible not to love Cecilia Bartoli: the Italian mezzo-soprano is a singer with a magic edge. The voice, like the woman, has immense personality: a technicolour range, a distinctive timbre simultaneously bright and mellow, and a way of expressing emotion so direct that it can melt any heart in one phrase. 

This summer she sings two very different roles: Maria in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Salzburg Festival, and Bellini’s bel canto classic Norma at the Edinburgh Festival, a production originally from Salzburg. The latter, directed by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, has been a triumph internationally, resetting the action in the Second World War. West Side Story, however, drags Salzburg itself into the present day. Bartoli, as artistic director of the city’s long-weekend Whitsun Festival, has brought Mozart’s home town its first taste of this 20th-century classic live on stage. 

Bartoli arrives in a business suit the morning after the show, long hair scraped back: she is in directorial mode, her conversation as lively and warm as her singing. This is a big year for her. She has just turned 50 and, having held the Whitsun Festival post for five years, she has now signed up for another five. 

It is relatively unusual for an opera star to become artistic director of such a festival; even rarer for a female one. Bartoli agrees that it’s still a man’s world. “When they asked me to become artistic director I was astonished,” she says. “My predecessor was Maestro Riccardo Muti. It was always a man, and a conductor. I said to them, ‘Are you sure you want a woman?’ Also I’m younger, a new generation compared to the others.”

In Salzburg, 50 is the new 25. Bartoli laughs aside her big birthday: “I still feel as I did ten years ago,” she says. Born in Rome into a family of singers, she has already enjoyed 30 years on stage, progressing with remarkable consistency since her debut at 19 through a wholesome diet of baroque, classical and bel canto roles. Her recording career, though, is notable for fascinating projects – concept albums, if you like: strong programmes presented with upmarket artistic integrity and eye-catching glamour, transforming music as unlikely as Russian baroque or the repertoire of the 19th-century mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran into significant successes.

West Side Story is her first foray into any form of “crossover” – though it fulfils what she declares is a long-held dream of singing Maria. The production, directed by Philip Wm. McKinley, is now a centrepiece for this year’s summer festival, where Bartoli hopes it will have a somewhat rejuvenating effect.

“When we announced West Side Story for Whitsun, we sold the tickets in one week,” she beams, undaunted by a few iffy reviews. “For summer it is sold out too. There’s a new audience coming to Salzburg for it, and this is what we want! People from musicals will come, and people from opera, and this fusion is in the piece already. 

“What is West Side Story?” she muses. “It’s a musical, but not a musical; it’s an opera, but not an opera. Leonard Bernstein wanted operatic singers for his recording: Tony was sung by José Carreras and Maria by Kiri te Kanawa. The roles need solid singers with solid technique who can sustain the high registers without screaming.” That is especially needed with the energetic Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, flaming away in the pit.

In the production two Marias take the stage: Bartoli sings from the sidelines as the older Maria looking back on her first love when she was 16. Maria 1 sings; Maria 2 does the action and the dancing. On stage throughout, Bartoli has the presence and the emotional all-givingness to pull off the tricky presentation and ensemble work; the bigger challenge, she says, was singing with a microphone. “I never had this experience before,” she admits. “You have to play much more with colour, with nuances and with the words. It’s not a question of projection – it’s more about how to be delicate.” There was no question of not using a mic, she adds: “West Side Story was conceived like this from the beginning; it was always done with amplification.”

In contrast, Bellini’s Norma, which she is bringing to Edinburgh, is a masterpiece of subtle, bel canto writing. It was one of Maria Callas’s signature roles – her searing soprano a very different timbre from Bartoli’s mezzo. Usually Norma is a soprano and Adalgisa, for whom Norma’s lover leaves her, is the mezzo. Dramatically, Bartoli points out, Adalgisa should probably be the younger woman. “But in many castings Adalgisa sounds older than Norma, and in many cases she’s also older in the passport.” 

“This Norma is special because we have a period-instrument orchestra and try to recreate the cast that Bellini had for his premiere,” she explains. Bellini’s first Norma, in 1831, was Giuditta Pasta: “Many of her roles are today considered repertoire for mezzo-soprano,” Bartoli says. “I thought maybe we have to reconsider the role of Norma and try to present what Bellini composed, without any influence from the later 19th century. Bellini is closer to Mozart than to Puccini and his singers’ background would have involved Rossini, Mozart and Handel." 

“I hope we will now start a new era of performing bel canto opera with period instruments. It’s a real dialogue between the stage and the pit. Today often you have an orchestra of 100 people playing full out and you’re alone on stage trying to fight this...”

Bartoli has never had much trouble doing so. Her style makes up in detail and projection for anything she may lack in heft, and she has paced herself so carefully that she has avoided the physical and vocal problems that sometimes beset others. “This is the boss,” she smiles, tapping her voicebox. And looking further into the future, ten years at the helm of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival would qualify her for bigger artistic directorships, should she so wish. “I know how demanding that would be,” she reflects. “Maybe I’ll open a restaurant!”

Cecilia Bartoli sings Norma at the Edinburgh Festival, 5-9 August: . West Side Story is at the Salzburg Festival 20-29 August:

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ryedale on Sunday

It's all paws on deck in JDCMB Towers. The other day the Silver Birch creative team had the first listen-through of the complete opera first draft in Roxanna Panufnik's garden shed, and very thrilling it was. Now it's just one year and one week to go until the premiere at Garsington Opera, 28 July 2017. The final edits of Ghost Variations have gone back to the editor and proofs plus cover design are awaited. And on Sunday A Walk through the End of Time is being performed at the Ryedale Festival in Yorkshire by Janet Suzman and Michael Pennington, so do please come along if you're within shouting distance of Helmsley.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

First Night of the Proms...

My review of the First Night of the Proms is up now at The Arts Desk. It proved perfect for the occasion, despite having been planned ages ago. And Sakari Oramo is absolutely wonderful.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Debussy for Nice

It's impossible to offer adequate musical responses for the atrocities we're seeing around the world - from Syria to Dallas to, today, Nice.

So this doesn't pretend to be adequate, but I hope it offers a moment of meditation and solidarity: Debussy's Violin Sonata in G minor - the composer's final work, written during World War I and signed simply 'Claude Debussy, musicien français'. Here it is played by Yehudi Menuhin - an artist who devoted a lion's share of his time and energy to bringing music to those in suffering and training young musicians to do so too; and Benjamin Britten - whose superb pianism remained much underrated beside his compositions - a pacifist and conscientious objector, with whom Yehudi played to survivors of Bergen-Belsen after its liberation.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Prime Minister engages with the musical community as never before

Apart from being remembered as the man who drove the UK over the cliff, Prime Minister David Cameron may also go down in history as the one who inspired the most music. All because he left his mic on after he made his speech on Monday saying he'd be leaving on Wednesday, and hummed a little tune as he walked inside - presumably singing a song as he waved us goodbye.

Since then the musical community has been very busy trying to identify the tune: The West Wing? Tannhäuser? It's difficult to tell, so instead, some exciting and creative musicians have been trying to turn it into something new, spurred on by a challenge from Classic FM.

Here's the pianist Gabriela Montero's splendid Bachian improvisation.

Composer Thomas Hewitt Jones has created an atmospheric cello lament, written and recorded between midnight and 2am on 12 July. He's had more than 140,000 hits already.

And last but by no means least, here's a clever piece of counterpoint, since Dave Cam is most definitely gone with the wind.

Our new Prime Minister, Theresa May
Is taking over later today,
Whatever happens, let her hum on her way... 

Ironically, the First Night of the Proms on Friday features one of the works she chose when she was on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs a couple of years ago: the Elgar Cello Concerto. Did they know something we didn't?

[A little update: the headline on this piece is in fact a joke. J. O. K. E. Irony and all that. One shouldn't have to point this out, but I guess we live in interesting times. One of the best ways to navigate through daily life in 'interesting times' is to try having a dark-hued belly-laugh at them. If it helps, good. If it doesn't, well, there it is.]

Monday, July 11, 2016


My friend and colleague Philippe Graffin, the fabulous French violinist, has just released his new recording of the Schumann Violin Concerto. As you know, this is the work that lies at the heart of my forthcoming novel, Ghost Variations. The CD also features Schumann's Phantasie in D minor for violin and orchestra and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor. Philippe is partnered by the Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto, conducted by Tuomas Rousi and the CD is now available from Cobra Records. I've written the programme notes.
Philippe and I have worked together on a number of other projects in the past: among these, he commissioned my first play, A Walk through the End of Time, for his music festival in France, and recorded a CD of Gypsy-inspired works to partner my third novel, Hungarian Dances
Philippe has kindly provided three copies of the CD for me to award as prizes for a very special Ghost Variations competition.
Within the novel I have embedded a number of references to another work by Schumann: a particular song cycle. To enter the competition, correctly identify the work's title and spot all the references to it and its words in the text, list them, then send them in a PRIVATE MESSAGE to the Ghost Variations Facebook page (not a public post, please, or everyone else will see your answers!):
I'll put all the correct entries in a hat and draw out the names of three lucky winners. 
The closing date is 2 January 2017, which gives you four months from the novel's publication date, 1 September 2016, to grab your copy, read it and make notes accordingly.
Happy reading!
And if you haven't already done so, don't forget to pre-order your e-book by pledging for it now at

Friends in America and Europe-proper, Unbound can now take payments in $ and € as well as the plunging £.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Women Who Rock!

The other day Surbiton High School for girls asked me to adjudicate a competition in their music department. 'Women Who Rock' was the brainchild of their head of music and her dynamic, young, mainly female team: the Year 9 girls, working in small teams, were asked to create poster presentations about exciting female musicians, some 70 of them, ranging from Hildegard of Bingen to Amy Winehouse and Mirga Grażinytė-Tyla. The posters lined the walls of the rooms and the staircases, and so impressive were they that picking a winner proved a jolly difficult task.

In the end first prize went to the presentation about Jacqueline du Pré: a giant black cello painted on a dark background, with her story, her significance and the team's responses to her playing set into an advent-calendar format, each paragraph behind a different photo. They'd really engaged with her personality, her playing and her tragedy and the concept was strong, simple, striking and appropriate.

Chiefly, though, what I came away with was a sense of delight. Generally we hear so much about how music is sidelined in the curriculum, how women musicians are not recognised or studied (until a 17-year-old girl demanded a couple of years ago that an exam board add some to the A level syllabus) and how the specific issues that affect women in the industry are not thoroughly enough scrutinised or mended. Here was a music department that not only put Maria Callas, Thea Musgrave and Nina Simone before their students, but raised awareness of those issues - including role model significance, matters of body image, industry pressures and in many cases the need to fight for the right to be a musician against societal prejudices. It got the students thinking, reading, listening, responding and celebrating.

I do hope that more schools will consider following suit with similar projects. These matters aren't always down to the curriculum; they depend, instead, on teachers with great ideas, creativity, passion and leadership. If we always left everything to the curriculum, nothing especially creative would ever happen - and children and young people are creatives par excellence. Bravi, Surbiton - you already are women who rock!

Meanwhile, in a stroke of almost unutterable irony, it looks like some significant chunks of the western world will be largely run by women, rather soon.

Friday, July 01, 2016

The Somme, 1 July 1916

Poppies. Photo: John Beniston via Wikipedia

Below, the Elegy for Strings, "In Memoriam Rupert Brooke", by Frederick Septimus Kelly, the young Australian composer who was killed at the Battle of the Somme in summer 1916. Jelly d'Arányi, who had hoped to marry him, kept his picture on her piano for the rest of her life.

Please take a moment to remember that the organisation that unites European countries under one big umbrella was formed after World War II in order to stop wars from happening again between its member states. Today it's called the European Union. People in the UK last week voted by a narrow margin to leave this organisation.

It's chiefly a protest vote that lashes out against the holders of power and against that catch-all scapegoat, people who look different, speak a different language or come from somewhere else. Unfortunately the deprivation and alienation in many English and Welsh communities is the result of successive British government policies - e.g., the closure of our manufacturing bases and the mines, "austerity", etc - over the last 30-odd years (see this damning report about the UN's confirmation that the austerity regime breaches the UK's international human rights obligations). The EU actually put money into regenerating these places.

The nation that sent its finest young men to fight for our freedom a hundred years ago has now been sold down the river by a bunch of liars and jokers who were high on their own power and are living to regret it. Ironically, Theresa May, current front-runner for the vacant Tory leadership, has more or less declared that if she becomes PM the fiscal plan - the excuse for these past years of "austerity" - is dead in the water [update, 12.50pm: Chancellor George Osborne has just confirmed that the aim of a budget surplus by 2020 is being ditched]. Just in time for our Brexit-induced recession in 2017.

With any luck, this referendum can be turned to positive effect. It's exposed the depth of our societal fault-lines and the extent of the inequality that recent ideologies have worsened. It would take something as seismic as this to force a policy rethink. Now that rethink must happen, not a moment too soon.

It's not impossible that the structures of constitutional law may yet reveal Brexit as unworkable or illegal - it looks suspiciously as if it may be both. But if it does go ahead, we have to find a way to fight for the guarantees and conditions our businesses need in order to keep functioning on a global stage, and if those sunny uplands vaunted by the Leave camp turn out to exist, we have to seize the supposed opportunities they offer, whatever they may be (look, there goes another unicorn!). But the Article 50 button would have to be pushed first, and it'll be a bloody-minded PM indeed who is able to do that to his/her own country, especially when it could result in the break-up of the UK.

As we all remember the Battle of the Somme and the horrors of World War I today, let's reflect for a moment on the irony - and the hypocrisy - of the current situation.

Over to "Sep" Kelly.