Schumann’s only violin concerto vanished after his death in 1856, only to re-emerge in the 1930s. The amazing story of its rediscovery is told in a new novel and concert. Inge Kjemtrup meets its author, Jessica Duchen
Robert Schumann threw himself into the Rhine in 1854, and upon his rescue, committed himself to an asylum, where he died two years later. This left his wife, Clara, with the sad task of deciding what to do with his many unpublished scores, including his only violin concerto, written in 1853. The concerto, for various reasons, was lost, and the fantastic story of its rediscovery in the 1930s is the subject of Ghost Variations, a novel by British music journalist Jessica Duchen.
The novel boasts an intriguing cast of real-life characters: Yehudi Menuhin, British pianist Myra Hess, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and Hungarian-born violinist Jelly d’Arányi.
The fiery violin playing of d’Arányi, the central character of Ghost Variations, inspired new works by Bartók (Romanian Folk Dances), Ravel (Tzigane), and others, but she is little remembered today. Her search for the Schumann concerto would prove fateful to her life and career.
When readers first encounter d’Arányi in the novel, she is living in a rambling, messy house (known as “Hurricane House” to friends) in Chelsea. She lives with her sister, Adila Fachiri (also a violinist and a former student of their “Onkel Jo,” the famed violinist Joseph Joachim) and her sister’s family.
Adila, along with her friend, Swedish diplomat Baron Erik Palmstierna, liked to play “the glass game”—something like an Ouija board—that was popular in the period just after World War I. Whether or not the glass game really conjured up a “spirit message” from Robert Schumann, by 1933, d’Arányi was convinced of the existence of the concerto. A visit by Palmstierna to the Prussian State Library in Berlin confirmed its existence. And so the competition for the first public performance of the long-lost Schumann concerto got under way.
All the participants in this competition had their own motivations. Schott wanted to publish the concerto, ignoring the 100-year performance embargo placed on the piece after Schumann’s death by Joseph Joachim, for whom the work was written and who, along with Johannes Brahms, felt it should be suppressed as an inferior work.
The Nazis wanted a top-rank German violin concerto to replace the popular but banned concerto by Felix Mendelssohn, a Jewish composer. Meanwhile, young Yehudi Menuhin wanted to be the first to play the concerto. D’Arányi felt that she should be the first to perform it, because her contact with Schumann’s spirit had brought the concerto back into view.
“In ‘Ghost Variations,’ Duchen skillfully brings to life the London milieu of Jelly d’Arányi and her family and friends.”
In Ghost Variations, Duchen skillfully brings to life the London milieu of Jelly d’Arányi and her family and friends. Duchen has written two composer biographies (on Fauré and Korngold), along with several novels. It was while she was researching the cross currents of Gypsy and classical violin playing for her third novel, Hungarian Dances, that she came across d’Arányi. In a book about the d’Arányi family, she says, “I stumbled across a chapter titled ‘The truth about the Schumann concerto,’ and I thought, ‘The what?’” A visit several years later with d’Arányi’s great niece revived her interest in d’Arányi and the Schumann story.
Most of the characters in the novel are real, people who were part of d’Arányi’s circle. “I have respect and admiration for these people, and wanted to do them justice,” Duchen says. She is particularly a fan of the pianist Myra Hess, recalled today for her piano transcription of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and for her morale-boosting concerts at London’s National Gallery during the Blitz. She appears in the novel as a mother figure, supportive but sensible, and she provides an important clue when she plays a passage from Schumann’s Ghost Variations—“a little theme by Schumann that nobody knows”—that happens to share a theme with a movement of the violin concerto.
Musicologist Donald Tovey also plays a key supporting role. Tovey is skeptical of the d’Arányi sisters’ “spirit messages” from Schumann (and the performance advice that supposedly comes from the composer) but he is intrigued enough to help d’Arányi in her quest and feels Schumann is owed a reassessment of his concerto. Tovey translates for her a letter from Joachim about the concerto: “He doesn’t like it very much. He says it shows, and I quote, ‘a certain exhaustion, which attempts to wring out the last resources of spiritual energy,’ though ‘certain individual passages bear witness to the deep feeling of the creative soul.’”
Ulli Schultheiss, a decent man caught up in a corrupt era, is an assistant editor at Schott and Söhne in Mainz, the publishers to whom the Schumann family entrusted the manuscript. In a chilling meeting between Schott and Nazi leaders, including Goebbels, Ulli daringly defends d’Arányi’s right to premiere the Schumann concerto. This scene is based on a real story, Duchen says, though whether the odious Goebbels attended is not known.
I confess to some disappointment when Duchen reveals to me that Ulli is entirely fictitious. Ulli’s purpose in the novel, Duchen explains, is to “provide a window into Germany of the time.” It was an era when the Nazis tightly controlled art and music for propaganda purposes, and the output of a leading music publishing firm like Schott was closely scrutinized.
After much cloak and dagger, the concerto was premiered by the Reich-approved violinist Georg Kulenkampff, in Berlin on November 26, 1937. Menuhin’s performance followed at Carnegie Hall on December 6, 1937. It helped re-launch his career, bridging that awkward phase between child prodigy and fully fledged artist.
Jelly d’Arányi gave the British premiere on February 16, 1938, with Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Queen’s Hall, an acoustically stunning venue that would be destroyed during the Blitz of London in 1941. Her performance was a success but her career never regained momentum. Duchen speculates that d’Arányi never had the management she needed after the war. She also suffered debilitating physical ailments. In the 1950s, d’Arányi and her sister moved to a house just outside Florence, Italy, where she died in 1966.
Schumann’s three-movement concerto is firmly in the violin repertory today, but has never replaced the Mendelssohn in the public’s affections, despite the appeal of the gorgeous slow movement. David Le Page, violinist in Duchen’s recent Ghost Variations “concert of the novel” performance series, thinks the concerto doesn’t lend itself to quick acquaintance. “It’s something that draws you in really slowly as a listener and a player,” he says. “It only gradually reveals itself to you, so on one listen I think it’s quite hard for the audience because it’s really mysterious and somewhat impenetrable.”
The concert series, performed at several different venues in the UK (the series ends in Leicester on February 22), features Duchen reading excerpts from the novel, interlaced with performances by violinist Le Page and pianist Viv McLean of music connected with the story, including works by Bartók, Mendelssohn, F.S. Kelly, Brahms, Ravel, Hubay, and, of course, Schumann himself. The novel excerpts help frame the music for both the audience and performers, according to Le Page, and lead to deeper audience connections and moving musical moments. “The reaction I love the most I think is towards the end of the concert and there’s a sort of valedictory summing up of Jelly’s life,” he says. “We play the Schumann, and then the Schumann morphs into the Ghost Variations, which we heard at the beginning of the concert. And I think that’s a wonderful moment: it’s very still . . . and in a way you don’t want that to be broken by applause.”
If one isn’t able to attend one of the concerts, there are many available recordings of Schumann’s elusive concerto, and Brahms and Elgar both borrowed themes from it. “Menuhin described it as a missing link,” says Duchen, though she says it’s not Schumann’s greatest work because “it has pacing issues. A really great violinist can work miracles with it, though.”
Duchen is fond of Menuhin’s 1938 recording: “It’s absolutely heavenly!” Like so many of Schumann’s works, the concerto is often played with full-blooded Romantic spirit, as in another recording Duchen admires, by Renaud Capuçon. “I think you need to be an intelligent player to play it well,” Duchen says, citing other favorites by Henryk Szeryng, Christian Tetzlaff, and Philippe Graffin.
Fortunately, a Ghost Variations concert was within easy distance of my London home, and I caught a performance at the Burgh House in north London one day at the end of November. My walk to the Burgh House, from the Hampstead Tube station down a narrow, dimly lit cobblestone alleyway, spirited me away from 21st-century London and into the volatile years of the 1930s. Inside a lovely, wood-paneled room at the Burgh House, hearing music from d’Arányi’s era, I consider the series of events that brought this concerto to the public again. As Ulli muses as he listens to Kulenkampff play the concerto: “Within this musical jungle lay a naked beauty so exposed that it seemed almost indecent. Schumann’s soul might be damaged and suffering, but he still gave its entirety. Could it ever have been right to leave this music unheard?”