By David Templeton | From the May-June 2022 issue of Strings magazine
“I’ve always been fascinated by storytelling,” explains Berlin-based violinist Daniel Hope, succinctly identifying the motivations for his gradually escalating side career as a maker of music-themed documentaries. His first experience with filmmaking was Terezín: Refuge in Music, directed by Dorothee Binding and Benedict Mirow, constructed around Hope’s efforts to bring to light music by Jewish musicians who died at the hands of Nazis in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Another idea of his became the 2013 film Secrets of the Violin, in which he explores the history and mystery of the world’s remaining Stradivari and Guarneri violins.
The son of an Irish father and a German mother, Hope was born and raised in South Africa. As a violinist, he performed with the esteemed Beaux Arts Trio for its final six seasons, has appeared as a soloist with many of the great orchestras of the world, and is currently the music director the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and San Francisco’s New Century Chamber Orchestra. His long list of honors includes receiving the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and the European Culture Prize for Music. He has recorded over 30 albums, including the recent Deutsche Grammophon release America, featuring music by Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, and others.
A keen interest in his family’s roots inspired the years of deep research that led to the making of that 2013 documentary, just as it inspired his latest project, a newly released film titled Celtic Dreams: Daniel Hope’s Hidden Irish History. In mid-March of 2022, I spoke with Hope after a day of recording in Berlin.
You seem to be taking on more documentary projects. Did you suddenly decide one day that playing the violin didn’t keep you busy enough?
Well, it feels like something I have to do. When I discovered the music of Theresienstadt, the concentration camp, and I started to perform that music, it led me on a journey where I met survivors and interviewed them. I had the idea at one point to take that material and start making a film, but it took 20 years to actually do that. But we did make the film, and I guess I had this feeling that I wanted to do more, that there were more stories to tell.
Then came the pandemic and I was thrown into creating 150 episodes of what became Hope@Home, a series I put together from my living room. The program was streamed around the world, reaching millions during the height of the pandemic and was broadcast on Arte, a French and German television network. The idea started out as a very small chamber-music house concert, which I was going to do daily for perhaps a week or two weeks, and it turned into well over a year, with more than 400 artists involved.
During that time, we had daily access to a film crew, and I cemented the relationship I had with the people who were making the series, and we were able to form our own production company. And that’s where we are now. We are able to make films about music and produce livestreams. I feel very lucky now to be able to pursue themes that fascinate me and then turn them into stories.
I imagine you learned a lot during the time you were doing Hope@Home.
I did. We actually went live on the air within 24 hours of deciding to do it, and there was no producer and no script. We were totally improvising, but I had this incredible team. They were doing live editing, of course, and I would watch them and pay attention to how they would shoot things, and how one makes classical music sound really good on camera.
That was the fundamental idea behind doing this. I didn’t want just another stream, where you have a compromise in terms of sound. I wanted the best possible professional sound. So we started with that and then put the visuals around it.
Did you hear back from people watching the program around the world?
Oh, yes. It was just an incredible privilege to be able to provide this in such an intimate way. My wife and I would read through the comments people posted online at the end of the evening, and it was so amazing. It felt like a real community had been created around those shows.
What was it like going from that pandemic lockdown production to working on a film where you were driving around Ireland?
Going on to the Ireland film was fascinating because we had the same team, but we were not confined to a living room. We were out in the open. We were out in Ireland, and so we could bring in the filmmaking elements even more, which we couldn’t do when we were shooting within four walls.
The Ireland film, from what I understand, was a very personal project for you.
Arte said to me after the production of Hope@Home, “We would like you to explore musical themes that you are interested in and create documentaries about them, and just run with that.” Basically, they want me to do that once a year. So this is my first departure into that realm.
I’ve spent a lot of time researching my family history on my mother’s side, which is the German side, but much less on my father’s side, which is the Irish side. I knew a little from my grandma, who was Irish and whom I remember a bit—I remember her singing, but not much more than that. So I decided to go to Ireland with my dad and try to find out where we came from, to try and find his grandfather’s house, and explore the story of his grandfather.
He was an immigrant who ran away at the end of 19th century and went to South Africa, which is where I was born, as my father was. So it was retracing our family’s steps, but it was also about the music, of course. With me, it’s always about the music.
I was able to connect with musicians there that I greatly admire and with musicians whom I didn’t know who could inform me about what Irish music is at its heart and soul. It gives the viewer a chance to dive into Ireland and its music, and at the same time the experience was, I guess, a kind of therapy, to find out about where I’m from and why I have an Irish passport. I’ve always had an Irish passport but to be there and be welcomed by the people there and to be told, “You’re one of us,” that was very special.
What was your most powerful experience during the making of the film?
Well, one of the most amazing things is that we found my great grandfather’s house. There were still records of him, even though he was still a teenager when he ran away from home in the 19th century, running from an extremely poor family. We went to the mayor’s office in this little town of Waterford, in the south of Ireland, where we found things about him, including the location of the house he lived in. So we went there. The house is still standing and it hasn’t changed—this tiny, tiny house on a small side street where he lived with his seven siblings in one and a half rooms.
To experience that with my father, who knew and loved his grandfather, was quite moving. We knocked on the door, but no one was home, and my father said, “I’m rather glad no one answered because my grandfather isn’t there.” So it was a return to a past that we hadn’t had, and that was tremendously emotional and tremendously powerful for us.
I presume you’ve selected a theme for your next documentary?
Yes. It’s going to be about the Hollywood exile composers, composers who escaped from the Nazis and ended up in California working in the movies. It’s a deeply fascinating subject, and one that’s close to my heart. I’ve done a great deal of research on it, and have already recorded one album on this theme, Escape to Paradise, which we released in 2014.
So after a lengthy career thinking of yourself as a musician, are you now thinking of yourself as a filmmaker, too?
Oh, absolutely not! I have too much respect for real filmmakers to say that. I’ve made a few films now, but I’m at the very beginning of that journey and I have a long way to go. But I do love it. I’m a musician, and I will always be a musician, but whether I make films or present television and radio programs linked to what I do, it’s always going to be done through the music. It’s all about the music.