Jessica Duchen and Beethoven's 'Immortal Beloved'


by Christopher Morley

In lockdown times music critics, deprived of reviewing opportunities, are turning to less ephemeral forms of writing. In my own case, my autobiographical Confessions are due for publication very soon, and I have just completed Trio of Devotion, a novel about the relationship between Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms.

But Jessica Duchen has combined the wearing of journalistic hats and "proper" writing hats for many years, and has recently published her latest novel, "Immortal", exploring the secret love Beethoven carried in his heart, and to whom he wrote one of the most poignant love-letters ever penned; he never sent it.

Jessica tells me how her career developed.

"My parents were born in Johannesburg and moved to London in the 1950s. They were strongly anti-apartheid and my father refused to go back while that system was in place. So I grew up in an atmosphere where anti-racism and a sense of justice were very much present," she remembers.

"In many ways it was a typical north London Jewish intellectual household. I learned piano, violin, oboe and ballet, but only the piano lived to tell the tale. I went to a typical academic high-achieving girls' school that pushed me into Cambridge, where the course... er... left something to be desired. It was made clear that women were not welcome on the composition course, and it was a constant struggle for time and place to practise the piano.

" But I had been fortunate with my piano teachers. As a teenager I studied with Patsy Toh. Once I arrived for a lesson and someone was playing Schubert in her front room - Sviatoslav Richter, who was friendly with Patsy's husband, Fou Ts'ong!

"Later I went to Joan Havill, whose detailed, technical and analytical excellence gave me, not least, the tools to keep on teaching myself.

"The Dartington International Summer School of Music changed my life. At 16, I was lucky enough to be accepted into a masterclass with a young Hungarian pianist named András Schiff. Absorbing his musicianship and teaching for a week, surrounded by an entire courseload of people who loved music as much as I did, was a revelation. I realised that there was a music world and I could be part of it. I made friends there who are still friends today."

At the age of 23 Jessica decided to give up her piano studies and go for a "sensible" job, eventually securing the post of assistant editor on The Strad magazine.

"I worked in various editorial capacities for about ten years," she continues." I wrote for the Guardian on and off, then one day offered a piece to The Independent and ended up working for them for 12 years.

" I've always had what's now termed a 'portfolio career' - which has proved quite sensible, since it is rare to lose all the income streams at once. They all involve writing about music or for music, in one form or another."

Part of Jessica's portfolio career involves performing, but no longer as a pianist.

"Over the last 10-11 years I've taken to narrating concerts based on my novels, which I enjoy enormously. As I don't have to play the piano, I don't feel nervous!

" I have enjoyed some fantastic collaborations, notably with the pianist Viv McLean and the violinist David Le Page, who is now artistic director of the Orchestra of the Swan.. The 'Ghost Variations' programme with David and Viv involved repertoire played by the great Jelly d'Arányi (dedicatee of Ravel's Tzigane) and culminated in the Schumann Violin Concerto - we particularly enjoyed bringing that to the Artrix Arts Centre in Bromsgrove, where we had the most brilliant technical support and were able to enhance the concert with photographic projections. I'm so sad to hear that Artrix has fallen victim to the pandemic and has had to close down".

Jessica Duchen is a very industrious writer, of operatic libretti, biographies of composers, and novels based on musical facts How did she get into the latter genre?

"My first books were biographies of Korngold and Fauré for the Phaidon 20th-century Composers series, opportunities that were both rare and enjoyable. As for novels, I've been writing them (or trying to) since I was 12, although it wasn't until 2006 that my 'first novel' was published.

"]While I was researching my third novel, 'Hungarian Dances', I stumbled across a biography of the d'Arányi sisters - Jelly and Adila, both extraordinary violinists in the 1910s-30s. This volume contained the most bizarre musical story I'd ever seen: Jelly's discovery of a long-suppressed Schumann Violin Concerto via, supposedly, a ouija board. The more I read around this, the more this story seemed the perfect musical-historical thriller. This eventually turned into 'Ghost Variations'."

Jessica then goes on to tell me how the idea of 'Immortal' suggested itself to her.

"Some years ago I was invited to give a talk on 'Beethoven and Women' in a festival of Beethoven string quartets at the Artrix Arts Centre in Bromsgrove. I started reading and couldn't stop. What a can of worms!

"The fights around the 'Immortal Beloved"'s identity were probably worthy of a novel in their own right; obsessive researchers had picked over the details in astonishing depth, sometimes to what felt like an almost unhealthy degree. There are two principal theories: Antonie Brentano (the wife of one of Beethoven's closest friends and patrons) and Josephine Brunsvik (a pupil of Beethoven's with whom he is known to have been passionately in love).

"The more I read, the more it seemed a gigantic love story, extending from 1799 all the way to the 1820s. Today leading academics acknowledge a 90 per cent likelihood that Josephine is the right solution. Absolute proof is not actually possible unless we exhume for DNA testing Beethoven and the person - or people - who might be his illegitimate child. Intriguingly, both theories give him an illegitimate child. But for now, it seemed that fiction was the most honest way to present it.

"I thought all this was much too big a book to attempt. Because it has such bearing on Beethoven's music, I thought I'd simply create a narrated concert about it for the anniversary year [cue 2020 hollow laughter], but one day I found myself telling the whole saga to a musician friend over lunch and he insisted point blank that I had to write it. The anniversary was heaving into view, so it was now or never, and I would kick myself if I didn't…"

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