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Cover of Ghost Variations

The strangest detective story in the history of music

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.

1933. 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.

Jessica Duchen writes for The Independent on classical music, opera and ballet, and during the past 25 years has interviewed many of the world’s finest musicians. Her first four novels (published by Hodder) have gathered a loyal fan-base and wide acclaim. “Duchen has a rare talent which is increasingly being recognised” (Gavin Esler, The Glasgow Herald).

Jessica grew up in London, read music at Cambridge, also studying piano, and felt torn at first between the prospects of a musical career and a literary one. Having decided to be “sensible” – perhaps a debatable point – and choose the latter, she held editorial posts on several music magazines before going freelance to concentrate on writing.

Her interest in cross-genre arts finds music playing a vital role in her novels as well as her journalism, and she frequently narrates concert versions of two of them, Alicia’s Gift and Hungarian Dances. She is currently writing an opera libretto for the composer Roxanna Panufnik, a commission from Garsington Opera for 2017.

Her output also includes two plays, biographies of the composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Gabriel Fauré (both published by Phaidon) and her popular classical music blog, JDCMB (http://jessicamusic.blogspot.com).

Jessica lives in London with her violinist husband and their two cats. She enjoys playing the piano, preferably when nobody can hear her, as well as cookery, long walks and plundering second-hand bookshops for out-of-print musical gems.

Jelly laid out the letters alphabetically in a two-row semi-circle on the kitchen table – which seemed the least formal, least frightening environment. Beside them she set in place an upended tumbler. In his basket by the back door, Cesar yawned and thumped his tail before going back to sleep, nose on paws.

She scrawled “yes” and “no” on pieces of paper ripped from a notebook, each in her huge, untutored hand. She had gone to school for eight days; each time, she’d cried so much that eventually her mother could stand it no longer, took pity and kept her home. After that, Jelly could – and did – play her violin to her heart’s content. Today she fitted about twelve words on to an average piece of letter paper.

They lit a sole candle; around it the rest of the room disappeared into the night, while an island of surreal creamy gold highlighted the whorls in the old wooden surface. Now this seemed a cavern fit for other-worldly activities. The two women sat opposite each other; Jelly tried to steady her hand, which was quivering a little with nerves.

Read more...

Merry Christmas! And here's my nicest present ever...

Monday, 26 December 2016

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Dear friends and supporters,

A very merry Christmas to you all and my very best wishes for a wonderful year in 2017! I can't thank you enough for your enthusiasm for GHOST VARIATIONS through the year that is now ending. At a time when the world has left me with a few serious questions to ask someone, sometime, about what on earth was going on, you have helped me hang on to a bit of faith in humanity…

LAST CHANCE OF 2016 TO HEAR THE 'GHOST VARIATIONS' CONCERT

Monday, 31 October 2016

Jelly daranyl in exotic dress

Above: Jelly d'Arányi at her most exotic

 

Dear friends and supporters,

Do please join me, David Le Page and Viv McLean at the Barnes Music Society, London SW13, on the evening of Thursday 3 November for a last chance this year to hear the 'Ghost Variations' concert. All details and booking here.

The Leighton House concert went like a dream the other week and I was overjoyed afterwards…

THREE MORE GHOST VARIATIONS CONCERTS!

Friday, 30 September 2016

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Dear Ghost Variations friends,

It was lovely to see so many of you at St Mary's Perivale the other week for the first in our autumn series of Ghost Variations concerts. Thanks for joining us on that gorgeous Septumbral evening!

The good news is that there are three more chances to come and hear the show this year. In it, I narrate with extracts of the book plus some explanation, background and…

PLEASE COME TO ST MARY'S PERIVALE ON 7 SEPTEMBER!

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

St mary's perivale

Dear Ghost Variations friends, tomorrow my performance partners David Le Page and Viv McLean - an absolute knockout of a violin and piano duo - join me for the first of four concerts we are giving through the autumn based upon 'Ghost Variations'. I narrate, they play the appropriate music and thus we tell the story together. 

The first concert is on Wednesday 7 September at the exquisite 12th…

How to succeed as a writer in tough times...

Thursday, 18 August 2016

My dear friend Joanna Pieters, who used to be editor of The Strad magazine, now has her own creative life-coaching company. She has recently launched a series of podcasts in which she quizzes creative types from all fields about how and why they do what they do.

Since I've been finding the discussions absolutely riveting, I was tickled pink to be included. And I found her asking me about matters…

An A-Z of GHOST VARIATIONS continued: J– L

Monday, 15 August 2016

It's high time we carried on with the A-Z, otherwise the book will be out before it's finished! Just a couple of weeks to go now, and counting down hard... 

So, without further ado, here is...

J IS FOR JELLY D'ARÁNYI. Our heroine, pronounced Yelly, is a true-life legend in the musical world. The great-niece of the violinist, composer and professor Joseph Joachim - best friend to Brahms - she…

An endorsement from Sir András Schiff!

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Sir András Schiff is one of today's greatest pianists. Born in Hungary, he now lives in London and Italy and is celebrated the world over for his interpretations of the Austro/German heartlands of the piano repertoire, the music of his fellow countryman Bartók, and much more besides - though perhaps he has always been most associated with Bach. As a Hungarian emigré in London and someone who reveres…

COMPETITION: WIN A NEW CD OF THE SCHUMANN VIOLIN CONCERTO

Monday, 11 July 2016

Philippe's cd

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 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…

Why this, why now?

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

I started writing Ghost Variations about five years ago, in 2011, struck by the country's volatile mood and widespread interest in the 1930s. We'd had the 2008 crash, innumerable people were struggling, life was changing at an extraordinary rate as an ideologically-orientated government decided to hammer the country further by introducing "austerity" and big business cashed in for all it was worth…

A-Z of GHOST VARIATIONS: G to I...

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Dear friends,

I hope you've had an excellent bank holiday. I'm up to my eyeballs in the second edit at the moment, so not having a break, though I'm in need of one. 

Our A to Z of Ghost Variations continues today with G. Which is easy. Or is it?

G is for...GHOST VARIATIONS. 

First: there aren't ghosts. If you think Schumann is going to loom forth amid a fount of ectoplasm, you'll be disappointed…

A-Z of GHOST VARIATIONS - Part 2

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Let's continue the A-Z today with D-F. I was hoping to find a recording of Alexander Fachiri, Adila's husband, playing the cello - he was one of those frighteningly gifted people who not only had a fine career as lawyer, but was almost equally accomplished as a musician. However, nothing's come to light yet, so above there appears a recording by Adila and Jelly of a beautiful duet by Spohr, which…

An A-Z of GHOST VARIATIONS - part 1

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Dear friends,

This is the first part of an ongoing series about who's who and what's what in Ghost Variations. I thought it might be a fun way to whet your appetites! Our A-Z will appear in chunks of three or four at a time, with listening and/or viewing material whenever I can find it. And how better to begin than with...

A is for....ADILA.

Our heroine Jelly's closest ally, her much-loved…

Schumann's May

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Dear friends,

Warmest greetings from the Ghost Variations Shed, where May has brought us some much-needed sunshine and a publication date: the book will be out on 1 September.

That will be in time for an exciting round of associated concerts in which the violinist David Le Page, the pianist Viv McLean and I will present our programme of readings and music based on the book. Dates for your diary…

The other violinist of Ghost Variations!

Monday, 25 April 2016

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Hello, dear Ghost Variations supporters! I'm up to my eyeballs in the editing process at the moment, so please forgive the Shed silence these past weeks...but as the world has been very busy celebrating the centenary of Yehudi Menuhin this month (22 April) it seems a timely moment to take a closer look at the great violinist's role in our story.

Jelly's discovery of the Schumann Violin Concerto…

Gem collecting...

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

I've been keeping a "commonplace book" for [gulp] around 30 years. It's a chunky leather notebook in which, as a student in 1986, I began to copy out occasional pieces of prose or poetry that tugged at the bellropes in the back of my mind. The first entry was from a letter by the composer Claude Debussy, despairing at the uncongenial atmosphere in which he was attempting to study in Rome. His personality…

On the awkward bit

Monday, 14 March 2016

Of course, a book like this involves masses of "awkward bits". For the reader, it should hold the best of reality and fiction; for the writer, though, it entails the most tooth-gnashingly tricky aspects of both. 

Still, the most awkward bit of Ghost Variations - as you can imagine if you've read the synopsis - is those "spirit messages". Somehow we need to suspend disbelief to the point that these…

You are warmly invited to the first public presentation of GHOST VARIATIONS!

Sunday, 28 February 2016

On 21 March at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, London, at 7pm, I will be giving the first public presentation of GHOST VARIATIONS, together with my regular concert partners, violinist David Le Page and pianist Viv McLean. I'll start with an introductory talk about Jelly d'Arányi and the saga of the Schumann Violin Concerto, after which we will offer an alternation of readings from the book with music…

We're in The Independent today!

Monday, 22 February 2016

I'd hoped to do this article for The Independent a little closer to Ghost Variations' publication date, planned for summer, but, as you've probably heard, the paper is closing its print operations in late March and I have no idea whether or not I'll be writing for the new-look website version. Therefore I've done it now instead.

So here is the story of how Ghost Variations came to be. Enjoy! 

Mirren, Marin and me

Thursday, 4 February 2016

I was extremely fortunate - thanks to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - to be drafted in to a discussion on BBC Radio 4's "Women's Hour" this morning to talk about the Schumann Violin Concerto and how Jelly d'Arányi rediscovered it. I was sidekick to the dynamic conductor Marin Alsop, who is wielding the baton over the piece tonight (Thursday) in Basingstoke and on Saturday evening in the…

We made it - in less than two weeks!

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

It's all thanks to you, if you're reading this: Ghost Variations has reached its crowd-funding target in just 12 days. Currently support is running at 104 per cent and I can't quite believe my eyes. Yes! We're there! And faster than I ever believed possible.

You see, for as long as I've been writing novels, people have been saying to me: "Oh, er, you write about classical music? We don't think…

Meeting Jelly?

Friday, 22 January 2016

Many novelists will tell you their characters are real. At least, inside their heads. Even Charles Dickens, according to Claire Tomalin's fabulous biography, used to find that some of his creations kept him company, metaphorically speaking, until the end of his life - and he hated having to kill them when his narratives demanded it.

Some writers populate their novels with actual people. I remember…

Authors should be read, but neither seen nor heard. Oops...

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

First things first. Welcome to the GHOST VARIATIONS shed at Unbound! If you're reading this post, it means that you have either become a founder supporter of this rather "different" (="weird"?) book, or you might be considering it. For which, THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart. I've woken up on Day 2 of the campaign to find that we are 11 per cent funded, which means that it's off to a flying start…

David Chamberlain
David Chamberlain asked:

There won't be a hardcopy (signed or otherwise)?

Jessica Duchen
Jessica Duchen replied:

Hello David, thanks for your message. At the moment the plan is that this will be an e-book. I hope, though, that if it does well, Unbound may decide to do a print edition, or perhaps they might be able to do print on demand. If either of those happens, I would be delighted to sign a copy for you!
All the best,
Jessica

Rami Abiel
Rami Abiel asked:

I just pledged to your novel and wish you lots and lots of luck and success. I hope it’ll be a film.

Jessica Duchen
Jessica Duchen replied:

Hello Rami, thank you so much for your contribution and your good wishes. I do hope you'll enjoy the book - and it would be brilliant if anyone wanted to turn it into a film. My ideal cast would include Kristin Scott Thomas, Helena Bonham Carter, Romola Garai and Sebastian Koch, for starters!
All the best,
Jessica

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