Ghost Variations

By Jessica Duchen

The strangest detective story in the history of music

Monday, 15 August 2016

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

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 was not only a superlative violinist, but one whose charisma, charm and adventurous musical spirit inspired an extraordinary number of composers to create new works for her. She is probably best known today for these, especially Ravel's Tzigane - a virtuoso masterpiece delivered to her to learn just three days before she was to give the world premiere at London's Wigmore Hall - and also Bartók's violin sonatas, dedicated to her sister Adila yet premiered and widely performed by Jelly, often with Bartók himself at the piano. Add to these Vaughan Williams's Concerto Accademico, Ethel Smyth's Double Concerto for Violin and Horn, Gustav Holst's Double Concerto (for two violins, to be performed by Jelly and Adila) and a beautiful, recently resuscitated sonata by FS Kelly (of whom more in a moment) and you begin to realise the impact that she left upon the musical sphere she inhabited.

Jelly was born in Budapest in 1893, the youngest of three musical sisters. Encouraged by her great-uncle (Onkel Jo) as a child, she studied there with Jeno Hubay, very young; after the girls and their mother moved to the UK, she had little further formal training or schooling. She seems to have been a self-taught intellectual sponge, adoring Greek literature, philosophy, poetry such as the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. She was not conventionally beautiful; she had a dusky face with deep, Hungarian-slanted eyes, Slavic cheekbones, a smile that could at times look slightly goofy, a laugh that her family described as a "gurgle". But she was undoubtedly a famous charmer. Everyone fell in love with her. Composers wrote music for her; artists painted her; poets and authors captured her in words.

For instance, I've stumbled across a funny little vignette in a book by her friend Aldous Huxley (with whom she enjoyed a fascinating correspondence). Crome Yellow is an intriguing, cruel and perspicacious skit on a stay at a great house, implicitly Garsington; here we encounter a range of characters caught in the ferment of the 1920s. One minor character is a mysterious young woman named Jenny, who wears her hair in plaits coiled around her ears (just as Jelly used to) - which renders her unable to hear anything. She seems guileless, child-like, innocent...until the book's chief protagonist snoops into her journal and sees that in it she has been amusing herself by drawing vicious caricatures of everyone else. Ultimately she is depicted playing the drums in a fairground band, smiling mysteriously to herself the while. Can we imagine where he found such a character?

And then there was the Schumann Violin Concerto... but you'll need to read the book to find out more about that.

Above, hear Jelly play some other Schumann: the 'Gartenmelodie' from his Op.85, with Ethel Hobday at the piano.


K IS FOR FREDERICK SEPTIMUS KELLY. A young Australian composer, educated at Eton and Oxford (where he was a pupil and friend of Donald Francis Tovey), Kelly had a second string to his bow: he was a rowing champion, winning a gold medal at the London Olympic Games of 1908. In the First World War he became an officer, only to be killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, having managed to survive Gallipoli. He met Jelly through Tovey when she was about 16 and he was somewhat older, in his late twenties. A fine pianist, he frequently accompanied her. And he appears to have been the love of her life. Her family described him as her only fiancé; after his death she kept his portrait on her piano. There is, however, no sign that there was any formal engagement, or even that he'd declared any feelings for her. Indeed, the consensus seems to be that he was possibly gay. Still, Jelly is often described as his muse.

Which brings us to...

L IS FOR LOVE. Ghost Variations is not a love story in the conventional sense - but every page involves love of one sort or another. The love of a musician for her art; the love between siblings; between parents and children; between close friends. The love that might have been, yet never was. The old love of long admiration, lingering. The new love of fresh admiration, spurring on. The love of Clara Schumann for Robert, driving her to suppress works she deemed not worthy of him. The love involving shared enthusiasm and endeavour. And on it goes. Jelly never married; her love life, assuming there was one beyond Kelly, was kept extremely private; and so for the book's purposes there's a thread of a love story in the past and a hint of one possibly ahead. Yet to suggest that ultimately she was wedded to her art is not as fanciful as it may sound. Listen to her playing, above, and you'll hear why...

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