Experience suggests that Juxtaposing language and music successfully in a recital setting can be tricky. I can recall only one instance when I have found it entirely overwhelming. It was in Cambridge in the 80’s when in the first part of the evening two actors read from letters written after WW1 between a mortally ill Lady Elgar and her husband , letters centring on the final flowering of the composer’s genius, in particular on the Piano Quintet, parts of which in the first part interweaved music with the letters to magical effect. At that time I was hardly aware that Elgar had even written any chamber works, never mind masterpieces of a calibre that rivalled those of Schumann and Brahms. Therefore the effect can be imagined when in the second part this was followed by the complete work being played by the Medici and I think the pianist John Bingham.( If I am right, it is one of those rather remarkable coincidences that there is on the Internet a 2003 Guardian obituary of the pianist written by Jessica Duchen, the author in this recital.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly since then as a format it has struggled to replicate such a memory. Janice Galloway’s reading from her novel Clara about Schumann’s last years set against some of the music was successful but it also highlighted the problem of selecting prose gobbets from a whole, and very fine, novel which will stand side by side with musical moments of genius. Prose needs space to make an effect , music is invariably instant in its effect and I remember even in this concert there were moments when I wished the torrent of words would cease and the music would take over.
Poetry is of course close to music in effect but even here there can be problems of marrying the two forms . At another concert, works by two greats, Benjamin Britten and Ted Hughes, created a car crash in a rendering of some of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the former’s succinctly beautiful and at times witty work for solo oboe was overwhelmed by an actor declaiming at full bore the English poet’s highly dramatic interpretation of the Latin original.
And then lastly there was a performance of a string version of the Goldberg Variations with pieces of startlingly pretentious poetic prose for each variation, resulting not least in converting a work of considerable length into one which seemed to stretch to eternity. I have never been so close to the feeling of drowning and as I came up for air a colleague of a similar academic background to my own looked me in the face and eloquently raised his eyebrows. I will not repeat what he said. So, in truth on what is a limited experience and with all these prejudices, I have to admit that I was not really looking forward to this particular Lunchtime event.
How pleasant to find then that I need not have had such dark thoughts. It was soon clear that some considerable thought had gone into choice of content and how to shape it. It helped that there was here a story to tell and one about which this listener had no knowledge. After all the academics have spoken their wise words, it remains true that, like the children we once were, we continue to be delighted by being told a story. That is why the novel thrives as an art form and in this instance, I am ashamed to say that I had never heard of Jelly d’Aranyi nor had I heard a performance of the Schumann Violin Concerto. Hence I came to the material with no baggage and sat at the feet of the author.
And she told her tale well. The excerpts has clearly been chosen to give the audience their bearings and they were told with just enough panache to grip the attention but not too much so that one became acutely aware of listening to a ‘performance’. As far as one could tell from small bits taken out of the narrative structure of the novel , the liveliness of the central character’s personality emerges in the prose. At times the writing seemed blest with that priceless quality, wit. Instantly memorable was the portrait of Yehudi Menuhin’s father, angling to remove d’Aranyi as a competitor for the first performance. How moving also was the simplicity with which the audience was informed of the death at the Somme of the violinist’s possible suitor. Here one entered the world of so many women in the 20’s and 30’s who were attached to men in the officer class, perhaps most poignantly created in Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth , she who lost fiancée, brother and two other male friends in the conflict .
Then, of course, there was the background of what was happening in Central Europe in the early 30’s. Here the music for me took over since in the time allowed the Nazis’ ludicrous belief that a lost Schumann Violin Concerto would help plug the gap left by their attempt to remove Mendelssohn from the repertoire was only lightly sketched. I learned that Ravel’s Tzigane was written for d’Aranyi and listening to Le Page’s and McLean’s powerful performance the strain of melancholy to be found in Gypsy music poignantly brought to my mind at least that it was not only the Jews who were victims of the Final Solution. Previous to that a sizzling performance of Bartok’s Rumanian Dances, besides pointing to d’Aranyi’s close friendship with the composer, had underpinned the vitality of the musical culture from which she came and also of her own personality. At other instances the role of the music seemed primarily to give a sense of the range of her acquaintances. Certainly the contrast between Tzigane and Elgar’s Salut d’ amour made that point!
Lastly, the performance of the melody of the Ghost Variations at the beginning and the end of the recital effectively and movingly gave a frame to the story, though not surprisingly the use of that melody in the concerto, particularly when played by violin and piano, could not quite convince that one had been witnessing a re-birth of the masterpiece so much wished for by Goebbels . Perhaps, it was better thus in that it reminded one how futile was the suppression of Mendelssohn’s genius, a genius nowhere more in evidence than in his Violin Concerto.
So, it was an intriguing event, intriguing enough for me to put down a tenner for the novel.
I noticed that at the bottom of the programme appeared the following : For a review of the festival and other classical music events in Leicestershire please go to
Perhaps the empty gap that followed was evidence of the spirit world recognising a sceptic and attempting to impose its own form of censorship.