Immortal in Music & Love: Jessica Duchen’s Compelling Epistolary Novel
WRITTEN BY LUCINDA BYATT
In this 250th anniversary year, Beethoven’s music would have been celebrated in concert halls around the world had “events” not forced performances online. Jessica Duchen’s timely novel reconstructs Ludwig van Beethoven’s life after 1799, roughly the period of his friendship with the Brunsvik sisters, Josephine and her sister Therese (Tesi). Indeed, both sisters’ names were later coupled with the letter found after the composer’s death, which was addressed simply to “My Immortal Beloved”. Duchen has written about musicians and music history before, describing it as “a gold mine of fantastic stories”. Ghost Variations (2016) was about the discovery of the Schumann Violin Concerto in the 1930s, “an era which has innumerable resonances for the present day”. The cast of her new novel Immortal consists almost entirely of historical figures, starting with Tesi herself whose unique voice provides the narrative in a series of letters addressed simply to “My dear niece” – and echoing the famous letter, this choice of an epistolary structure and the mysterious identity of the niece (for most of the book) are particularly apt.
Novelists usually approach historical characters with caution, but “Sometimes disadvantages and advantages turn out to be the same thing in different guises”, Duchen says. “For instance, the main drawback is that you must try to be true to reality – yet this reality is always filtered through written descriptions, which are likely to be subjective to some degree. And that’s also the main advantage. Through fiction, we can explore elements in these personalities that relate to us today and perhaps cast fresh light on them.”
Certainly Duchen’s depiction of Countess Therese Brunsvik von Korompa is a fascinating one. “She was a ferociously independent woman, a feminist decades ahead of her time and an educational pioneer who founded the first kindergartens in central Europe. Tesi is therefore someone a reader of today would relate to, an observer with a sharp, objective eye, and also someone who made a lasting and not always positive impact on the turn of events. She was mistaken for the Immortal Beloved herself for a while – partly because the family may have tried to cover up what could have become a massive scandal.”
When I asked about the long-standing debate about the Immortal Beloved and Duchen’s decision to use Tesi as an unreliable narrator, Duchen said she found it “extraordinary that here is perhaps the most famous composer in existence, yet there’s so much we still don’t know about him. The existing material on the Immortal Beloved was long beset by virulent academic enmities, lack of wide availability, ingrained cultural reverence to what seemed sometimes irrational thinking, and much more.” Duchen acknowledges that “there’s an acknowledged 90 per cent likelihood that Josephine Deym [Brunsvik] was the Immortal Beloved, according to the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, the world centre for Beethoven research. Still, the evidence remains purely circumstantial and it cannot be wholly proven unless someone exhumes Beethoven and [Josephine’s daughter] Minona for a DNA test, which seems unlikely. Alternative possibilities have been explored by other writers and scholars (and the unlikely outcome of the movie ‘Immortal Beloved’ still confuses people!). But for fiction, one doesn’t need to assert everything is true, just that it is one possible scenario; approaching it as a first-person narrative from someone who may not be entirely “reliable” can present the story complete with its ten per cent of doubt.”
Duchen is a music journalist, a librettist and a pianist: “I certainly know about practising the piano and can empathise with Josephine and Therese’s all-consuming passion for music. I hope this has helped to bring them reasonably well to life, as well as informing the advice they receive from Beethoven.” She uses this intimate knowledge of Beethoven’s music to give a rounded portrayal of the renowned composer, known to Tesi and her sister Josephine as “Luigi”. Duchen’s Beethoven is intensely real and this passionate love story is a compelling read: covering the period of the French revolution through to the Napoleonic wars and their impact on Viennese society, it unfurls against a richly detailed and turbulent backdrop. Moreover, through Tesi’s letters, we are given an insight into the lives of women like the Brunsviks, across three generations, and the men to whom their lives were bound whether through blood, marriage or passion. The flamboyance (and sometimes penury) of aristocratic life is portrayed not only in Vienna but in other settings, among others the Brunsvik family castle, Martonvásár, Budapest and Prague. Duchen “focused on women’s lives because I’m convinced we cannot divorce the study of one person’s life and work from their world. Everything – including the creation of music – is affected by society, war, politics, economics, global conditions and more.” Societal attitudes, too, are important: “They drove the pair apart, destroying Josephine and leading Beethoven into behaviour – notably his obsession over adopting his nephew – that hastened his death. Ultimately this story demonstrates that when one part of humanity is oppressed, everybody loses. We are all connected. This topic remains just as relevant today.”
I asked Duchen about Beethoven’s works for piano in particular, several of which are linked to the Brunsviks: “I adore the lot… I’m currently learning the ‘Waldstein’, Op. 53. It’s challenging to play, but it’s music that makes one feel better about life and the more energy you put into it, the more it gives back to you. I’ve learned Op. 31 No. 3 this year too (one advantage of lockdown was time for piano practice!). Nevertheless, my ultimate favourite is the ‘Hammerklavier’, Op. 106, which leaves me awestruck on every hearing.”
Duchen’s decision to use Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher is “an updating for the digital age of a method known to many 19th-century writers and composers. Beethoven’s Op. 1 Piano Trios are one example and the Brunsvik sisters were among its subscribers. Later Beethoven effectively crowdfunded his Missa Solemnis: he persuaded ten patrons to invest in it and promised each a signed copy of the manuscript as what we’d call a ‘reward’.” She also emphasises the support: “you’re building a community of enthusiasts around your book. Knowing that people are rooting for you and looking forward to the novel can spur you on. I’ve made some wonderful friends. Writing, famously, can be a lonely business. This way, you feel less isolated.”
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Lucinda Byatt is Features Editor of HNR.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 94 (November 2020)