When Beethoven died in 1827, unsent letters were found addressing his “Immortal Beloved”. Someone was evidently the love of his life but who was she? It’s a question which has intrigued Beethoven scholars for nearly 200 years.
Most people who’ve studied the trail now agree that the most likely candidate is Josephine Brunsvik or Countess Jozefina Brunsvik de Korompa, later Countess Josephine Deym. This is the theory that music journalist, librettist and author, Jessica Duchen runs with in her entertaining, informative new novel.
Pepi, as she is called here within the family, is a troubled woman as we see through the eyes of her elder sister Therese (Tesi) who narrates the story. It is addressed to a beloved niece and – given that Pepi eventually bears seven children it’s a long time before we realise which one Tesi is addressing. And there’s something faintly operatic about the niece in question when we finally learn where she fits in. Remember that bit in The Marriage of Figaro when a whole number is based on paternity revelations? Well that – but no spoilers here.
There are several great strengths in this convincing story. Duchen gives us a very rounded, human, humane take on Beethoven: principled, difficult, disorganised, slovenly, kind, passionate, deaf and all the rest of it. And you can’t help being moved by Pepi’s predicament, unwise as she often is. I was also fascinated by the vividness of Duchen’s depiction of Vienna and emerged in horror at the realisation of just how dreadful life there would have been during that period of war and uncertainty. And as for all that appallingly uncomfortable travel around Austria and Hungary by coach: you ache in sympathy. Moreover I knew nothing of Tesi, who was a famed education pioneer, presented by Duchen in a neat twist as an unreliable narrator. I really enjoyed the moment at the opening of Fidelio when Tesi gives a spare ticket to a keen but very shy young man she happens on at the entrance. His name turns out to be Franz Schubert.
This speculative novel is a bit slow to get going but once Duchen gets into her stride it’s a real page turner although her music critic credentials sometimes shine too brightly through the narrative. We really don’t need an analytical run down of every piece Beethoven wrote although it does, I suppose, make a point about the taken-for-granted level of musical literacy in early 19th century Europe.