Jessica Duchen's books include biographies of Gabriel Fauré and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and four novels, all of which involve music. The most recent are Hungarian Dances, about a family of Hungarian violinists across the 20th century, and Songs of Triumphant Love, a contemporary tale that involves, in an oblique way, the story of Turgenev and Viardot. Jessica is a classical music journalist for The Independent and a number of magazines. She has written several stage works and her play 'A Walk through the End of Time' will be performed in the International Wimbledon Music Festival on 18 November this year. She is currently working on her first entirely historical novel. Here Jessica writes about Ivan Turgenev's First Love, offering a few associated thoughts about Gabriel Fauré.
Jessica Duchen on First Love by Ivan Turgenev
I first read Turgenev's First Love when I was a too innocent 14-year-old. Most of the slim volume whirred way over my head. I couldn't make more than a puzzled guess at the nature of the plot's peculiar revelations. And I had no clue about the work's significance for its author, or of the way this incomparably sensitive novelist's life was bound up with a strand of musical history which I was discovering at my beloved piano - notably the composer Gabriel Fauré, whose biography I went on to write much later.
Still, I'm sure it's no coincidence that I fell in love with Turgenev's writing and Fauré's compositions around the same time. Something in the atmosphere of each seemed entirely in tune with the other. I had no idea that they had ever met.
The story of First Love may seem simple at first; but it conceals a forest of psychology the size of Siberia. We are in the mid 19th century. Vladimir, aged 16, on his summer holidays, falls in love with Zinaida, the flirtatious girl at the dacha next door. His passion is unrequited, yet his powers of observation grow sharper with it.
Zinaida's mother, having fallen upon hard times, appears to be using her daughter to lure hapless suitors and their cash, while Zinaida takes great delight in playing them - and Vladimir - off against each other. Then Vladimir notices a change in the girl and recognizes signs of the same hopeless passion that he himself feels. Who is she in love with? A night-time trailing brings the unwelcome revelation that Zinaida's secret lover is his own father. There's worse to come: back in the city, Vladimir follows his father to Zinaida's home and, observing from a distance, is forced to recognize that love is not what he thought it was. Instead, it can spill beyond passion into violence, masochism and destruction.
Turgenev's writing is habitually as delectable as a Schumann song cycle. But it was only when I made a foolhardy attempt to abridge First Love for a mooted mingling of words and music that I realized just how perfect this book is. It's almost impossible to remove a word, let alone a page or, heaven help us, a character, without doing irreparable harm to the whole. Nothing is there without reason. Besides, the twists in our understanding as the plot progresses could make a Hollywood screenwriter weep with envy.
Studying Fauré ultimately drew me deeper into the exploration of Turgenev's life and writing. This takes a little explanation. The love of Turgenev's life - unrequited or not - was the opera singer Pauline Garcia Viardot, whose voice was likened by the poet Alfred de Musset to 'the taste of a wild fruit' and whose close associates over the years included Chopin, Liszt (who gave her piano lessons), Gounod, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Brahms and, of course, after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, my Monsieur Gabriel.
Pauline Garcia married the writer and theatre director Louis Viardot - a match arranged by George Sand, who regarded the young operatic star as her protégée. Sand based a novel of her own, Consuelo, on Pauline. And elements of Pauline crept into Turgenev's Zinaida, too; a scene where she balances her four suitors on the paws of a giant bearskin apparently has a little to do with his early meetings with her on her Russian tour of 1843 (First Love, though, was much later, published in 1860).
The novelist found it impossible to escape his passion for Pauline for more than a few years at a time, and ultimately moved in with her and Louis Viardot, occupying the top floor of their Paris home, and building a dacha in the grounds of their country house at Bougival. Pauline had four children and, it appears, a remarkably tolerant husband.
And Fauré? The young composer, introduced to Pauline and her entourage by Saint-Saëns, fell madly in love with her third daughter, Marianne, whom he courted for four years. Turgenev took a shine to Fauré and interceded with Marianne on his behalf; Pauline, meanwhile, tried to persuade the young musician to write an opera, which was the only way a composer in Paris could make real money. At last, in 1877, Marianne agreed to marry Fauré - but broke off the engagement weeks later, leaving him devastated. It's notable that he missed not only her, but her entire family and the sense of cultural history they inevitably carried with them.
There's plenty of evidence that Fauré loved both Turgenev and his works, and continued to read his literature for decades afterwards. If he absorbed during those formative years at Bougival the creation of atmosphere, the sensitivity of nuance and the precision of each detail's placement in Turgenev's writing and it found its way subliminally to his music, would that be so surprising?
Fauré composed no opera for another three decades after his break with the Viardots. He, of all composers, could have made an effective stage work out of First Love, had the idea occurred to anyone while he was sitting at their feet and Turgenev's. This great author once wrote a libretto for Brahms, but the composer never used it. If only he had tried another, for Fauré.
Still, they would have had to abridge that book.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]