shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Mothers and Daughters

I’ve been thinking about mothers and daughters recently – in part because my older daughter is such a brilliant writer – a fact that makes me 99% happy, and 1% deeply envious of her youth, talent and vision – but primarily because, as the book starts to take shape, I am beginning to see the mother/daughter relationship as a seam that runs through almost every chapter. Ideas about motherhood may change over the centuries, but some patterns keep recurring.

Most daughters lose their mothers to death, but there are also mothers who lose their daughters, whether to death, the convent or because the mother herself walks away from her child. Marianne Wieck left her marriage knowing that she could take her four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Clara, with her – but only for a few months. As soon as little Clara reached the age of five, she would be returned to very man Marianne was escaping. That is what the law of Saxony in the 1820s required. Clara was allowed to visit her mother from time to time, but it was the dominating Friedrick Wieck who brought her up, and set her on the path to international celebrity – the performer/composer we know as Clara Schumann would his creation. (Amateur psychologists might want to consider the connection between Clara’s childhood and her own performance of motherhood – see https://shadowofthecourtesan.wordpress.com/tag/clara-schumann-google-doodle/ to fuel that fire.)

And there are the mothers who live out their own dreams through their daughters, talented women who see an even greater talent in their child, or work to create a world in which that talent can express itself. It does not always make for an easy life, for mother or for daughter. Now is not the moment to ask questions about the real identity of the woman known as Princess Raïssa Mychetsky of St Petersburg.

Suffice to say that she created, first as the young wife, and then the young widow, of the much-older Ernest Boulanger the perfect Parisian shop window for her two surviving daughters’ talents. What is more, she turned a blind eye to the long-standing affair which served to help her older daughter’s career, and assiduously supported, and relentlessly interfered in, her younger daughter’s progress, whether smuggling little treats into the Palace of Compiègne or accompanying her every step of the way to Rome. The rules said that family were not allowed at Compiègne or Rome. Raïssa ignored the rules: did Nadia and Lili Boulanger gain or lose from her devotion?

But there are a couple of moments, a couple of relationships, that stand out for me. One comes at the very beginning of my story, the other at the very end. Both involve mothers and daughters who are professional musicians: three out of four of the women are composers.

Back in Medici Florence in the seventeenth century, Francesca Caccini was determined to keep control (whatever that might mean) of her daughter, Margarita’s, future. Francesca lived and worked, and was a mother, in a world which straightforwardly valued boys more highly than girls. Indeed, Caccini’s biographer speculates that when the composer herself was born there may well have been a somewhat muted banquet because, regrettably, she was a girl. The problem with daughters went beyond the belief that the birth of a girl signified weakness in one parent or the other, and into the more practical realm of money. Girls needed dowries, so, when Francesca was 7 months’ old, her father, the composer Giulio Caccini, sold land and farm buildings in Fiesole so that he could place 600 scudi in an account at the Monte di Pietà, Florence’s principal dowry bank. As an adult, and as a mother, Francesca Caccini, should have prioritised her (almost noble) son by her (almost noble) second husband. Instead, all her emotional energy seems fastened on her (singer) daughter by her first (artisan) husband. Not only that, she seems uninterested in achieving a marriage for her daughter. Threatened by the loss of teenage Margarita, who was going to be removed from her care and tuition, Francesca Caccini did everything in her power to keep the girl with her. To us, it seems that she uses the language of utility and business, not sentiment. Caccini has trained up Margarita as a singer. If she is not allowed to keep her daughter near her and thereby continue her musical education, then not only will the girl lose ‘all that she has learned’, but her mother will lose a source of income. Caccini would be left with ‘all my time wasted, and with no fruit…’ Finding out whether Caccini succeeded in her struggle for her daughter, and learning more about the consequences of that struggle (not to mention reading between the lines for the kinds of emotions we value today), has been fascinating, revealing so much about the world in which these women lived, but also the similarities and differences between now and then, them and us.

Fast forward 350 years, and move from Italy to England, and we are in a more familiar world – in some respects at least. The composer Nicola Lefanu remembers

hearing my mother playing the piano when I was in bed going to sleep at night when I was very tiny. I think of it as a sort of romantic memory but it’s really the opposite; she was a professional composer and at that stage the only time she had to write music was when her children were in bed.

These childhood experiences inform Lefanu’s understanding of what it is to be composer. It is very much a vision of the composer in the world.

I never saw myself as a composer set apart because I don’t think composers are set apart, really. I think music is a social art, and that composing is a solitary activity but it comes to fruition in a social context, and that’s always been something I believed. I don’t see composers or writers or anyone as on a pedestal; I don’t have a nineteenth-century view of them like Wagner did; maybe that’s the advantage of having had a mother who was a composer. On the one hand it’s the most fantastic role model, but, equally, I knew that being a composer was quite an ordinary thing; it’s a lot of hard work and it can be very distressing: works can get turned down, and all kinds of bad luck can get in the way, but it can also be very elating and wonderful when things go right. I was very familiar with the vicissitudes of the profession and I had absolutely no illusions about it.

Lefanu’s mother was Elizabeth Maconchy, one of the great composers of the twentieth century. Maconchy’s daughter is not saying that her mother was ‘ordinary’ – obviously Maconchy was exceptionally talented as a composer – but making the crucial point that it was entirely ‘ordinary’ that Maconchy was both composer and woman (and mother). This meant that as a child, Nicola Lefanu thought it was self-evident that she herself could be a composer. It never entered her head that composing was a male activity, that it would be an odd job for a woman. Instead, she took it ‘completely for granted’.

(Prayer Before Birth, Maconchy’s 1972 setting for women’s voices of Louis MacNeice’s powerful poem, which he wrote during the darkest days of World War II, seems appropriate here. Maconchy was heavily pregnant with her first child when war was declared in September 1939. Nicola was her second daughter, born in 1947.)

Lefanu’s personal experience taught her something that our society still seems slow to realise. It is, or it should be, ordinary for a woman to be a composer. It is, or it should be normal for a Mum to be a composer. Earlier this year, I ended my radio talk with the utopian vision of a future in which hearing women’s music, whether in our concert halls or on Radio 3, would be the ‘new normal’. It really shouldn’t take growing up with a composer for a Mum to make that possible.

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