discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

In the room of the fragile rhino

That my musical education was haphazard and, well, basically, a bit rubbish had nothing to do with my teachers (with some spectacular exceptions) and everything to do with a toxic combination of my attitude (‘bolshie’ as my mother, a Communist for about half an hour in the 1940s, would say) and my quite ordinary levels of talent.

One of the problems might have been that I was predominantly self-taught, on the piano and the recorder. By the time my parents rented a clarinet so that I could learn an instrument properly, and found me a real teacher, my eleven-year-old self was disinclined to do anything ‘properly’. I still feel sorry for my teacher. I had some raw talent, however, and was encouraged to apply for a Saturday morning scholarship at the London music colleges. My mother loved to tell the story of my audition. I’ve blocked it out. Apparently, the accompanist started playing – it was one of the Brahms clarinet sonatas, and it took two buses to get to the audition, that I do remember – and I stopped him (or her) after a few bars and suggested they had got the tempo wrong. Yes. I’d have been pissed off too.

Anyway, I got into Trinity College of Music, and spent maybe three years of Saturday mornings there. I grew to hate the clarinet, and transferred to the piano as my main instrument, learning it ‘properly’, and growing to hate that as well. You may have spotted a pattern by now. It was at Trinity, however, that I discovered my love of composing, a thwarted teenage love that may (if and when I dare to put myself in therapy and remember those years in any clarity) lie behind the writing of this book.

Predictably, however, I left Trinity under a bit of a musical cloud, and with a clear awareness that I was a profoundly average musician. There followed two good years, musically speaking, at Richmond-upon-Thames Tertiary College, where there was a music centre, with practice rooms, and a choir, and an orchestra. Life at home was pretty grim at the time, and so music became a wonderful escape. It was a revelation to learn to sing: my one remaining friend from that time thinks we were both taught by a young James Bowman. Could that be true? The same friend and I hacked our way through piano duet versions of the most inappropriate pieces. I still cannot hear Mahler’s Second Symphony without overlaying it with the memory of a left-hand tremolando. I found I enjoyed accompanying people, rather than being a soloist. I finally took Grade 8 piano. I got a Distinction, something I still count amongst my greatest achievements, because I did it through sheer hard work and bloody-mindedness, and at a particularly bloody time. And I learned about counterpoint and harmony and sonata form and all that stuff – which stopped my own composing dead in its tracks.

And then for decades, nothing really. I still played the piano. I performed ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ perhaps 5,383 times in 1997 alone. I never played the clarinet. I took up the viola, briefly, with the idea that I could sneak into an orchestra-in- need (cue viola player joke). And, something else I am proud of, I organized informal chamber music with other parents of young children, arranging the parts as necessary according to the availability and ability of players. I named us the Orchestra of the Age of Disillusionment when we needed to get parts from the library, but, secretly, it was a pleasure.

A chance conversation in, maybe 2000, changed everything, introducing me to the best of musical places: a back room of the Natural History Museum in Oxford, complete with skeletons, jars filled with questionable substances, and the head of a rhino marked ‘fragile’ – which always spoke to me powerfully, although not literally, I hasten to add – and most importantly, four or five assorted recorder players. This, for me, was, and remains, music making at its best: complex, beautiful effects achieved from the simplest of components, each part playing its part. And until today, when I was trying to find out about the materials needed actually to transcribe music onto paper in around 1700, I hadn’t thought very hard about what it was that appealed to me so much. Then I read a few paragraphs in Harold Love’s book Scribal Publication and I now know that my hours spent with the fragile rhino go to the heart of my beliefs about music, reveal why I love the music of Caccini and Strozzi so much, why I sympathise so strongly with Hensel and Maconchy in their fascination with counterpoint, why my first love remains chamber music. (Scholarly point: Harold Love is writing about viol consorts, but it is equally applicable to a bunch of us playing recorders in Ruskin’s vision of cast iron and glass.)

Consort music was and remains primarily players’ music, giving each performer both an individually rewarding voice in the ensemble and a unique spatial perception of the interrelationship of the musical lines. It is most satisfactorily performed with the players in a ring facing inwards towards each other, the role of the listener, if any, being that of an eavesdropper. Roger North found an ideological value in this ‘respublica among the consortiers’, contrasting it with the ‘unsociable and malcreate behaviour’ of ‘some violin spark, that thinks himself above all the rest, and above the musick itself also, if it be not screwed up to the top of his capability’.

Yes indeed, particularly about those violin sparks. I’m not bitter. Love goes on to see this kind of playing as an encoding of an ‘idealized image of the gentry as a community of equals while, at the same time, providing release from the tensions of hierarchy in the state and in the family.’ I couldn’t agree more, particularly the bit about the family. And then he clinches it in his words about counterpoint – or rather, what has superceded counterpoint over the last 300 years or so.

In refusing a dominant role to any single part it was also asserting—even when played by musicians who were political royalists—a consensual conception of the ideal state. The culturally and ideologically competing ideal of a dominant, ornate melody line supported by a subservient chordal continuo was frowned on by admirers of the viol, though most of their favourite composers eventually adjusted to it. It also altered the social relationships of playing, making the accompanists subordinate to the soloist and the soloist in turn subordinate to the listener.

Then again, it might be nothing to do with ideology. Perhaps the pleasure I take in playing the recorder has more to do with the fact that the instrument has predominantly happy memories. I learned to read music and play the recorder as a very young child in the community in which I grew up: a weekly lesson was one of the prescribed activities for my ‘age group’, and if you think that sounds like scarily organized creativity, then you’d be right. I bought myself a treble recorder for £9 when I was nine (a lot of money in those days – my Grandad had given me a pound to open a Post Office account when I was five, and it took me four more years to get the other eight pounds and all that while living in a cardboard box); and one of my happier memories from those dismal teenage years is playing endless recorder duets with Lucy Vigne Welsh, five years my senior, and oh so glamorous – I’ve not seen her for years, but I bet she still is…

Above all, what goes on in the room of the fragile rhino shows that one can create something sublime without needing to be a virtuoso or soloist. The musical whole truly is so much greater than the sum of its parts.


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