A Valentine for Johanna
Do listen to this….
If it’s remarkable that women wrote classical music in the first place (when all the odds were stacked against them), it’s a bloody miracle when that music survives after their death. So, imagine my surprise when I came across this gloriously evocative recording, billed as the work of composer, Johanna Kinkel.
Now, I am well aware that, in terms of its musical quality the song is pretty average, perhaps interesting only as a period piece. But to come across any legacy for Kinkel, however trivial and/or dubious, is exciting, because this particular composer’s life has come to represent, for me at least, the dark side of the history of women’s music.
It all began so well. Kinkel was a multi-talented woman, both author and composer. She was a political radical, and, rare for her time, spoke up for the causes she believed in. She was generous in her praise for other women, as here in an account of Fanny Hensel in action:
She seized upon the spirit of the composition and its innermost fibres, which then radiated out most forcefully into the souls of the singers and audience. A sforzando from her small finger affected us like an electric shock, transporting us much further than the wooden tapping of a baton on a music stand. When one saw Fanny Hensel perform a masterpiece, she seemed larger … Even her sharp critical judgements shared with close acquaintances were founded on ideals she demanded from art and human character alike – not in impure motives of exclusion, arrogance and resentment. Whoever knew her was convinced that she was as ungrudging as she was unpretentious.
Kinkel knew Hensel’s world very well indeed, because she was absolutely part of it. Born in Bonn in 1810, she was mentored by Felix Mendelssohn, taught by some of the great figures in German music, praised by Robert Schumann for her songs.
So far so good.
The challenges would come thick and fast: an abusive first marriage (she left him); four children by her politically radical second husband; his sentence of life imprisonment, which prompted Johanna to engineer the family’s escape to England. Kinkel proved to be courageous and resourceful. She needed to be.
But then, an all-too-familiar story: in London, Kinkel would scrape a living teaching music and writing, holding the family together, financially and emotionally, while her husband continued on his revolutionary path, now in America. As a composer, she fell silent. Before she died, she did complete a novel, with a struggling, desperate composer for a hero: the fact that the hero is a man does little to conceal the work’s status as misery memoir. A visiting friend noted that she ‘accepted her lot, but not without serious dejection.’ Her health was deteriorating, ‘conditions of nervousness,’ began to appear, the news from America ‘did not suffice to cheer the darkened soul of the lonely woman.’
Kinkel’s life ended on the pavement below her St John’s Wood home. She fell, or threw herself, from an upper window. The composer’s posthumous life is just as dispiriting. An enemy, one Karl Marx (also exiled in London), viewed her as an ‘old harridan,’ and was disgusted that her husband, his political opponent, received sympathy merely because his wife had ‘broken her neck.’ Mr Kinkel, for his part, never realized his plan to publish his wife’s compositions.
For me, as a writer, it would have been all too easy to find a bookful of Kinkels, to represent every female composer’s life as a futile struggle against impossible odds. I chose instead to celebrate rather than to mourn, and I chose individuals whose music survives in enough plenty to enable us to make an informed judgement about them as composers. But sometimes, just sometimes, I feel that the Kinkels of our world should be honoured.
Whether a scratchy, quavery rendition of a somewhat trite song that might or might not actually have been written by her is the best way to honour Johanna Kinkel is another question. Maybe it’s because it’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m in fighting mood, but, after a bit of thought, I decided to go wild and spend $19.04 on a Performer’s Edition of Johanna Kinkel’s 6 Lieder, Op.19, first published in 1848. I’m not sure I’ll fall in love with her music, but it’s time to get to know it better.