shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the category “composers”

Gloriously alive: making music in 1931 and 2016

IMG_1053 I made a pilgrimage recently to this unassuming building, just off the Portobello Road in London. Why? Because it embodies the spirit and determination of a group of composers and performers who – denied a more conventional platform – created their own space for new music.

I have been moved to tell their story  by the inspirational initiative of the London Oriana Choir whose five15 series will offer something as exciting and something, sadly, as needed in 2016 as it was in 1931. You can find out more here!

This building matters because…

The young composer Elizabeth Maconchy, fresh from success in Prague, and a Proms debut in the summer of 1930, was finding it hard to get her music played. The lack of a career infrastructure and performance opportunities for all young composers was exacerbated for women by good old-fashioned sexism in the classical music industry. Even after the triumphs of 1930, Maconchy later recalled no one

suggested a commission, or a grant, or even a chatty interview on the radio, let alone another performance. The publishers weren’t interested. They were all men, of course, and tended to think of women composers being capable of only the odd song or two.

They would have ‘liked some pretty little thing – I don’t mean a pretty little person – not steady, serious music.’ Maconchy singled out Lesley Boosey, of Boosey and Hawkes, as particularly hostile. One of Boosey’s readers ‘was frightfully keen to publish some songs and a string quartet’ of her, but ‘all Boosey would say was that he couldn’t take anything except little songs from a woman.’ Later, using her typical understatement which masks but does not completely hide her bitterness, she would say ‘that really was a very difficult thing to get over.’

But she did – with a little help from her friends.

Faced with the intransigence of the music industry, a remarkable group of women got together in 1931 and changed the face of music in London, at least for a few years. One was Iris Lemare, that rare thing a female conductor. The other two were the violinist Anne Macnaghten, and the composer Elisabeth Lutyens. Together they launched a series of concerts to showcase new music by young composers, alongside works from eras under-represented in the concert halls of London at the time. The Macnaghten-Lemare Concerts were to prove a lifeline for Elizabeth Maconchy through the 1930s.

And this is where the building comes in – the small, necessarily cheap Ballet Club theatre in Notting Hill, once a Ragged School would be their venue. It had been bought in 1927 by Marie Rambert’s husband as a performing and rehearsal space: the blue plaques today honour Rambert. There is no acknowledgement of the Macnaghten-Lemare initiative.

The women’s methods were collaborative and informal, with no committee, no hierarchy, just the drive to create a platform for their own work, whether as performer, conductor or composer: ‘honestly,’ remembered one of the organizers, ‘it wasn’t altruistic, it suited each other’s ends.’ Anne Macnaghten, who shouldered much of the organizational responsibility, was, however, eloquent about the driving vision, her words relevant to the world of music, past, present and future: ‘the great thing is to have lots of music going on all the time, lots of things being performed.’ Committees might set themselves up as arbitrators as to what is good and what is bad, but the thing is – get the music played, and

it will settle itself sooner or later. As long as there’s plenty of opportunity to get new works performed, no harm will be done; what is awful is if somebody is really doing something very good but nobody knows about it.

I could dwell on the predictable (and sexist) responses to the concerts, I could ask why they seemed to help a very young Benjamin Britten launch his career, but offer yet another dead end to the women involved, but – on the day on which my book is published in the United States, I’m determined to be optimistic. So I’ll leave the last word to the Musical Times:

there is nothing quite like these concerts in London. The concert givers get to grips with the real thing in a most delightful, unconventional way, and after an evening spent with them one feels that music is gloriously alive.

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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.

Kinkel Lieder

 

 

Great music by great women: just one click away

I’ve put together a playlist* so that you can discover a few gems from the hidden treasure trove of music that has inspired my book.

Discover the composers in ‘Sounds and Sweet Airs’

It’s a work in progress, but there’s one piece from each composer – I’d love to hear who stands out for you. The penultimate piece may not be high quality in terms of its recording, but if you are not moved by Lili Boulanger’s setting of Psalm 130 you have a heart of stone…and then, if you need cheering up (Boulanger, above, died horribly young and her anguish – and faith – permeate her music), click on the Overture from Marianna von Martines, perhaps the least known of all the composers I write about. I challenge you not to smile.

Of course, this is only the tip of the (YouTube) iceberg. You won’t find some of my personal favourites, such as Rendi alle mie speranze il verde, a stunningly beautiful song by Francesca Caccini, or Das Jahr, a lost masterpiece for piano by Fanny Hensel – which I wrote about here.

I’ve also started another playlist, showcasing the work of a handful of the composers who don’t feature in my book. I only had eight chapters to work with, and, believe me, there are so many riches to discover, from a haunting song written in the twelfth century to the award-winning music for Wolf Hall.

From La Comtessa del Dia to Debbie Wiseman – 900 years of creativity

Meanwhile, publication day’s getting closer and closer and, just as important, I’m now working with lots of lovely people on a whole range of events which will celebrate the music and the women I’ve been writing about. More about those events another time…but do get in touch if you think of something that should be added into the mix.

*OK – I had some help from my techies, Elise and Jesse…thank you guys!

Free Ruggiero

Two things are really valuable when we approach the unknown or the unfamiliar in the arts.

One is for people who know about a bit about the unfamiliar experience to share their knowledge: give us some background, help us understand why we don’t know about it, point out what we might enjoy, what we might find challenging, and, maybe, share their informed enthusiasm for this new, strange experience that awaits us.

The other is for the performance itself to be wonderful – for all those involved in it to have imagined, worked tirelessly on, and then delivered something vital and engaging and transformatory.

If you have the latter, you can live without the former. (It doesn’t work the other way round – a humbling realisation for someone like me who only writes about music…)

Sometimes, if you are very lucky you get both, as I did when I saw the Brighton Early Music Festival’s production of Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero on a windy, rainy night in November on the south coast of England. Here’s an image from the closing minutes – channelling ‘Votes for Women’ from Mary Poppins – or is that just me?

 

ruggiero ensemble

You really did have to be there but trust me, it worked, the audience loved it, and (cultural historian hat on) it was yet another delightful nod to the gender politics which surrounded Caccini’s work back in 1625, and which were explored intelligently and creatively in the programme notes by Laurie Stras.

Caccini’s opera is rarely performed. (Ok, it’s not strictly an opera, but that’s how it gets into the music history books – as the ‘first opera’ written by a woman – and I’ll take any media hook that’s going if it helps to get her work performed.) When writing about La Liberazione in my book, I believed that it was unlikely I would ever see a live performance. How wrong I was – and how lucky I was that the first performance I saw was the one in Brighton.

Witty, exhilarating, beautiful, thought-provoking…but don’t take my word for it, the reviews were glorious, and rightly so. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/nov/09/la-liberazione-di-ruggiero-review-francesca-caccini

As I walked back to my airbnb room that night, I truly was lightheaded with excitement. In one evening of entertainment, that performance had done more to make the music of women a normal, natural, glorious part of our shared culture than anything else I’d come across in the years I have been engaged in exploring women’s work in the classical tradition. I could even dream that La Liberazione di Ruggiero might become part of the repertoire.

So, it was with great anticipation that I headed to Paris this last weekend to see a second performance of La Liberazione in the Palace of Versailles. I was particularly excited because I thought that to see the work in such a splendid setting – La Liberazione was originally written for princely patrons, first performed at a Medici palace in the hills above Florence – would reveal yet another side to Caccini.

The first disappointment was that it was a concert performance. Now, I know I should be grateful that the programmers at Versailles decided to put even one work composed by a woman into their entire season, but part of the thrill of Caccini’s work is that it is multi-media entertainment. In the original 1625 production, one character arrived on stage on a dolphin; magical transformations, of sets and costumes, occured before the audience’s very eyes; and there were dancing horses. Dancing horses.

Even if you strip out the visuals, however, there’s still a spicy threesome at the heart of the drama. Put simply, a wicked (but oh so attractive) sorceress, Alcina, seduces a knight, Ruggiero, to her island and entraps him there in order to take her pleasure. Worse still, he, and a host of other previous victims, seem thoroughly to enjoy the experience. Fortunately, however, a ‘good’ witch, Melissa (bigendered, because s/he can appear as either male or female), triumphs over Alcina, and liberates Ruggiero and his fellows. Having seen the Brighton production, I can report the subplot – concerning some enchanted plants, and which, having read about it, I had previously dismissed as a bit of a bore – was, in performance, just as compelling.

So, maybe any concert performance was going to fall a bit flat. I take my hat off to Michaela Riener who did her damnedest to make Alcina the sexy threat to world peace that Caccini makes her (no time here to go into the political message of this work, but rest assured, it’s there and, yes, Brighton brought it out). But Riener didn’t stand a chance, with the overwhelming physical presence of the conductor – do we really need an old-style ‘look at me, I’m the boss’ conductor in music from this era? –  literally standing between her and her lover Ruggiero – who looked a little lost – and her arch-enemy, Melissa, sung here by a woman rather than a counter-tenor (because….? Who knows?)

A far cry from November in Brighton. Here Ruggiero attempts (not very successfully) to resist Alcina, watched from behind the bath-house by Melissa. You can almost hear the latter tutting his/her disapproval.

ruggiero alcina and melissa

Other factors conspired to take the edge off my enjoyment. The seating arrangements in the Salon d’Hercule at Versailles left a lot to be desired. I paid 50 euros for a seat in the back row. This was my view.

salon d'hercule

The acoustic wasn’t great either. A couple of the singers were pretty disappointing, although the fact that the room was very, very chilly might not have helped. There was no libretto available (as far as I could tell) – certainly no-one around me had one, and I’m not sure how anyone could have worked out who was who, let alone what was happening, without it.

There was, however, a paragraph in the season guide which left me gasping, although it shouldn’t have done, since I’ve been living with these sexist cliches for years. Apparently Caccini’s arias are very melodious, and one perceives the subtilty of the feminine hand/writer in them. I searched the rest of the season’s offerings, and couldn’t find anything similar written about the male composers who fill up the programme. (I’m not blaming the performers for this. Having tracked down their website, the phrase is missing. It’s the Royal Opera of Versailles that’s the culprit.)

Overall, I was left with the impression that the evening was more about sitting in a big room in the palace of Versailles than about the music. Having said all that, my companion for the evening (a nineteenth-century opera fan, for whom this was a first Ruggiero), enjoyed the performance far more than I did. He was pleasantly surprised by the variety in the music – I’d warned him about the dominance of recitative – and was delighted in all sorts of ways by Alcina.

Now, a little voice tells me that I should be oh so grateful to anyone for putting on any music by women. But damn it, there are performances which transform their audiences’ lives and create a space for new music (for this IS new music), and there are performances which keep women composers safely in their ‘feminine’ box, specimens to be viewed from time to time, but never truly freed to take their rightful place in our musical culture. That’s why the hashtag for the Brighton performance #freeruggiero was just so, so right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jessie McCabe – this girl did

It took me decades of music making, after years of music education, to reach what I’ve called elsewhere – on Four Thought – my Morecambe and Wise moment (the moment when you ask yourself ‘Why are Eric and Ernie sharing a bed?’ and life is never the same again, there’s no way back to the days of innocence). I suddenly, and belatedly, realised that I had never played, sung or studied a single piece of classical music by a woman, and that I could count on the fingers of one hand the performances I had heard. Actually, one finger of one hand.

And now, here’s Jessie McCabe, aged seventeen, who, with the clarity (and effortless command of social media) of youth, is telling truth to power – specifically calling out the EdExcel exam board on their male-only syllabus.

Suddenly people (or rather people in the media) are talking about the issue, all thanks to Jessie McCabe. Do have a look at this piece by Caroline Criado-Perez in The Independent. She not only asked intelligent questions when she interviewed me, but listened to my answers. And just this morning, I cycled in the pouring rain up to Radio Oxford to do a live interview on the Today programme. You’ll find me and James Naughtie sandwiched between Greg Rutherford and the nine o’ clock news, so it’s all a bit rushed, but for a girl like me who was brought up without television and still doesn’t watch much of it (apart from the cycling), this is nearly as good as it gets. Nearly, because I can still dream of Private Passions on Radio 3…Michael Berkeley, hear my prayer.

As ever, as I cycled back down the Banbury Road, and as I slowly stopped shaking, I thought of all the things I should have said, or said more clearly. I regretted not speaking more about creativity against the odds, or about the hunger out there for women’s music (surely it’s not a coincidence that when Radio 3 listeners were asked which composer should feature in a listeners’ choice special edition of Composer of the Week, they chose Louise Farrenc?) or about how we can change the way we talk about women composers, which happened to be the subject of my most recent post. But most of all, I feel guilty and foolish at having singled out Fanny Hensel as the forgotten composer with most to offer us – but I hope the ghosts of Caccini and Strozzi, of Jacquet de la Guerre and Martines, of Boulanger and Maconchy will forgive me. (Clara Schumann can look after herself…)

This mini media frenzy – I should also mention that this very blog has been featured by WordPress – has slightly overshadowed the more mundane, but nevertheless, to me, thrilling moment when my book moved off my desk and into production. It now has definite publication dates (7 April 2016 in the UK, 12 May in the USA – careful readers will note that 1 April did indeed turn out to be a joke), a beautiful cover, more of which next time, and you can even now pre-order it on amazon. If you use amazon.

But the last word, today at least, should go to Fanny Hensel because, lying behind my appreciation of her exceptional talent as a composer is an appreciation of just how hard-won a victory it was for her to get her music published in the final years of her life, and how short-lived that victory would be.

Fanny_Hensel_1842 The happiness that exudes from Hensel in 1846, four years after this portrait was commissioned by her family (who ensured that it contained absolutely no indication of her musical ability, whether as performer or composer) is infectious and inspiring. Here’s how I write about it, which includes, more importantly, what she has to say about finally moving out from the private to the public world.

when asked by publishers, Hensel compiled a list of her compositions which were still ‘floating around the world concealed.’ Three more collections headed for the presses. The year ended with the writing of a piano trio, conceived (as so many previous works had been) as a birthday present for a family member, in this case, her sister Rebecka. The Trio’s first movement begins in suppressed tension, and builds to a powerful close. The second movement runs seamlessly into the third, which is marked Lied, linking it clearly with Hensel’s earlier ‘Songs for piano.’ The writing for the piano is fascinating, giving great freedom to the performer whose part, in the final movement is marked ad libitum. As an album note puts it, the musicdrives to a grand climax as the strings, once again set two octaves apart, soar high above the tremolandi piano, and the trio powers its way to a resounding close in D major.’ In her diary, in May 1846, Fanny Hensel wrote ‘I feel as if newly born.’

She was only too well aware how long this moment had taken to arrive: ‘I cannot deny that the joy in publishing my music has also elevated my positive mood. So far, touch wood, I have not had unpleasant experiences, and it is truly stimulating to experience this type of success first at an age by which it has usually ended for women, if indeed they ever experience it.’

The wonder is heightened by a sense of the time that has passed: ‘To be sure, when I consider that 10 years ago I thought it too late and now is the latest possible time, the situation seems rather ridiculous, as does my long-standing outrage at the idea of starting opus 1 in my old age.’ Fanny is, of course, being ironic about her ‘old age.’ She was only forty, and feeling good on it, noting in August 1846 that ‘the indescribable feeling of well-being, which I have had this entire summer, still continues.’

We need to talk about Fanny (Hensel)

I just downloaded another recording of Hensel’s solitary String Quartet (which remained in manuscript until the 1980s). It’s an exhilarating performance by the Quatuor Ebène, almost raw in its intensity compared to the one, by the Asasello Quartet, with which I’m more familiar.

I wanted to find out more about the Ebène quartet and their brave (yes, it is still brave to record women’s music, it still needs a defence, so we are reassured that the quartet is ‘worth hearing’ – phew, what a relief, I haven’t wasted nearly twenty minutes of my life on something worthless) decision to play Hensel. I wanted to know why a young, all-male quartet with quite an edgy image

The adventurous Ebene Quartet kicks off a week of live chamber music at the Greene Space at WQXR in New York.

Hensel sketch

chose to play this woman’s work.

And so began a miserable encounter with the language we continue to use when talking about female composers, language that patronises, dismisses, misrepresents, ignores, and always and ever ends up comparing a composer to her male counterparts. The composer becomes, implicitly, a (failed) contestant in a race that they were never invited to join in the first place. It’s all the more miserable because I can’t seem to crush my optimism, can’t quite stop myself from feeling thrilled when I find that the Ebène quartet won a BBC Music Magazine award for their interpretation of Hensel’s quartet – wow! mainstream! – that they were praised and rewarded as advocates of her music – wow! progress!

But then it all goes horribly wrong. This is from a website promoting the CD.

“Felix’s quartets speak with intimacy, but are not devoid of violent, stormy emotion,” says Ebène cellist Raphaël Merlin. Although Fanny’s sole contribution to the genre is lesser known and undoubtedly less accomplished than her brother’s, the group simply “fell in love with her string quartet” and with sublime, spirited playing made a compelling case for the rarely recorded work.

No, no, no. What does ‘undoubtedly less accomplished’ actually mean? No matter: whoever wrote this sees it as a given, and doesn’t need to justify it with any rational, let alone musically-based argument. Yes, the quartet is less well-known. Would it not be interesting to ask why that is? How that happened? But instead, we are simply encouraged to make the lazy causal jump from ‘less accomplished’ to ‘lesser known’.

I pressed on regardless, wanting to find out why the musicians ‘fell in love’ with Hensel’s Quartet. Gramophone Magazine spiced up the quest by praising, in April 2013, the Ebène for their ‘ full-on playing and lively engagement with the music’, noting that with every disc that they record ‘there’s the unmistakable sense that they have something to say and an urgent need to say it’.

So what did they want to say about Fanny Hensel’s quartet? I watched over thirteen minutes of video footage, which promotes the CD. It was fascinating to hear the four musicians talk about their art. But (oh, again, my idiotic optimism) not a word about Hensel. One player said ‘you have to respect the person who created the music’, but the video referred exclusively to ‘Mendelssohn’ (ie Felix). In a final kick in the teeth, the only female voice that is heard is off camera at the start of the film, and she is the recipient of what I am forced to call banter, including a final joke about the male players’ preventing her having an orgasm. It’s all here at no fanny hensel.

I kept looking. I found that the quote about falling in love with Hensel’s quartet was originally followed by the comment that she composed ‘with surprising freedom’. Great – but wouldn’t it be interesting to think about why you find it surprising? Alternatively, wouldn’t it be a sign of ‘respect’ for the composer to try to understand why certain kinds of ‘freedom’ were utterly denied to Hensel, as a composer, as a woman?

But, the bottom line is, I am grateful to the Ebène quartet for making this music live, and in awe of their ability to do so.

My real despair centres not on these screamingly obvious examples of sexist banter or patronizing dismissiveness. They are easy to spot, easy to call out. What is more insidious is well-meaning phrases like these, from Presto Classical’s review of the disk: Fanny ‘being a woman, was never in a position to build a career in the way that her brother had’. Her quartet ‘contains themes, ideas and moments every bit as good as anything from Felix’.

I know I should be grateful for this justification of the quality of Hensel’s music (she’s just as good as her brother), and for at least the acknowledgement that her chromosomes determined whether she could build a career. But there’s such passivity in the words. Fanny Hensel was ‘never in a position to build a career in the way that her brother had’ because time and time again, and in subtly powerful ways, over decades, she was stopped from doing so – by others. That she did at last – gloriously, courageously – ‘build a career’ in the final months of her life is, for me, one of the most moving struggles I have written about. Critics who do take Hensel’s music seriously cannot resist bringing Felix into the equation. They appreciate the ‘darker soundworld of Fanny Mendelssohn’s’ quartet’ (ie darker than Felix’s) or celebrate her work as ‘formally and harmonically, more daring than Felix’s’. Add to the mix the fact that Fanny is invariably known by her maiden name. Is this about reassuring people of her pedigree? Is it an attempt to trick naïve buyers into consuming women’s music, sweetening the bitter pill? Surely the composer deserves to be judged in her own right, rather than always placed in a sentence along with her brother, the same brother who – for reasons that made absolute sense to him, and much of the Mendelssohn family, together with much of elite Berlin society – worked tirelessly to ensure that she would have no ‘career’.

I need cheering up. You probably do too. So, in a narrative leap that makes complete sense to me, and might just make sense to you, here (thanks to ITV 4) is Marianne Vos, the greatest female cyclist of our era, responding to Anna van der Breggen’s victory in La Course. (For those of you who do not follow cycling, La Course is a step forward in women’s cycling. The women are allowed a couple of hours of racing before the men on the final day of three week Tour de France. It’s a start.)

http://www.itv.com/tourdefrance/2015-la-course-mariane-vos

Enjoy!

No more nuns with guns

With deep regret I have to report that Nuns with Guns 2 didn’t make the cut. I can’t think why a serious non-fiction publisher with a track record for thoughtful books about philosophy, religion and culture would walk away from it, but hey, what do I know? Then again, they also rejected Shadow of the Courtesan (not a bad title…you’re reading this, aren’t you?); La Musica (foreign language therefore bad); and Notes from the Silence (too clever by half).

Instead, my book about powerful, determined women creating great music against the odds is going to be called…

Sounds and Sweet Airs: the Forgotten Women of Classical Music

‘Sounds and sweet airs’ is a quote from Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, and it’s Caliban (offspring of a witch and the devil) who says the words. There’s a certain irony in a book about canon-busting creative women being given a title from The King of the Canon himself. There’s even more irony in the fact that it’s Caliban’s line: Caliban who is servant and slave, tamed and silenced – destroyed? – by his master Prospero; Caliban who is the child of ‘blue-eyed hag’ Sycorax, the powerful witch whose island Prospero has usurped.

Caliban

For me, Sycorax represents precisely the image of powerful black-magic fueled creative womanhood that every single one of the female composers I write about had to fight against, in their world, in their own minds. She’s all the more toxic because we don’t see her on stage: she is an idea. Shakespeare’s Sycorax was first vilified on the London stage on 1 November 1611. Thirteen years and three months later, in the hills above Florence, Francesca Caccini offered her audience two witches, live and on stage: the attractive, sexy (but bad) Alcina and the equally attractive, bi-gender (and good) Melissa. Interesting, eh? (By the way, I’m extremely excited at the news that Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero, complete with witches and ‘sweet airs’, is going to be performed at the Brighton Early Music Festival in November: see http://www.bremf.org.uk/ which has the ominous phrase ‘subject to funding’ but I’m hopeful. In the meantime, you can see Christina Knackstedt as Alcina in Cornish Opera Theater’s 2011 production in Seattle here: La Liberazione.)

Having thrown my toys out of the pram, I’m now getting to like the title. Its choice sent me back to The Tempest, where I looked at the quotation in context. It comes in a scene in which uncivilised Caliban first encounters civilised European music – Stephano’s drunken singing – and in which the shipwrecked sailors are then terrified by the sound of Ariel’s magical music. It is Caliban, the monster, who reassures the men with words of beauty and power and sadness. (Shakespeare does this: gives lines like these to his monsters, Jews and Moors – before they are destroyed.)

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

As ever with Shakespeare, ideas about music and dreams circle and encircle each other here, and one could spend a happy lifetime exploring Caliban’s words. But, for me, right now, and thinking specifically of my book, the idea of delight and hurt seem the most important. When I talk to people about what I’m doing, I sometimes hear the argument that, by paying belated attention to the music of female composers, I’m somehow diminishing men. (This is, of course, a familiar anti-feminist argument in many, many other contexts.) For every Caccini song played on the radio we lose a Mozart symphony. No: Caccini does not displace Mozart. She adds to our cultural riches. I want a world of Caccini and Mozart, Hensel and Beethoven, Maconchy and Shostakovich – delighting in the achievements of creative women does not, will not, hurt men.

Barbara di Santa Sofia

It’s been a busy couple of months, working through the suggestions of my editor, Sam Carter, at Oneworld – which can be satisfying (‘God, that bit was clunky – thank goodness he spotted it’); humbling (Sam suggested a bonfire of the howevers, and he was right – it’s an academic tic that is, nine times out of ten, completely unnecessary); and anxiety-inducing (every time I change a phrase, I sense that the whole book, or at least the whole paragraph, has lost its coherence). But it is done.

Leaving a gap in life, of course. I promptly filled it by heading, with my rucksack, to a dirty, beautiful city: this time, Sarajevo – more of which another time. Getting there took around three days by train – broken by a pastoral idyll in Slovenia at Lake Bohinj – but any journey which starts with the night train to Venice is a good journey in my book. Passing through the city, and indulging in my favourite Venetian past-time (sitting at the back of a vaporetto) I snapped a picture of Santa Sofia, the church in Canareggio which Barbara Strozzi was christened back in 1619. On my return to Oxford, there was just time to add in a few more sentences to the book, sentences which simply could not have been written (at least by me) unless I had been to the place itself.

Santa Sofia’s date of foundation is hazy, perhaps as early as 886, perhaps not, no matter, myth is powerful in Venice, but by Strozzi’s own lifetime the records show that it had already been rebuilt twice, first in the early thirteenth century, and then again in the composer’s great-grandparents’ generation. Now, in the late seventeenth century, Strozzi saw her baptismal church once again restored. Santa Sofia would then burn to the ground; be rebuilt; suffer suppression under Napoleon; be sold to the Jewish community; and re-open as a church. Despite or because of all the re-buildings, the church’s façade remains unfinished. Not only that, it is hidden, now by the priest’s house, but as early as 1500 by the encroaching buildings. The campanile, once taller and more elegant according to the evidence of a woodcut of 1550, is now chunky and the interior is plain by the standards of Venice, not least because on its suppression most of the church’s riches were dispersed, amongst them a Veronese Last Supper. Santa Sofia, half-hidden by the buildings that crowd around it, stripped of its glories, such as they were, and with little obvious beauty to it, is hardly a tourist magnet, but it endures, rising from the ashes again and again.

santa sofia 1550 santa sofia june 2015

Then again, I suppose I don’t really need to travel to see the past. There are other ways to get that sense of lived experience, to catch glimpses of the environment in which writers and musicians and artists do their work. In recent weeks, I’ve been searching for illustrations that would bring this out, and, when it came to the chapter on Francesca Caccini, I didn’t want another classic, ostensibly timeless view of Florence – although the terrace at San Miniato happens to be one of my favourite places on the entire planet, and when one is tired of looking down on Florence, and beyond to the Appenines, one is tired of life. I wanted an image that would act as a reminder of a living city, in which music, amongst other recreations, happened on the streets, just as much as behind closed doors. I came across a painting of a calcio Fiorentino (Florentine kick game): a early form of football (still called calcio of course in Italy) being played in the square of Santa Croce in Florence, just a few days after the performance of Caccini’s opera up at Poggio Imperiale.

calcio fiorentina

The most striking features of the sport (gleaned from Wikipedia – where it is somewhat unclear as to whether this is how the game is played now, or was played then, but so be it) is that it is/was played on sand, had a narrow slit for a goal which ran the width of each end, and that each team comprised 27 – twenty-seven?! – players who were allowed to use both feet and hands to pass and control the ball. Goals (or cacce) are scored by throwing the ball over into the netting at the end of the field. (I cannot resist, at this point, linking to a quite brilliant piece of satire produced by Norway Women’s Team – 2:30 mins is particularly relevant…)

I love this image of seventeenth-century street sport because it’s a reminder of just how blurred the boundaries between everyday life and sport/games were all those years ago – and I think the same was true for music-making.

Next stop: Sarajevo.

Too sexy for church?

Urban myths start like this. A smiling, earnest young man (possibly connected to the church in which I am sitting, possibly not, impossible to tell, but that’s all part of the modern Anglican way, because we don’t want to put people off, do we?) is introducing a lunchtime concert of religious music in the heart of the City of London. The featured composer is Barbara Strozzi. The young man offers us an anecdote. He has it on good authority that the Handel Festival had rejected a similar programme because it was – pause – ‘too sexy for church’. It’s a great line, and there’s now no doubt in the audience that right here, right now, at St Stephen’s Walbrook, we can handle too sexy.

It’s a great line, and might even be true, but once again the shadow of the courtesan is being used to sex up the dossier.

I was at St Stephen’s Walbrook to hear Ursula’s Arrow (http://www.ursulasarrow.com/) play four works by Strozzi, interlaced with a couple of instrumental pieces by her contemporaries. It was thrilling, rare stuff and Sarah Dacey and C N Lester Sarah Dacey C N Lester  gave compelling performances. The four pieces were taken from the only religious collection published by Strozzi, her opus 5 of 1655, which she dedicated from ‘the motives of my heart’ to Anna de Medici, the Archduchess of Innsbruck, here pictured with a cute dog.

Justus Sustermans 011.jpgThe motives of her heart aside, Strozzi was, as always, looking for a patron, and therefore the most significant work in the collection is the astonishingly powerful motet for solo voice ‘Mater Anna’, which, of course, honours both the Archduchess and Santa Anna/Saint Anne, mother of Mary, and patron saint of Christian mothers. Scholar Robert Kendrick has noted that Strozzi would have been well aware of the nature of Anna de Medici’s devotion to her namesake saint. At the age of thirty (in other words, very late for the time), the Medici princess had been married to a man of eighteen, and although she did successfully breed three daughters for him, a son remained elusive through a relentless series of miscarriages and stillbirths.

I’d read that ‘Mater Anna’ culminates in a final prayer, the voice ascending over a walking bass, in a heart-rending plea for mercy and succour, reminiscent in its intensely emotional religiosity of works such as the sculptor Bernini’s ‘Teresa in Ecstasy’. To be honest, I’d wondered if this was a touch of musicological hype. Not a bit of it. In ‘Mater Anna’ all of Strozzi’s ambition as a composer (and she had bucketloads of it) is evident.

But is it too sexy for church? Well, it depends on what you think should happen in church – I was moved by Strozzi’s evocations of ecstatic religious intimacy, and not just in ‘Mater Anna’. I hope to have another chance to sit in a church and hear music composed by women, if I can get to St Peter’s in Rome for 9 May, when a Missa Pro Terrae Humilibus written by ten female composers will be celebrated, a ground-breaking event driven by the campaigning work of the well-connected, Italy-based, Donne in Musica (http://www.donneinmusica.org/en/).

Returning to Strozzi, what’s more surprising, and also perhaps more telling than her absence from church is her absence from the opera house. Strozzi lived and worked in Venice, the city for opera in the mid-seventeenth century, but despite being the – possibly adopted – daughter of one of the leading librettists of the era and despite her music often being thoroughly operatic in nature (‘Mater Anna’ is a case in point) she stood about as much chance of having her secular work performed at the Teatro Novissimo as she had of hearing ‘Mater Anna’ performed at the Basilica of St Mark.

Opera’s loss is our gain, however. Strozzi had more music in print, in single-authored volumes, than any other composer in the seventeenth century, perhaps precisely because of her exclusion from the traditional arenas for (traditionally male) composers.

Here’s what I wonder towards the end of my chapter on Strozzi:

Is it fanciful to see her publication programme as a quest for professional recognition, part of her self-definition as composer first, singer second? Could she have been seeking a fourth way, beyond wife (impossible), nun (implausible) and courtesan/concubine (only too plausible)? As a professional, published composer she could bypass the prince, not to mention the prince’s bedroom, and go straight to her public.

The audience’s engagement at St Stephen’s Walbrook in 2015 proved, powerfully, that not only did Strozzi reach her public back in 1655, but that she still does – 360 years on.

Paris 1916: Marche gaie

Image result for marche gaie paris june 2013

Who knew that 2016 was going to turn out the way it did…but I’m posting something I wrote in March 2015, about Paris under siege in 1916 – and then re-posted after the horror of Bataclan. I’ve just been talking about Lili Boulanger’s final months – a crazy mix of opening nights at the Trocadero as the bombs fall from the sky, of ever-increasing laudanum and a desperate determination to complete her work.

Here’s the work she finished, the seriously (chilling or comforting?) Pie Jesu.

******

It’s a bit cheeky to start with an image of La Marche des Fiertes on 29 June 2013, since I’m considering a musical Marche Gaie, composed some 97 years earlier, but both gay marches are Parisian, and I wanted a joyful image (thank you Reuters) with which to start.

A few weeks ago, I spent a highly emotional half-evening at the Royal Festival Hall: emotional because it was my first venture away from Oxford for almost two months (and this is the moment to thank all those who work at the Oxford Heart Centre, but particularly Mr Sayeed, surgeon extraordinaire) which also explains why it was a half-evening – I was simply not up to more; emotional because the South Bank had been very much my stamping ground as a teenager; emotional because the performers on 26 February were from the Royal College of Music, so the hall had the buzz that only young players – and their friends and family in the audience – can create; but above all, emotional because I heard the world premiere of Lili Boulanger’s recently discovered Marche Gaie. The work has survived only in a piano reduction, so what was heard at the Festival Hall was an arrangement for chamber orchestra by Robert Orlidge, honouring the fact that we know that Boulanger orchestrated the piece herself – another present loss, perhaps another work to be found.

Prior to the performance, I had written about Marche Gaie, setting the work in the context of the composer’s increasingly devastating bouts of illness and the deprivations of the Great War. Boulanger had returned to Paris in the late summer of 1916, after a second stint at the Villa Medici in Rome, exhausted by the long train journey, and seriously ill. She nevertheless completed the song ‘Dans l’immense Tristesse’, three days after her twenty-third birthday on 21 August. it is a work which has been described as an ‘extraordinarily dark’ setting of a poem on the death of a child by the deaf, blind and mute Madame Galéron de Calone, a song with ‘few parallels in the solo vocal literature as a study of despair’. Tragically, the setting would be prescient of the unexpected death, only a week or so after the song’s completion, on 3 September 1916, of the composer’s god-daughter, Madeleine. She was only five years old.

Dans l'immense tristesse : [voix et piano] / [paroles de] B. Galeron de Calone ; [musique de] Lili Boulanger

There’s that word ‘tragically’ (taken from my own draft…blush) – a word that, during Radio 3’s brief engagement with music written by women, kept cropping up in connection with Boulanger and irritating me every time it was used. It’s easy, however, to see why it is the go-to word for Boulanger. She was dead at 24 (leading to the other irritating tag, ‘what if she had lived…?’ which can be a euphemism for ‘would she actually have been as good as the great male composers?’), and her short life was dominated by illness. She didn’t even get to see Tristesse published: it only came out in 1919, a year after the composer’s death.

But that is not the whole story of this composer’s life – which is why Marche Gaie is so important.

The work’s existence complicates any simplistic mapping of life upon art, and challenges the lurking, and reductive, trope of the femme fragile who simply pours her overpowering emotions into her music.

Marche gaie and Dans l’immense Tristesse are about as different as two works can possibly be. With its ‘stomping common-chord texture and harmony of the second section’, and its use of a musical pun (an echo of Mendelssohn’s famous Wedding March) Marche Gaie is spirited and joyful. The Mendelssohn reference, together with the manuscript’s dedication to ‘my lovely little friend, Jeanne Leygues’ may explain its purpose. Leygues was a wealthy young Parisienne who, like so many others, had started nursing during the war. The American Paul Rockwell was one of her patients. Rockwell, and his aviator brother Kiffin, had been amongst the very first Americans to sign up to fight in Europe’s war, years before America itself joined the fight in August 1917. Kiffin would be killed in September 1916. Paul and Jeanne would marry on 4 December in Paris. It seems possible that Boulanger’s ‘stomping’ Marche gaie was composed for the wedding ceremony.

Marche gaie has, understandably, been seen as a measure of Boulanger’s spirit in the face of adversity. As Caroline Potter, the scholar who has done most to bring this music to the eyes and ears of the world, argues, the ‘fact that she continued composing despite everything is testament to her extraordinary determination and strength of character’. But Marche Gaie is also a vital reminder of Boulanger’s professionalism, and the extent to which she continued to operate according to her publisher’s expectation that individual works be arranged for different instrumental ensembles (in this case, piano reduction and chamber orchestra) so as to ensure as wide a market as possible. And it smashes into very small pieces the idea that Boulanger simply poured her ‘tragic’ heart into her ‘tragic’ music.

Perhaps it’s my background (aka long-standing love affair) with the literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that makes me particularly sceptical about the idea that art is the direct expression of the artist’s emotions. The idea is, of course, a tenet of Romanticism, and well-expressed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the true greats of literary criticism, writing about the Sonnets, ‘with this key, Shakespeare unlocked his heart…’. Maybe. But this kind of reading not only places the artist outside or above the material conditions within which she works, but also, so often, slides into a kind of reductive sentimentality (‘tragic Boulanger’). But, as Shakespeare and every single one of his writer contemporaries knew, creating art involved the conscious – and often witty and subversive – imitation of other artists, past and present; the use – and abuse – of standard rhetorical forms and genres; and (whisper it), the production of work for particular audiences and particular occasions, whether those audiences were aristocrats, patrons, one’s spiritual flock, or the punters who needed to be persuaded to cross the Thames to see a new play at the Globe. Hearing Boulanger’s Marche Gaie performed was a reminder that she could, and did, write to order, she could and did write for an occasion. Of course, this confuses us, in part because Boulanger was working generations after the Romantic movement had done its ideological work, but especially because when it comes to music written by women, those emotional, passionate beasts, those accidental artists, we demand a direct correlation between (what we think we know of the) life and art.

These ideas lurk somewhere behind what few reviews exist of the concert. One of the more generous noted that Marche Gaie was ‘an attractive piece of pastiche, somewhat skittish and owing something to Chabrier’, praised the orchestra for giving it a ‘lively birth’, and described the orchestration, by Robert Orlidge, as stylish. Nevertheless, Marche Gaie ‘doesn’t quite fit’ with the rest of Boulanger’s oeuvre. Putting aside the issue that we simply don’t know the full extent of the composer’s work, since so much has been lost, does Marche Gaie not quite fit because we cling to our understanding of the ‘tragic’ Boulanger, who could (and should) only write ‘tragic’ music? http://classicalsource.com/db_control/db_concert_review.php?id=12670

Another reviewer is more openly critical, sceptical as to the work’s provenance (‘there is no absolute proof of it being the genuine article’), and scornful of its content: ‘Admirers of Boulanger’s subtle delicate art may have been disappointed by what they heard in Marche gaie, for as scored by Robert Orlidge for chamber orchestra it seemed a disappointingly trivial piece. Perhaps a more assured performance would have helped, since there were some shaky moments.’

http://seenandheard-international.com/2015/02/a-programme-full-of-enterprise-from-the-royal-college-of-music-symphony-orchestra/?doing_wp_cron=1427793425.5458700656890869140625

Whilst Boulanger’s art may, at times, be subtle, ‘delicate’ is not a word I would associate with her hugely dramatic Psalm settings, powered by driving rhythms and startling orchestration. It seems, again, that the reviewer has decided what kind of music Boulanger could, or should, write.

Then again, once again, it’s up to the listener. Maybe I like ‘trivial’ music. In fact, I think I do.

At present, my book ends with a short paragraph about the challenge (impossibility?) of describing music in words, and a celebration of the fact that each person will hear a piece of music in a different way. Listening to Judith Weir on Composer of the Week yesterday, and hearing her sheer excitement at the rehearsals of her own music (she described rushing from venue to venue during the Barbican’s celebration of her work a few years ago), is a reminder that even for the composer, music exists most fully in ever-changing performance. I’m unaware of any recording of Marche Gaie that would allow you to make up your own mind – trivial? witty? joyful? none of the above? – but I can point you towards Boulanger’s setting of Psalm 130, Du fond de l’abîme (from the depths of the abyss) and encourage you to make your own mind up about Boulanger’s ‘delicate’ music…

STRAVINSKY Symphony of Psalms + BOULANGER/Gardiner

http://www.deutschegrammophon.com/gb/cat/4637892

 

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