shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the category “cycling”

piano, piano

Otranto

A few months ago I realised I was running on empty, emotionally (having been thrust into the unlikely and ill-fitting role of carer through the winter and into the spring) and intellectually, being fresh out of words and ideas, since they had all been poured into the manuscript of my book. Time has passed, and now the patient is recovering well, and the manuscript is in the capable hands of my publishers, the alchemists who will transform a computer file into a living, breathing book.

So, with a slight sense that I was going all ‘Eat, Pray, Love’-ish, I decided that, in addition to food (which has ever and always been my salvation, so no change there); prayer (which does have its moments, even for those of us without faith, if viewed in George Herbert’s inimitable words as ‘something understood’); and love (oops, it will now become clear that I have not actually read Eat, Pray, Love and so I am not sure whether this is an American euphemism for sex, which would mean this post veering into unchartered waters) but fortunately this sentence is now so long that even the most careful reader will have lost the will to follow it to its logical conclusion, allowing me, in a rhetorical sleight of hand, to return to the main clause: I decided that I wanted to learn.

So it is that I am writing this in Otranto, an ancient city port poised on the easternmost point of the heel of Italy (next stop Albania), and feeling extremely anxious about tomorrow morning. I am starting un corso gruppo at a local language school, the first step, I hope, towards taking the Italian government’s CILS exam (level to be decided) towards the end of November. Domani, sono una studentessa! (Is that right? Please tell me it’s right! And I’ve not even started…this is not going well.)

I chose Otranto somewhat blindly, seduced by the thought of the Italian south (particularly once we get to November) and thinking it would somehow be more authentic, not to mention cheaper, than, say, the more obvious Rome, Florence or Venice. I didn’t take into account just how difficult it is to get here. For once, I took my beloved trains with good reason and for much of the journey it felt like the wise decision. I sped to Paris, passed a relatively uneventful night on the train to Milan, and snoozed and read my way through a smooth and inexpensive express ride to Lecce. At which point, it all went a bit wrong. Despite or because of the copious advice from most of the inhabitants of Lecce, I spent nearly three hours covering the 25 miles or so to Otranto, as night and my spirits fell. Welcome to the South.

Otranto, on almost two days’ acquaintance, is pleasant, but – so far – it is hardly the kind of dirty, beautiful city that makes this woman’s heart beat faster. (Then again, there is only one Palermo…). It is very small, with a highly-touristed centre, all cobbled streets and no cars. The sea truly is turquoise, the castle is imposing, the cathedral striking, the gift shops full of expensive tat. As ever, my priorities have been to find bread, coffee and wine. There will be time enough for sight-seeing. At the bakers this morning, the woman recognised me, and we are already chatting, bonding over my crap Italian. (For the record, she thought I was German.). The contrast with Palermo is stark. There I spent fourteen weeks descending into Hades each morning – aka La Vucciria market. I never wore sandals, always watched each footstep, because the range of detritus from the previous night presented various threats to health. I knew it was a lottery as to whether the bakers would be open at eight thirty in the morning, and that it was a certainty that the young man serving (and I use the term loosely) would thrust the bread at me, mutter something incomprehensible, refuse to make eye contact, take my money and – sometimes – give me change. But the bread – oh the bread – warm, yielding, sprinkled with sesame seeds. Bread of heaven.

But back to Otranto. Franco, at the wine shop, was just as friendly as the bakery woman. He was keen to help me learn English but in fact, unwittingly, introduced me to a wonderful Italian phrase: ‘piano, piano’ which, if I understood it correctly, means take it easy, slow down, it’s ok, there’s no hurry – and all without the patronising sneer of ‘calm down dear’. Franco repeated this about a dozen times during the ten minutes I was in his shop. I suspect (it being Day One in a Strange Place) I was looking and acting somewhat stressed.

Still on my list of crucial things to do is to hire a bike. I had severe bike envy this morning, en route back from the bakers, and seeing the local cyclists gathering outside a café. It made me miss my own Oxford bike café, Zappi’s, but even more it made me want to get on to the roads of the Salento. I have also not yet found a bar in which to have my aperitivo. These things take time, and in the mean time I’ll just have to make do with the roof terrace here. As I write this, I am surrounded on all sides (my apartment straddles a narrow building, looking out over one street on one side, another street on the other) by the sounds of families enjoying a Sunday in Otranto. I like the buzz of noise, I like the breeze which blows through the rooms, I like knowing that a few steps will take me to the sea. It all helps counter my nerves about tomorrow morning’s opening class, but perhaps a couple of months in the Salento will teach me not only Italian but to take life piano, piano.

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!

Look closer. Look back.

IMG_0129The landscape you see here is that of the hills and mountains to the south of Sarajevo. Last month, I walked with a handful of young people, drawn to this beauty from faraway places like Brazil and Singapore. Benjamin, our guide, drove us to a village called Lukomir (Harbour of Peace), from where we walked, drinking in the clear air, to the edge of a precipitous gorge. Climbing back up to the village, we were fed delicious cheese pies and yogurt, looked at the centuries-old Muslim gravestones, filled our bottles from one of the many natural springs, before bumping back along an unmade road towards Sarajevo, down past the Olympic village of Bjelasnica. It was a very special day out. Despite the occasional passing comment from Benjamin (“that’s where the UN safe haven was, but how could people get to it?” “only one house was shelled in Lukomir – it was just too out of the way to matter”), and despite returning to still war-scarred Sarajevo with posters advertising, if that is the right word, a Srebrenica exhibition, posters that made me look away every time, it was almost impossible to imagine this idyllic, pastoral landscape desecrated by civil war, neighbour killing neighbour, these hills as launching points for mortar attacks. My daughters were born to the soundtrack of the Balkan wars. I would turn off the radio because I couldn’t bear to hear any more, as I held their new lives in my arms. God – or possibly a good therapist – knows why I am drawn to the region, but I am.

This was going to be a post about women composers and war (and peace) – and that post will be written, because there is an important story to be told, some fascinating patterns to be revealed – but right now, Bosnia is still with me, perhaps because last night one of the disconcertingly talented Oxford Creative Writing students (Dunja Janjic, twenty years ago a child in exile from Sarajevo, like my guide Benjamin) brought me to tears – and laughter – with a story about her toddler self. You can find out more about the adult Dunja, and indeed her fellow students, at http://www.writeoffarena.com/#!authors/c1875).

Back in the meadows below Lukomir, Pedro, from Rio, and also a child at the time of the conflict that sent Dunja and Benjamin into exile, said what many are now saying – Bosnia is a welcoming, hospitable country precisely because of the horrors. Sarajevo, with its café culture, is now a cool weekend destination: Bosnia a ‘vibrant’ addition to tired European itineraries. Sarajevo is the Jerusalem of Europe, says the Pope who arrived the week before me and prayed for peace, although there is little obviously spiritual about the shiny new banks and shopping malls, there to serve…whom? Certainly not the ordinary Bosnian, living on an average salary of just over 400 euros a month.

Sarajevo is fashionable despite, and because, of its traumatic recent history, war tourism one of its most bankable assets. I’ve always been sceptical about war tourism: it took me years before I went to visit Terezin, where my own grandmother was imprisoned (she would die in Treblinka), and I’m not sure it helped heal any wounds, although it did convince me once and for all not only of the banality of evil, but the ease at which it can be achieved. My scepticism is derived, I think, not merely from the way a certain kind of war story is foundational to the grand, high-political, male-centred narrative of history, but the way in which some forms of war tourism can turn human misery into an exhibit, make us voyeurs, and thus put the past, and the human beings who lived that past, at a safe distance, from me, from us, here and now.

Traitor's Ford June 2015Back home, a few days after my return from the Balkans, I was cycling through the Cotswolds on a quintessentially English summer’s day and, descending a winding, minor road was confronted with that most thrilling of things – a ford. I stopped to take a photograph, and spotted a notice board which informed me that this was ‘Traitor’s Ford’, so called because it was one of the back routes to the battlefields of England’s civil war: Edgehill – 23 October 1642 – was not far away, in space if not in time. I read that the local villages endured ‘groups of soldiers plundering food, goods, horses, cattle and sheep without payment’. If I hadn’t read the rather battered notice, then the only clue in this quiet country lane, as idyllic in its own way as the hills above Sarajevo, would have been the name, Traitor’s Ford. I had stumbled into war tourism in my own back yard – and it was just as hard to imagine the horrors of war here as it had been in the highland meadows of Bosnia.

Sometimes – and I suppose this is one of the things that keeps me going as a biographer – it is the little things that reveal a life and a time, that provide the connection between the living and the dead, between now and then. A few days ago, I found some documents connected with my father’s arrival in this country. It was 1939 and he, like Dunja and Benjamin, was a refugee from war and ethnic cleansing. Unlike them, he was almost a man – seventeen years old – but, unlike them, he would never, could never, return to the country of his birth, Czechoslovakia. Amongst the fragile papers was a robust booklet, his Certificate of Registration as an Alien. Each month he reported to the police, who duly tracked his movements across the south of England. On  5 June 1941, almost two years after his arrival, my father – who would have just turned nineteen – was granted permission to be employed as a ‘confectioner’ at the Cadena Café, Red Lion Square, Oxford. Eight days later, in a rare type-written entry, he was granted permission ‘to use a Bicycle in the City of Oxford ONLY.’

JB Certificate of Registration 1939

My father would remain in Oxford for just a few months. By mid-July 1941 he was in East Sussex at a school called Fonthill Lodge, where his fortunes would change dramatically. This little book reeks of wartime, of a life under constant surveillance, of moving relentlessly from one precarious lodging to another, of nights spent fire watching, of exile, of being an ‘alien’ – a life I have never known, and that i can barely imagine – but it also connects me powerfully with my Dad, who cycled through the streets of Oxford, just as I do now.

Corsets, refugees, and skipping ropes: what I’m not saying about Lili Boulanger

There are two things that I tend to say to students, and to myself. One is to imagine a fierce (fierce because she cares, of course) Anna standing at one’s back saying ‘So what?’ The other is to remind the non-fiction author, even those who are writing academic essays, and particularly those who are not, that one’s work should not anxiously display everything one knows. In other words, cut, and cut again.

But, hey, who says that I’m right? So here are some thoughts about underwear, starving refugees, and skipping ropes – three topics which cannot, will not, be squeezed into an already bulging chapter on Lili Boulanger.

So, underwear first, naturally. Lili Boulanger was a very sick woman for most of her life. Born in 1893, she was tall for her time (five foot nine inches), and very slender. No, she wasn’t anorexic, she – probably – had Crohn’s Disease, or, since Crohn’s had not been ‘discovered’ then, abdominal tuberculosis. The labels don’t really matter. She suffered horribly, and there was nothing anyone could do to help.

I’ve been trying to understand how her experience of illness impacted upon her career as a composer – it’s not always straightforward – but I’ve also been thinking about Lili’s day-to-day life in the 1910s. How did she actually manage to function with her dismal repertoire of symptoms? Forget for one moment her compositional activity. How did she, a young ‘lady’ from a privileged Paris world, cope practically with the round of dinners, picnics, balls, concerts, long journeys to the South of France…whilst experiencing recurrent acute abdominal pain, diarrhea, and fevers to name but three of the most distressing symptoms of Crohn’s?

Which is why I was thinking about underwear and the myriad ways in which women’s clothes make life just that little bit harder than it needs to be. Especially if you are sick. I found out that (and all things are relative), it would all have been even worse for Boulanger if she had been a decade or more earlier than she was. For anyone with severe abdominal pain, any kind of corsetry must have been unpleasant, at times agonizing, but at least this

S-shaped corset wasn’t the fashion by the time Boulanger reached adulthood.

Nevertheless, in the liberated 1910s, the stomach still remained compressed by the new, more ‘natural’, corsets – and women still wore five pieces of underwear: chemise, corset, corset cover, drawers, and petticoat. Nipping to the loo is not really an option under these circumstances. You can sort of see why bed rest might have been the easier option for a sick woman. All this makes me even more delighted that Lili Boulanger (lightly corseted, one hopes, and with a skirt that reached just above – yes, you read that right, above – her ankles) learned to ride a bike in the summer of 1911, pedaling in the lanes around Hannecourt, a hamlet west of Paris, close to the Seine, where the Boulangers had their second home. Lili’s first lesson was on 27 July. Two weeks later she has been on an expedition to a hamlet some six kilometres away, then the following day, sixteen kilometres, there and back, to Mantes-la-Jolie, her local town. A day off the bicycle was followed by an impressive expedition to Houdan, just over thirty kilometres away. Forty miles and a novice. Chapeau, Lili!

I visited Hannecourt while I was in Paris, travelling by slow train as Boulanger would have done from the Gare St-Lazare, close to her city address in the 9th arrondissement. But I didn’t get off at Gargenville (Hannecourt’s village), but kept going a couple of stops to Mantes-la-Jolie, to see an exhibition called Maximilien Luce: quand l’art regarde la guerre: 1914-1918. I was the only person there, which was a relief in that I was shaking after only a few minutes, and spent much of the time trying not to sob. Luce was a pacifist, and his work speaks eloquently to the horror of war. And suddenly I realized that, although Boulanger notes (in passing) that there are Zeppelins overhead at 10am in Paris, and writes with despair when she hears about the Battle of Verdun, it is as if the war is happening to other people, somewhere else. Luce’s art, and the documents provided in the exhibition, shows that it was happening right on Boulanger’s doorstep, whether in Paris or Hannecourt. Surely there was no way to escape the sight of columns of Belgian refugees trudging

through the village near the Seine,Luce refugees

no escaping the sight of young men heading to the killing fields from Paris’ own Gare de l’Est?

luce gare de l'est

I have to admit that writing the life of Lili Boulanger has been tough – one of the reasons I write is to get a sense of detachment from lived experience, and that detachment is difficult to maintain in the face of terminal illness or the mud of the trenches. I was, however, greatly cheered when I came across the following photographs here: http://www.musimem.com/prix_rome_1909-1913.htm. Lili Boulanger’s greatest achievement, according to the music history books, was winning the Prix de Rome, the most prestigious prize in French music. To win, she had to go into a kind of retreat with the other finalists at the palace near Paris, and produce a particular piece of music. Sort of Big Brother meets the Great British Bake-Off but with a cantata rather than a lemon tart as the outcome, and a cast made up of young male composers (and Lili). Anyway, these photos, taken, I think, a year or two before Boulanger’s time at Compiegne, show the Finalists having a joyous time.

skipping rope 1

skipping rope 2

I just hope Lili Boulanger, in the summer of 1913, got to jump rope.

Looking for Lili

I could almost re-print, word for word, my first post on this blog, written just after arriving in Palermo. Just change Palermo to Paris. It’s the fantasy that one can touch down in a strange city, and suddenly writing will become easy. And then the reality. In practical terms, so many little things need to be sorted out (getting the coffee right, getting hold of more pillows…these things are important, no?). Emotionally, a small voice is saying, quite insistently, ‘what are you doing here far from the comforts of home and loved ones?’

Fortunately, due to the fact that I was arriving in Paris on Monday night, and Professor Sassanelli of Bari University was leaving Paris on Wednesday morning, I was forced into action, and out of the apartment, on my very first day – the professor being someone I wanted to meet in connection with my research into Lili Boulanger’s short life (1893-1918). Sassanelli has been working on the contents of a locked suitcase deposited in the Bibliothèque nationale de France by Nadia Boulanger, big sister to Lili, and fierce protector of not only her own formidable reputation as one of the great figures in music in the twentieth century, but that of her composer little sister.

Nadia placed a long embargo on the suitcase being opened (she died in 1979), and even when the embargo ceased, nothing was done for a time, perhaps because of anxiety about its contents.

 

Put simply, there are two dominant narratives in play concerning Lili Boulanger – and her family. One is of Saint Lili, the sweet-natured, supremely talented, doomed girl-woman. The other, proposed by her most recent biographer, Jerome Spycket, is more ordinary and, in that sense at least, more convincing. Lili, it seems, did have some very good times in her short life – and it’s thanks to Spycket that I know about Lili and her bicycling adventures – more of which another time. For the moment, here’s a gratuitous image of a woman on a bicycle, dating from 1922, but relevant to 1911 as you will find out if you click on http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com.

To return to Spycket: his book is also much more speculatively salacious. He identifies a host of ‘mysteries’ surrounding Lili Boulanger and her family, and does not hold back from offering his own solutions to those mysteries. (I should add that there’s also an eminently sensible book by Caroline Potter which tries to re-focus everyone on the music).

So, that’s the state of play at the moment. Over coffee, Professor Sassanelli filled me on some of her findings. I, like everyone else, will need to wait to find out the detail – until her work is published, and until the documents themselves have been through the cataloguing system of the library. For now, however, and without jumping the gun on Sassanelli’s months of hard work, it is enough to say that we had an interesting talk about Nadia Boulanger’s belief that certain aspects of her life needed to be kept out of the public domain, most likely out of a desire to maintain her professional standing.

And so, once again, the shadow of the courtesan is cast. Nadia Boulanger believed, perhaps rightly, that any hint of an emotional, let alone an erotic, life would compromise her professional standing. To achieve what she did (and, by God, she achieved a lot), that aspect of her existence had to be sacrificed and/or concealed.

That was yesterday. Today it’s been a complete change of gear. No more Lili Boulanger for a while – instead, it’s time for the composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who flourished in another Paris, that of the last years of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Her territory was the Île Saint-Louis, about 10 – 15 minute walk from my tiny fourth floor apartment near Place Monge.

Here’s the island (Isle au Vaches) before Louis XIII and those seventeenth-century property developers got hold of it.

Tomorrow, the plan is to set off early to avoid the hordes of tourists that I witnessed yesterday as I walked to and from the Bibliothèque nationale (I found out later that Beyoncé was visiting Notre Dame Cathedral that very day, and that her daughter, Blue Ivy, played the keys of the organ, as can be seen in some touching family photos posted by the-artist-who-is-coming-to-haunt-this-blog) and seek out Jacquet de la Guerre’s Paris. I’m looking forward to my early morning walk, and might continue what I like to call research by visiting the handful of magnificent churches where Jacquet de la Guerre’s male relatives plied their musical trade (Notre Dame – complete with its organ touched by Blue Ivy, Saint-Chapelle, Saint-Severin, Saint-Eustache…it’s a very fine itinerary). By then, it will be time for a long lunch I expect. Just don’t ask me tomorrow evening how many words I have written.

The Search for the Modern Explorer

Expedia are looking for The Modern Explorer (http://expediablog.co.uk/expedia-is-looking-for-the-modern-day-explorer/ – and sorry, people, the competition is now closed…) and they’ve asked me to be one of the judges. The winner will retrace the journey from Portugal to India made by Vasco da Gama some five hundred years ago. One of the ideas behind Expedia’s competition is that the reasons we travel, and what we (and others) gain from travel has not changed much over the centuries – it’s just that we communicate in different media these days.

It’s my long-term relationship with this guy Image that has got me on to the judges panel, I think. In the words of the interviewer on Woman’s Hour, ten years ago now, I’m a Sir Walter Ralegh groupie, not least because he was not only an explorer – and supporter of explorers – but a superb writer as well. Thinking about Sir Walter, which is no hardship, one of the many things that made him exceptional for his time was his realisation that new media – in his case, print – was his friend. He, in effect, created a PR campaign for his quest for El Dorado – no matter that he completely failed to find the golden city (he didn’t even find a workable gold mine), his inspiring, eloquent account of the expedition up the Orinoco was designed to finance the next expedition – and the next. Compared to Francis Drake who did, I acknowledge, circumnavigate the globe (but couldn’t and didn’t write anything worth repeating about it) there’s no contest. Sir Walter may have failed to finish pretty much every project he turned his hand to (from finding El Dorado to completing ‘The History of the World’ – incomplete, but still 1400 big pages long), but, not only did he travel hopefully, he had vision and the ability to communicate that vision to others.

What of the prospective Modern Explorers? I’ve been enjoying learning more about the finalists – it’s quite interesting to see that the vast majority are female, even though the publicity for the competition focuses on the male explorer tradition (as does this post – and what follows…so, just for the record, I’m not throwing stones from my glass house here, just noticing…) and it’s exciting trying to find the perfect mix of engaging personality, great communicator, and intrepid traveller.

Image

Judging the entries has made me think about the writers who influenced me when I was younger. The single most important book was Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy. It redefined the art of the possible for anyone reading it – but particularly a girl from the London suburbs. You could just get on your bike and keep going. On your own. And rely on the kindness of strangers. I have continued to read Dervla Murphy over the years, but it is an earlier writer (more writer than explorer really, although with a huge courage all of his own) who, in one of his earliest books, articulates what, for me, are some central truths about travel. This is Robert Byron, in First Russia, then Tibet, recording journeys made in 1931-2.

As a member of a community, and an heir to a culture, whose joint worth is now in dispute, I would discover what ideas, if those of the West be inadequate, can with greater advantage be found to guide the world.

It’s a far cry from Vasco da Gama’s motives for exploration – one recent book about him is simply called Holy War. Byron continues:

And to this end, I would also know, in the language of my own senses, in whom and what the world consists. […] it is only from the sum of isolated journeys that even the shadow of an answer to [these questions] can ever be expected.

Byron knows that most of us are unlikely to gain much insight from our travels – his cynicism fuelled by being an adolescent in the first world war, and witnessing as an adult the slide into the second. But he has hope. To those who say that travel is pointless

the traveller can only reply that at least he desires to know more and more about more and more.

And he also knows that travel is not all about gaining profound insights and stopping wars – it’s about travelling with your friend on ancient roads – although they are new to you – in a beat up old car with that all-important crate of whisky at your side. Inspirational.

Somewhere else

This is an unashamed and gratuitous trainfest of a post, although I will start by noting the significance of trains to the lives of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Clara Wieck Schumann – and the way in which their experiences illustrate the phenomenal pace of change in the period. Hensel was born in 1805, Wieck only fourteen years later, in 1819.

In 1834, Fanny Hensel can write to her brother, Felix Mendelssohn, with amazement that there might be a new railroad project that could take a person to Dusseldorf in 4 hours‘. Her husband, Wilhelm, travelling in England in 1838, witnessed, excitedly, not only the coronation of Queen Victoria, but also the opening of the Great Western Railway (‘the most complete railroad’) on 4 June. Within a few years, the Hensels are regularly travelling (admittedly fairly short distances) by train, most, if not all of the wonder, gone.

By the early 1840s, Clara Schumann, newly married with young children in Leipzig, relied on the railways to keep in touch with her father, who had bitterly opposed her marriage to Robert, and now lived in Dresden. Friedrick Wieck, desperate for a reconciliation with his daughter, tried to encourage her to make the journey by reminding her that she could bring the baby, and not even pay for her. Clara travelled on the first German long distance railway line between the two cities: Leipzig Hauptbahnhof was the largest terminal station in Europe, a hub for central European rail travel. In 1843, Robert Schumann organised a surprise visit for his wife to her mother in Berlin. Marianne had left Clara’s father when her daughter was only four. Clara took her oldest daughter, Marie, still only a toddler, and her account of the journey will be familiar to many parents: ‘It was fortunate that we travelled first class because Marie didn’t sit still for five minutes on the whole trip….’ On arrival, however, Marie was not tired at all. Clara Schumann was exhausted, but then Marie ‘would only get in my bed. I didn’t sleep all night, for there was hardly enough room for one person, let alone two’. Marianne, however, was delighted with the visit.

When Clara and her family moved to Dresden, they lived close to the railway station there, quite a way from the courtly heart of the city, perhaps to enable her getting back to familiar (and more musical) Leipzig. Or perhaps because it was cheaper. Whatever, the approach into Dresden from Leipzig is spectacular, the courtly splendour of the city contrasting with Leipzig’s bourgeious respectability.

arriving into Dresden Railways, of course, facilitated Clara Schumann’s punishing touring schedule throughout Europe. And, one final cruel twist of railway fate, Robert Schumann died alone, because Clara had gone to the railway station to meet their friend, the violinist, Joseph Joachim. Clara had only just been allowed to see Robert, as he neared death, after years of separation, supposedly for the good of his mental health.

Looking at Dresden station now, it is easy to imagine it filled with steam trains, and Clara and her children (six of them by the time she left the city) travelling between the cities of Saxony and Prussia.

Dresden station

In Florence, a bigger task of historical imagination is needed, to imagine the city without the station of Santa Maria Novella, and instead, to see the streets and piazzas and churches of Francesca Caccini’s seventeenth century neighbourhood. Via Valfonda, where she lived, and owned property, runs beside and beyond the station.

via valfonda now The building of the station in the 1930s destroyed the city end of the street, whilst the coming of the railway itself some hundred years earlier destroyed the more rural sections. In Caccini’s time, the city end of via Gualfonda, as it was known then, had a moderate number of households, some with servants, some even owned by patricians. Further out, towards the Palazzo di Valfonda, it was less urban, and poorer.

Before returning to the gratuitous trainfest, a word about the title to this post. I found them in a poem by Wisława Szymborska – which you can find at http://www.fernuni.de/wbs/mk/szymborska. The poem captures a significantly empty moment at a train station and ends, elusively:

Somewhere else.

Somewhere else.

How these little words ring.

Quite why I love being taken ‘somewhere else’ by train more than any other form of transport I don’t know. I do know, however, a good train when I see one: the Venice to Vienna sleeper.

the perfect train Just look at that shine! I booked a single berth (never done that before), which, confusingly but happily, was the same price as a triple. God knows why, and bluntly I don’t care, because not only did I get a compartment to myself, but I also got lots of goodie bags (slippers! Wine! A pen!) and a breakfast menu.

goodie bags Of course, the return journey – Vienna to Rome – in a six-berth compartment, crammed with teenagers (delightful Viennese teenagers, fluent in English of course, and off to Florence to study Italian, but still teenagers), was less perfect. But, even with minimal sleep, there was the huge excitement of waking up to the details of a different landscape – Italy again! ‘somewhere else’ – which is one of the glories of overnight train travel.

And, to close, two images from Sicily.

ragusa This is Ragusa, which, for some people, is significant because it’s where they film the TV series Montalbano. Indeed, the restaurant where we had lunch advertises itself as one of the places where the fictional policeman eats, life confusingly imitating art. But, for me, the wonder of Ragusa is the railway line which reaches the city, despite its position on top of a hill – actually two hills, and two cities, but that’s Sicily. My map gave me an almost overwhelming thrill when I realised how the engineers had solved the problem of reaching Ragusa. The train has to go through a tunnel which almost completes a circle as it climbs ever higher. Oh my goodness. So, I will have to go back to Sicily, if only for that train ride.

In the mean time, I will have to make do with the Cotswold line. I took my bike on the train on Saturday, and had a delightful cycle through pristine villages, complete with classic car rally, a church group out for a group ride, and English countryside. charlbury the maybushes in bloom.

It was not the same.

My final image was snatched on my last expedition out from Palermo. I’d been up to the hills above Cefalu, where Sicily gets as close to looking like a poor-man’s Tuscany as it ever does. As it turned out, and as I should have predicted – see my last post – the bus which I had been told to take to get home again didn’t actually go back to Cefalu (from whence I had a return ticket for the train back to Palermo, along the beautiful north coast). So the bus driver came up with a plan, dropping me off at an unsignposted junction, and pointing me along a somewhat desolate-looking main road. He told me there was a railway station a few hundred metres on the left. He was right. There was: Campofelice. The name was not apposite. But from Campofelice I took my last Sicily train, and the railway gods gave me one final treat. An announcement came, instructing the handful of waiting passengers (passengers, not customers….) that we had to move to the other platform. Which meant crossing the tracks. Which is, for me, one of the most exciting, if shortest, journeys that a person can make.

 crossing the tracks

389 years and one day later…

The three best ways to travel – if one can – are by train, by bike, or (especially in cities) on foot. Going by plane is simply not travelling. It is annihilating distance and, for me at least, identity. And I’m writing this having experienced one of the slowest train journeys imaginable (the night train from Palermo to Roma) – having experienced some imaginative but definitely decline-able propositions from said night train’s conductor (the only one that tempted was accompanying him up to the deck as the boat, with train in its bowels, made its way across the Messina Strait, but I regretfully decided that maintaining my virtue and/or not punching the gentleman should be my priority) – and having experienced severe delays out of Roma Termini because of the sadly international phenomenon of a body on the line. And yet, all these, and the fast, cheap, trains from Rome to Florence and back again, were journeys.

Similarly, the February rains in Florence did not for one moment detract from the pleasures of wandering the city’s streets. I can, at least, justify this in terms of ‘research’. Only when one moves to older rhythms, walking rhythms, can one understand time, distance, and indeed power in the past. Walking up the hill to Villa Poggio Imperiale,

Poggio Imperiale

past the city walls, through the Porta Romana, up an immense tree-lined avenue, to a place away from, and just as important high above, the Pitti and the Uffizi made me realise just how interesting a choice of venue Poggio Imperiale was for Maria Magdalena d’Austria when she sought to display her power – as a regent, as a woman, as the ruler of Tuscany. She had the power to bring anyone who was anyone out of Florence, up to her palace, through her avenue of trees, into her domain, to see her entertainment, with music composed by her composer, Francesca Caccini.

view from Poggio Imperiale down into Florence

My visit occurred precisely 389 years and one day after La Liberazione di Ruggerio was performed on 3 February 1625. If it gets into the music history books, La Liberazione is described as the first opera to be written by a woman. As Suzanne Cusick, the superb biographer of Caccini points out, the work is not in fact an opera – although on the other hand it’s hard to say what it is. It certainly ended with an extraordinary balletto a cavallo (a dance on horseback, imagine dressage set to music), watched by the rich and powerful from the balconies and terraces of the Villa. I can’t help wondering if it rained that day as well…

Cycling in Sicily

view from Caccamo towards sea       Five things I have learned…

almond biscuits yum  1. It is possible, but perhaps not desirable, to cycle for 30 miles (including 600m of climbing) fuelled only by half a small almond pastry. I now declare la mandorla the original and best energy food.

train leaving Roccapalumba-Alia station   2. It is not just possible, but easy and cheap (3.50), to take one’s bike on the train from the centre of Palermo into the Sicilian hills, enabling the intrepid – but somewhat plump (too many mandorle?) – cyclist to avoid a 400 metre hill climb at the start of the day.

3. Sicilian drivers are considerate of cyclists. I’m taking the honking of horns as a sign of consideration, rather than harassment. After all, it’s good to know when someone is overtaking.

view of madonie mountains  4. My goodness, the landscape is beautiful: views across miles, and miles, of undulating country to the snow-capped Madonie mountains in one direction, or towards the sea, so blue it defines the colour, in the other. Fennel growing wild on the roadside throws out a pungent aroma; sheep bells tinkle. It all helps as one walks up another hill.

5. You’re not supposed to cycle in the bus/taxi lanes in Palermo. But everyone does. It’s Palermo.

Post Navigation