shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the category “Oxford”

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.’

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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.

I sing because I must

Here’s a very old song.

I sing because I must

Chantar m’er de so qu’ien non volria  – I must sing about it, whether I want to or not – is by the Comtessa de Dia, a twelfth-century trobaraitz (female troubadour) from the far south of France. This is the land, bordering Moorish Spain, of the great castles such as Foix, Portiragnes and Puivert, a land of violent persecution in the name of Christian orthodoxy.

la comtessa de Dia

 

It’s hard, if not impossible, to disentangle fact from legend when one goes back this far. La Comtessa de Dia is one of the few trobaraitz for whom we have a name, perhaps because she was reputed to be the mistress of one of the most important troubadours of the period, Raimbaut d’Aurenga. The affair may be the stuff of legend, but her music survives, and A chantar m’er de so qu’ieu non volria is a classic of its kind.

For me, thinking about the book, the Comtessa’s music raises the question as to how far back I want or need to go. Hildegard of Bingen, the poster girl (poster nun?) for women composers, or further back, to ninth century Kassia, another nun, this time Orthodox, and in Constantinople? Or earlier still, to Miriam and her tambourine, or perhaps a music-making hetaira (courtesan) of ancient Athens?

Meanwhile, I am getting more and more immersed in my various roles here in Oxford (whether supporting, in a small way, other writers – the absurdly talented students on the Master’s in Creative Writing – or teaching Shakespeare & Co to undergraduates). So, listening to this music, and that of Hensel and the rest, is a good way to keep the flame alive. It helps me remember that I am not just writing a story of creativity against the odds, but trying to honour artistic achievement that reaches across the centuries, if only we would listen for it.

Return

Back in Oxford, and it’s not been a soft landing. I’m not sure how it could have been, since I’ve been in such a privileged position, focusing on one thing, writing, and with the attitude that almost everything else is SEP.* Now, it’s back to the pleasures and pains of owning a home (boiler check this morning, electrician on Tuesday, shall I go on? No…); the pleasures and complications of extended family life (both my daughters moved back in while I was away – yes, I know, I should have changed the locks, but that seemed a little harsh. Only joking, my lovelies); and being back in the familiar but exhausting business of juggling different professional roles, whether teaching Shakespeare or directing Creative Writing programmes or reviewing book manuscripts for publishers. Oh, and next week, I’m giving a lecture for the Friends of Milton’s Cottage at the Mercers’ Hall in London, fittingly on ‘Milton in Italy’ – he had well over a year in the peninsula, funded by his Dad – and he had the time of his life. You can find out more about the event in London here – do note the reference to a generous reception after the lecture, hosted by the Mercers’ Company.

http://renaissance-events.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/3rd-annual-milton-lecture.html

But, it’s good to be home. Spring in England, even in the rain, is a special time

bluebells – witness the bluebells in Harcourt Arboretum – and I’m really looking forward to my trip up to the city next week. Sometimes one doesn’t have to travel very far to get a sense of living history, and I’ve found, in my limited experience, that the Livery Companies of the City of London provide an almost direct line to the past. And I have, at last, got a recording of Fanny Hensel’s Reise Album, the pieces she wrote while, or immediately, after her own transformatory trip to Italy in 1839-40 – almost exactly 200 years after Milton’s journey there. You can find some of the music here – http://www.allmusic.com/album/fanny-hensel-italian-journey-album-mw0001855771 – with a helpful bit of commentary, and some rather harsh things to say about the quality of the performances.

I’m only just getting to know the CD, but already find the Capriccio wonderful, with clear links to Hensel’s masterpiece, Das Jahr. If ever I needed motivation as a writer, then listening to this music, hidden for so long, provides it.

*“The Somebody Else’s Problem field is much simpler and more effective, and what’s more can be run for over a hundred years on a single torch battery. This is because it relies on people’s natural disposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.” (Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything)

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