shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the category “Paris”

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

The mystery of the big dog

It’s probably not a mystery to anyone who knows anything about dogs, but it is to me.

So – for reasons that will become apparent when you read my chapter on the composer Lili Boulanger – I’d love to know the breed of the dog in the picture below. Just click on it to enlarge.

Fachoun the dog

I’d been reading about femme fragile Lili Boulanger’s attachment to her dogs, and imagined her owning some little lap dog. Then I saw this picture. No lap dog this. Remember Lili herself is five foot nine in height…this looks like one big dog!

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.

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