shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the category “trains”

Goodbye Cambodia

Time to pack my bags. But first, some images from my time here, in no particular order.

The railway line at Kampot (no passenger trains, sadly, in Cambodia – and no gears on the bike); two margaritas (Happy Hour when travelling solo…); buffalo near Kampot; the requisite grainy, mis-shot image of Angkor Wat at sunrise; an Angkor queen who took my fancy; chilling at the Peace Café, Siem Reap; and last, but not least, three pictures from daily life in Phnom Penh: the man who sells breakfast pastries; National Road 1 at sunrise; and finally, Cambodia, land of contrasts.

Barbara di Santa Sofia

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

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

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

santa sofia 1550 santa sofia june 2015

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

calcio fiorentina

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

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

Next stop: Sarajevo.

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.

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

The heart is not for sale

Image

This image, of the fish market, has stayed with me from my trip to Venice, some weeks ago. My first morning in the city, I tried, and for the moment failed, to visit the church of Santa Sofia in Cannaregio, where Barbara Strozzi – father incerto, mother perhaps a courtesan, certainly a servant – was baptised back in 1619. Strozzi didn’t just live and write music in the shadow of the courtesan. She was a courtesan. (Well, actually, as ever, it’s bit more complicated than that, but it will all be explained in chapter two. Probably.) Cannaregio was Strozzi’s territory. She lived and worked in the neighbourhood, plying her two trades, music and sex.

So, when I turned from Santa Sofia, and looked across the Grand Canal to the Pescheria’s red awnings, the words I saw scrawled there seemed to speak across the centuries. I think the words mean, in Venetian dialect, that ‘the heart is not for sale’. Brave, defiant words but they don’t carry much weight in Venice now, and they certainly didn’t for Strozzi.

It’s impossible to wander around Venice without beginning to question one’s own sense of time and space. (It’s also impossible to write about Venice without stumbling over clichés). My grip on reality was not helped by running into a film crew

venice film recreating a vision of fifteenth century (?) Venice nor was it helped by seeing young naval officers lined up in their finery, a triumphant expression of la bella figura, overlooked by the lion of St Mark. It was hard to imagine them at war.

naval

Fortunately, reality can always be restored with an aperitivo. Go to the square of San Giacomo dell’ Orio, look for ‘Al Prosecco’ – but don’t have prosecco, have one of the well-kept, beautifully-served big northern Italian reds, and watch a more mundane world go by. In a city where you can pay an awful lot for terrible food, you can enjoy a plate of lovely cheeses, complemented by home-made chutney, for, well, still a lot more than Palermo, but it is Venice. Kids play football, people talk, buy groceries at the Co-op. When I briefly lived in Venice, this was ‘my’ bar, and I am still very, very fond of it and its owners.

I stopped off there before taking the night train to Vienna. A glass of nebbiolo, a plate of cheese and salad, a few minutes of ordinary life, Venetian style, and I was ready to say goodbye, at least for a while, to Strozzi and her city.

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…

florence

I’m starting to think about my trip to Florence, where I’m heading on the night train from Palermo, a week on Monday. A sceptic might ask, in fact, I ask myself, what will I actually learn from standing in the Baptistery in Florence, along with countless other tourists, about the first day of Francesca Caccini’s life that I won’t learn from reading books about baptism? What will I learn from gazing at the walls of the convent where Caccini spent her final years, that I won’t learn from reading books about nuns’ lives in seventeenth-century Florence? Why do I think it will be helpful to go to a concert of music for soprano in the church of Santo Stefano al Ponte?

My only answer is that it’s been invaluable in the past. Walking through the streets of London, east and north of St Paul’s, tracking down the streets where John Milton was born, where he was educated, loved, hated, persecuted, and sheltered, where he wrote, and where he died, brought home to me as nothing else could exactly how important these few square miles of city were to him. At Sherborne Castle in Dorset, being taken down dusty corridors by the wonderful librarian, far from the immaculate public areas, to a small, hexagonal turret room that was Sir Walter Ralegh’s study, allowed me to sense, fully, the conundrum that was Sir Walter – intellectual swashbuckler, screwed-up action man, practical aesthete – and started me wondering…would Bess, his wife, have used the other turret room (for Sherborne was originally designed on symmetrical principles – it was only the usurping Wingfield Digby family who added the monstrous, and unbalancing, wings), and if so, for what?

PS: The same sceptical reader who might have questioned the purpose of field trips, might also question my choice of location when the cities I need to visit are all hundreds of miles away, if not more. The answer lies clearly in my first sentence above: see http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2012/feb/12/sicily-train-messina-straits-ferry for a rose-tinted view of an endangered species.

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