shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the category “Writing”

A Valentine for Johanna

Do listen to this….

If it’s remarkable that women wrote classical music in the first place (when all the odds were stacked against them), it’s a bloody miracle when that music survives after their death. So, imagine my surprise when I came across this gloriously evocative recording, billed as the work of composer, Johanna Kinkel.

Now, I am well aware that, in terms of its musical quality the song is pretty average, perhaps interesting only as a period piece. But to come across any legacy for Kinkel, however trivial and/or dubious, is exciting, because this particular composer’s life has come to represent, for me at least, the dark side of the history of women’s music.

It all began so well. Kinkel was a multi-talented woman, both author and composer. She was a political radical, and, rare for her time, spoke up for the causes she believed in. She was generous in her praise for other women, as here in an account of Fanny Hensel in action:

She seized upon the spirit of the composition and its innermost fibres, which then radiated out most forcefully into the souls of the singers and audience. A sforzando from her small finger affected us like an electric shock, transporting us much further than the wooden tapping of a baton on a music stand. When one saw Fanny Hensel perform a masterpiece, she seemed larger … Even her sharp critical judgements shared with close acquaintances were founded on ideals she demanded from art and human character alike – not in impure motives of exclusion, arrogance and resentment. Whoever knew her was convinced that she was as ungrudging as she was unpretentious.

Kinkel knew Hensel’s world very well indeed, because she was absolutely part of it. Born in Bonn in 1810, she was mentored by Felix Mendelssohn, taught by some of the great figures in German music, praised by Robert Schumann for her songs.

So far so good.

The challenges would come thick and fast: an abusive first marriage (she left him); four children by her politically radical second husband; his sentence of life imprisonment, which prompted Johanna to engineer the family’s escape to England. Kinkel proved to be courageous and resourceful. She needed to be.

But then, an all-too-familiar story: in London, Kinkel would scrape a living teaching music and writing, holding the family together, financially and emotionally, while her husband continued on his revolutionary path, now in America. As a composer, she fell silent. Before she died, she did complete a novel, with a struggling, desperate composer for a hero: the fact that the hero is a man does little to conceal the work’s status as misery memoir. A visiting friend noted that she ‘accepted her lot, but not without serious dejection.’ Her health was deteriorating, ‘conditions of nervousness,’ began to appear, the news from America ‘did not suffice to cheer the darkened soul of the lonely woman.’

Kinkel’s life ended on the pavement below her St John’s Wood home. She fell, or threw herself, from an upper window. The composer’s posthumous life is just as dispiriting. An enemy, one Karl Marx (also exiled in London), viewed her as an ‘old harridan,’ and was disgusted that her husband, his political opponent, received sympathy merely because his wife had ‘broken her neck.’ Mr Kinkel, for his part, never realized his plan to publish his wife’s compositions.

For me, as a writer, it would have been all too easy to find a bookful of Kinkels, to represent every female composer’s life as a futile struggle against impossible odds. I chose instead to celebrate rather than to mourn, and I chose individuals whose music survives in enough plenty to enable us to make an informed judgement about them as composers. But sometimes, just sometimes, I feel that the Kinkels of our world should be honoured.

Whether a scratchy, quavery rendition of a somewhat trite song that might or might not actually have been written by her is the best way to honour Johanna Kinkel is another question. Maybe it’s because it’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m in fighting mood, but, after a bit of thought, I decided to go wild and spend $19.04 on a Performer’s Edition of Johanna Kinkel’s 6 Lieder, Op.19, first published in 1848. I’m not sure I’ll fall in love with her music, but it’s time to get to know it better.

Kinkel Lieder

 

 

Great music by great women: just one click away

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

Discover the composers in ‘Sounds and Sweet Airs’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Breakfast with Boulanger

We live in exciting times when I can be getting dressed to the sound of Lili Boulanger on Radio 3’s Breakfast, or driving to and from doctor’s appointments whilst hearing about the life and work of Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Composer of the Week. I take back my churlish comment in my last post: BBC Radio 3 are extending their focus on music written by women beyond a single day, and across a whole week – hurrah – which means, people, I’m mainstream. I can live with it.

Looking ahead, Barbara Strozzi gets an Early Music Show to herself, and Elizabeth Maconchy provides a fitting close to Words and Music. Hensel (or, as she is known to the BBC, Mendelssohn) and Schumann dominate a Coffee Concert, Schumann’s Piano Trio is the subject of Building a Library, and the Boulanger piece I heard on Radio 3 Breakfast (D’un Matin de Printemps) gets a live performance in the evening. Even Francesca Caccini gets a look in, admittedly not exactly at peak listening time, with excerpts from La Liberazione di Ruggiero going out in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Of the eight composers I am writing about, there’s just one who doesn’t get a look in, as far as I can tell: Marianna von Martines. And that just makes me even more passionate about her music – and even more determined to tell the story of her life. I can see why she has dropped off the radar. She writes in the classical style, and those absolute giants of music history, Haydn and Mozart, have that kind of music pretty much sown up. It probably also doesn’t help that there is a not much of a story to attach to her name, or at least not one of the stories which intrigue us when it comes to female composers. No bare breasts (Strozzi), no kings and princes (Caccini and Jacquet de la Guerre), no famous family members with the same name (Mendelssohn and Schumann); no tragedy (Boulanger and Maconchy). But to write Martines’ story, whilst challenging, has also been revelatory, and made me think hard, and creatively, about what exactly constitutes a life – on the page, and in what some people have called reality. Here she is, complete with Latin inscription and extremely interesting headwear.

Martines 1773

I tried to see the original at the Wien Museum last year, but because they are re-organising it was not possible. The musicologist Michael Lorenz explains the inscription in his fascinating blog,  http://michaelorenz.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/martines-maron-and-latin-inscription.html if you want to know more.

It’s not easy to find quick and dirty access to Martines’ music, but you can find a few bars of her Overture in C, one of the most joyous pieces I have ever heard, on the BBC website, so to get a taste, go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yq74f/segments. I recommend, however, a full-blown Martines feast, such as Il Primo Amore, available from Presto Classical. You will not regret it.

A bit of ruff

Young Bess

I am delighted to report that Bess Throckmorton, the woman who served Queen Elizabeth I, married Sir Walter Ralegh, who rode the rollercoaster that was the Tudor and Stuart era, and whose soundtrack should surely be ‘I will survive’, lives again – in digital form. The picture above is, probably, Bess as a young woman – and a detail of the painting lies at the heart of the political and sexual triangle formed by Bess, Sir Walter, and the Queen. (However, when I was interviewed by the Daily Telegraph about Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which has its own historically implausible take on that triangle, the best I could come up with is that the film might have an ’emotional truth’ to it…) If you want to know more, take a look at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bess-Life-Lady-Ralegh-Walter-ebook/dp/B00SZ4JF2W/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1423494584&sr=8-1&keywords=bess+endeavour and if you are feeling kind and generous, spend £2.99 on a bit of ruff, and if you are feeling even more kind and generous (and you like what you have read), offer a one-line review on amazon…

Bess was the fore-runner to the eight women I’m writing about now, so it’s really satisfying to see her re-emerge again in this way, thanks to the publishers, the Endeavour Press. And, even more importantly, it gives me a chance to put up a picture of Bess’ favourite swashbuckler with hang-ups, the greatest poet of his time, and a man confident enough in his sexuality to wear pearl earrings the size of goose eggs – I give you Sir Walter Ralegh.

Sir_Walter_Ralegh_by_'H'_monogrammist

Goodbye Monemvasia

I seem to have many hours in recent days climbing up stone steps to reach once impregnable cities which are now in ruins.

  Mystras Castle

My overwhelming sense (as one climbs to the castle in Mistras, shown here, high above the valley where modern Sparta now lies, or the Upper Town of Monemvasia – where I’m currently staying – which once held 30,000 people and now has nine permanent residents) is of just how frightening the world must have been to necessitate living on top of a very high rock, and locking oneself in behind a succession of gates and then for safe measure, a further array of thick walls. And yet those gates, those walls, that height, failed again and again to protect the inhabitants. Even if an all-out military assault was deemed too wasteful by whichever power coveted the city, it was just too easy to lay a siege, and starve the people out. And so Mistras and Monemvasia were both kicked like a football between the Byzantines, Turks and Venetians – not to mention the occasional Corsican or Arab opportunist.

IMG_0620 The view from the Upper Town gate

And now Monemvasia is a Byzanto-Disneyworld. At least, the Lower Town is. The Upper Town is currently off-limits, as things gear up for its restoration. Workmen are building a terrifying hoist up the side of the sheer rock so that work can start. In just a week, they have nearly reached the top. But given the scale of the ruins, and the length of time those ruins have been left undisturbed, not to mention the sheer difficulty of reaching them – despite the hoist – it’s hard to know when the Upper Town will be accessible again. It was a magical place to wander: I can only hope that their is neither the money nor the will to restore it to Knossos-esque perfection. As for the Lower Town, and its nine permanent residents, building after building has been restored to within an inch of its life, all for the likes of me, wealthy tourists dipping in for a few days of peace and quiet.

I was last here in what feels like another lifetime, with my then young daughters, the self-styled Cat Girls of Monemvasia, who relished the freedom to wander around the streets without cars, whilst I relished the freedom of not worrying about them wandering. Now I find the cats at best irritating, at worst unhygienic, menaces, and the carefully manufactured silence of the cobbled lanes slightly unnerving.

cat picture A giant killer cat stalks the walls of Monemvasia

The surrounding sea retains its lure, however. Early this morning, I watched the sun rise over the waves crashing in upon the old, old walls. And the not-quite geometric lines of the buildings, crowding shambolically but purposefully up the slopes of the rock, have a beauty that I have rarely found elsewhere.

IMG_0612

But enough is enough. I thought I’d stay here four weeks, but I’m off tomorrow, after only 9 days. I know it’s just plain wrong to be unhappy in paradise, but that’s the truth of it. I’ve tried to forge a connection with my surroundings, listening to, and thinking about, the music of the ninth century Byzantine nun, Kassia. And I’ve kept working, churning out the words. But I’m not sure the words make any sense and Kassia’s probably only going to get a paragraph in the book. So, despite knowing that ‘doing a geographical’ is never an answer (‘it’s not about where you are, Anna, it’s who you are’ – thanks for that my inner therapist), it’s goodbye Monemvasia.

 

 

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.

Little Angels? The mystery of the Alleota sisters

One of my duties as a non-fiction author, and I take this duty seriously, is to bear witness to the past – and, in the case of this book, to uncover the details of lives that have tended to be overlooked or undervalued. Myths are as important as facts, however. Take the following description of the exceptionally talented choir of nuns of the convent of San Vito, Ferrara:

It appeared to me that the persons who ordinarily participated in this concert were not human, bodily creatures, but were truly angelic spirits.

Just in case the reader thinks the writer is finding nuns attractive, there is a careful distancing. The reader must not ‘imagine that I refer to the beauty of face and richness of garments and clothing’. No, ‘one sees only the most modest grace and pleasing dress and humble deportment in them.’

The demand for modesty, grace, humility, for little angels, is one that informs women’s lives, that teaches us all, to quote Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl. As the ground-breaking musicologist, Suzanne Cusick, writes about Renaissance composers: women are seen in their own time as angels or sorceresses, not truly human, ‘never what they are actually are …. formidably talented musicians’. My job, as a non-fiction author, is to move past the myths, and try to shine a light on what those nuns actually were – ‘formidably talented musicians’ – and what enabled them to be so.

But sometimes, just sometimes, I come across individuals whose lives might be better explored in fiction – not only because there are so few historical facts to play with, but also because one feels that the psychological story could be told better that way.

Take the intriguing sixteenth-century Alleota sisters, based in Ferrara, seventy miles south-west of Venice. One of the few points of certainty about the Alleota sisters is that (as so often in the lives of female composers) there is an ambitious father in the background. Giovanni Battista Alleoti was a successful engineer and architect for the powerful Este family in Ferrara.

So far so good, but then there is mystery. Were there two composer sisters or only one? One story has Vittoria learning her art simply by watching her older sister, Raphaela, being taught. Little Vittoria emerged as something of a prodigy, outstripping her older sister. Another view of the evidence suggests, however, that Vittoria and Raphaela are one and the same person.

A simple reason for the two names can be found in the fact that Vittoria was sent to the convent of San Vito – that same convent of angelic nuns noted above – when she was seven, and chose to stay there, if that is the right word, when she was fourteen. For Vittoria, it was a simple choice between continuing a musical life within the convent, or getting married and not doing so. It is quite possible then that, at some point during her time as a nun, Vittoria changed her name to Raphaela.

But two publications appeared in the same year, 1593, one by Vittoria Alleota, the other by Raphaela Alleota, one secular, one sacred. Neither publication acknowledges the other. One scholar, whilst acknowledging that there may well have been two sisters, has hinted at an almost schizophrenic division of personality if there was only one:

One senses that Vittoria and Raphaela, whether the same or different persons, did not wish to know one another.

She goes on to argue that whilst her/their father is in control of the secular music, Raphaela writes her own dedication to the Sacrae cantiones.

Perhaps Raphaela sought to heal a private demon by asserting a new identity that distanced her from her family, especially from her father. Little Vittoria, father’s pride and prodigy, seems to disappear completely, replaced by an independent woman who could select her own texts and lifestyle.

 

Move forward a few years, and we find a description of the ‘Maestra’ of the Convent of San Vito, Ferrara who ‘sits down at one end of the table and with a long, slender and well-polished wand…’ No angel, this Maestra beat time, in an era when the idea of the conductor was entirely new. The Maestra is named as Raphaela Alleota. It seems she had found her place.

 

 

https://i0.wp.com/www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2002/Jun02/anutali.jpgThere is no portrait of Alleota, so a modern female conductor, Anu Tali, and her ‘wand’, will have to do. For an entertaining look at the growing presence of female conductors in the classical music world, 400 years and more on from Alleota at the convent San Vito, see http://jessicamusic.blogspot.de/2013/09/fanfare-for-uncommon-woman-conductor.html. Progress is, however, slow…

 

 

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