shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

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!

No more nuns with guns

With deep regret I have to report that Nuns with Guns 2 didn’t make the cut. I can’t think why a serious non-fiction publisher with a track record for thoughtful books about philosophy, religion and culture would walk away from it, but hey, what do I know? Then again, they also rejected Shadow of the Courtesan (not a bad title…you’re reading this, aren’t you?); La Musica (foreign language therefore bad); and Notes from the Silence (too clever by half).

Instead, my book about powerful, determined women creating great music against the odds is going to be called…

Sounds and Sweet Airs: the Forgotten Women of Classical Music

‘Sounds and sweet airs’ is a quote from Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, and it’s Caliban (offspring of a witch and the devil) who says the words. There’s a certain irony in a book about canon-busting creative women being given a title from The King of the Canon himself. There’s even more irony in the fact that it’s Caliban’s line: Caliban who is servant and slave, tamed and silenced – destroyed? – by his master Prospero; Caliban who is the child of ‘blue-eyed hag’ Sycorax, the powerful witch whose island Prospero has usurped.

Caliban

For me, Sycorax represents precisely the image of powerful black-magic fueled creative womanhood that every single one of the female composers I write about had to fight against, in their world, in their own minds. She’s all the more toxic because we don’t see her on stage: she is an idea. Shakespeare’s Sycorax was first vilified on the London stage on 1 November 1611. Thirteen years and three months later, in the hills above Florence, Francesca Caccini offered her audience two witches, live and on stage: the attractive, sexy (but bad) Alcina and the equally attractive, bi-gender (and good) Melissa. Interesting, eh? (By the way, I’m extremely excited at the news that Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero, complete with witches and ‘sweet airs’, is going to be performed at the Brighton Early Music Festival in November: see http://www.bremf.org.uk/ which has the ominous phrase ‘subject to funding’ but I’m hopeful. In the meantime, you can see Christina Knackstedt as Alcina in Cornish Opera Theater’s 2011 production in Seattle here: La Liberazione.)

Having thrown my toys out of the pram, I’m now getting to like the title. Its choice sent me back to The Tempest, where I looked at the quotation in context. It comes in a scene in which uncivilised Caliban first encounters civilised European music – Stephano’s drunken singing – and in which the shipwrecked sailors are then terrified by the sound of Ariel’s magical music. It is Caliban, the monster, who reassures the men with words of beauty and power and sadness. (Shakespeare does this: gives lines like these to his monsters, Jews and Moors – before they are destroyed.)

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

As ever with Shakespeare, ideas about music and dreams circle and encircle each other here, and one could spend a happy lifetime exploring Caliban’s words. But, for me, right now, and thinking specifically of my book, the idea of delight and hurt seem the most important. When I talk to people about what I’m doing, I sometimes hear the argument that, by paying belated attention to the music of female composers, I’m somehow diminishing men. (This is, of course, a familiar anti-feminist argument in many, many other contexts.) For every Caccini song played on the radio we lose a Mozart symphony. No: Caccini does not displace Mozart. She adds to our cultural riches. I want a world of Caccini and Mozart, Hensel and Beethoven, Maconchy and Shostakovich – delighting in the achievements of creative women does not, will not, hurt men.

Look closer. Look back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB Certificate of Registration 1939

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

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.

Too sexy for church?

Urban myths start like this. A smiling, earnest young man (possibly connected to the church in which I am sitting, possibly not, impossible to tell, but that’s all part of the modern Anglican way, because we don’t want to put people off, do we?) is introducing a lunchtime concert of religious music in the heart of the City of London. The featured composer is Barbara Strozzi. The young man offers us an anecdote. He has it on good authority that the Handel Festival had rejected a similar programme because it was – pause – ‘too sexy for church’. It’s a great line, and there’s now no doubt in the audience that right here, right now, at St Stephen’s Walbrook, we can handle too sexy.

It’s a great line, and might even be true, but once again the shadow of the courtesan is being used to sex up the dossier.

I was at St Stephen’s Walbrook to hear Ursula’s Arrow (http://www.ursulasarrow.com/) play four works by Strozzi, interlaced with a couple of instrumental pieces by her contemporaries. It was thrilling, rare stuff and Sarah Dacey and C N Lester Sarah Dacey C N Lester  gave compelling performances. The four pieces were taken from the only religious collection published by Strozzi, her opus 5 of 1655, which she dedicated from ‘the motives of my heart’ to Anna de Medici, the Archduchess of Innsbruck, here pictured with a cute dog.

Justus Sustermans 011.jpgThe motives of her heart aside, Strozzi was, as always, looking for a patron, and therefore the most significant work in the collection is the astonishingly powerful motet for solo voice ‘Mater Anna’, which, of course, honours both the Archduchess and Santa Anna/Saint Anne, mother of Mary, and patron saint of Christian mothers. Scholar Robert Kendrick has noted that Strozzi would have been well aware of the nature of Anna de Medici’s devotion to her namesake saint. At the age of thirty (in other words, very late for the time), the Medici princess had been married to a man of eighteen, and although she did successfully breed three daughters for him, a son remained elusive through a relentless series of miscarriages and stillbirths.

I’d read that ‘Mater Anna’ culminates in a final prayer, the voice ascending over a walking bass, in a heart-rending plea for mercy and succour, reminiscent in its intensely emotional religiosity of works such as the sculptor Bernini’s ‘Teresa in Ecstasy’. To be honest, I’d wondered if this was a touch of musicological hype. Not a bit of it. In ‘Mater Anna’ all of Strozzi’s ambition as a composer (and she had bucketloads of it) is evident.

But is it too sexy for church? Well, it depends on what you think should happen in church – I was moved by Strozzi’s evocations of ecstatic religious intimacy, and not just in ‘Mater Anna’. I hope to have another chance to sit in a church and hear music composed by women, if I can get to St Peter’s in Rome for 9 May, when a Missa Pro Terrae Humilibus written by ten female composers will be celebrated, a ground-breaking event driven by the campaigning work of the well-connected, Italy-based, Donne in Musica (http://www.donneinmusica.org/en/).

Returning to Strozzi, what’s more surprising, and also perhaps more telling than her absence from church is her absence from the opera house. Strozzi lived and worked in Venice, the city for opera in the mid-seventeenth century, but despite being the – possibly adopted – daughter of one of the leading librettists of the era and despite her music often being thoroughly operatic in nature (‘Mater Anna’ is a case in point) she stood about as much chance of having her secular work performed at the Teatro Novissimo as she had of hearing ‘Mater Anna’ performed at the Basilica of St Mark.

Opera’s loss is our gain, however. Strozzi had more music in print, in single-authored volumes, than any other composer in the seventeenth century, perhaps precisely because of her exclusion from the traditional arenas for (traditionally male) composers.

Here’s what I wonder towards the end of my chapter on Strozzi:

Is it fanciful to see her publication programme as a quest for professional recognition, part of her self-definition as composer first, singer second? Could she have been seeking a fourth way, beyond wife (impossible), nun (implausible) and courtesan/concubine (only too plausible)? As a professional, published composer she could bypass the prince, not to mention the prince’s bedroom, and go straight to her public.

The audience’s engagement at St Stephen’s Walbrook in 2015 proved, powerfully, that not only did Strozzi reach her public back in 1655, but that she still does – 360 years on.

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

 

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

Great news – great music on Radio 3!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2015/international-womens-day-r3

I’d like to think they were listening to me on Radio 4….and, more seriously, one day a year is a start but how about looking at the programming for the other 364?

Particularly looking forward to the Strozzi concert!

Danger: female violinist at work

nicola benedetti

Here’s the lovely Nicola Benedetti. It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when many people were disgusted at the sight of a woman playing the violin. As one writer (in The Girls’ Own Indoor Book, attempting to reassure teenage girls in the 1880s) says

I have also in former days known girls of whom it was darkly hinted that they played the violin, as it might be said that they smoked big cigars, or enjoyed the sport of rat-catching.

By the end of the century, those former days appeared long gone. Violin-playing was deemed ‘lady-like’, if not a suitable job for a woman – when Henry Wood, the visionary director of Queen’s Hall Orchestra and the man behind the Proms, hired six female string players in 1913 he was right to take great pride in his action, but, sadly, other orchestras did not follow suit.

So why did violin playing cause horror in so many? Because it involved what was seen as a distortion of the proper (aka ‘natural’) posture of a woman’s body. To play the violin the woman had to bend her head, use rapid arm movements, both of which were not deemed appropriate to her sex. Gradually, these views changed. So long as the woman remained properly feminine, then she could, and did, play the violin.

But this is where it gets more complicated. A deeper taboo emerges when women become expert at the violin. The violin was itself (herself) understood as female, with its softly curving shape, its belly, back, waist and neck. The real-life woman gets to play the instrument-woman with a stick. A stick. Apparently – and I’m relying on the finest of musicological sources here – the modern bow, which emerged by the end of the eighteenth century in all its sleek concaveness, lessened the connection with archery, but increased its eroticism. I am not one to judge, being a pianist, recorder player and one-time clarinettist. (Don’t even go there.)

No wonder then that the male violinist was often understood as a masterful lover of

his [sic] delicate, exquisitely responsive, and beloved instrument, a perception heightened by the soloist’s caressing arm movements and facial expressions, sometimes accompanied by closed eyes, suggestive of inward joy or ecstasy.

The performer Sarasate, we are told, ‘weds his violin each time he plays…’ with a ‘spirit of ardent love’. Yehudi Menuhin, himself one of the great, and fortunately for him, male, violinists of the twentieth century, said that the violin’s shape is ‘inspired by and symbolic of the most beautiful human object, the woman’s body’ and therefore must be played by a ‘master’.

Menuhin (and he was not alone) was genuinely worried about what happens when a woman plays upon her own body.

Does the woman violinist consider the violin more as her own voice than the voice of one she loves? Is there an element of narcissism in the woman’s relation to the violin, and is she, in fact, in a curious way, better matched for the cello? The handling and playing of a violin is a process of caress and evocation, of drawing out a sound which awaits the hands of the master.

Put a large cello between your legs, darling, and leave the fiddle playing to the boys seems to be the message here.

That was then, this is now. Or is it? A quick google of male violin virtuosos and female violin virtuosos suggests that the old fear of being seen as un-feminine (rat-catching, cigar-smoking) generates a particular kind of image of the female violinist. Further, the traditional erotics of violin-playing produce sexualised images of women and her instrument. The female violinist is never quite the ‘master’.

Similar anxieties emerge in women’s sport. Yes, 55,000 people watched England play Germany at Wembley. England Women. 55,000 people watching women play sport is great news – I should add that the result was less good news – but do have a look at this article about the changes in women’s football, and hear the echoes of the musical world: http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/nov/21/women-football-britain-wembley-england-v-germany. More recently, Sport England have launched a inspirational campaign to persuade more women to take up sport, tackling head on the issue of women’s bodies: https://www.sportengland.org/our-work/national-work/this-girl-can/.

This girl can.

It’s a great tagline – although most of us are not girls. And there are some powerful images.

untitled

How does this link with my writing? Because, despite working in the shadow of the courtesan, each of the eight composers I am writing about sent the same message to their contemporaries:

this woman can….compose.

That’s why I admire them so much.

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