shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the tag “composers”

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!

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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.’

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.

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

 

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.

Con fuoco

I sat down to compile a list of the high points of 2014, and realised that there have been so many, that it would be invidious to pick a top ten. But I did want to mark the end of the year by sharing a quotation which has inspired me (and which won’t get into the book); by celebrating the location in which I have probably written more words than any other; and revealing a small personal challenge that will take me well into 2015.

The quotation is from the composer Grace Williams’ farewell letter to her lifelong friend and fellow composer, Elizabeth Maconchy.

GraceWilliams

Williams (a Wagner-lover, showing that friendship is thicker than Wagner) had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She wrote the letter on 25 January 1977, and died two weeks later.

Well, all along I’ve known this could happen and now it has I’m quite calm and prepared and can only count my blessings – that I’ve had such a run of good health – able to go on writing – and just being me with my thoughts and ideas and sensitivity … From now on it won’t be so good but even so there are sunsets and the sea and the understanding of friends – and a marvellous broadcast of Solti’s recording of Meistersingers on Sunday.

From the deeply moving, to a celebration of Zappi’s Bike Café in St Michael’s Street, Oxford (www.zappisbikecafe.co.uk) where many a paragraph has been edited, and many a slice of Bara Brith, and cup of coffee has been enjoyed over the last twelve months. The place is extra special because Flavio Zappi and I go way back – in those days, I had nIMG_0350o idea that he had, in a former life, been a pro-cyclist, and he (and I) had no idea that I, in a future life, would become a pro-writer – I’ve just made that job title up, and I like it. Flavio does not make the coffee any more, but fortunately there is a steady stream of witty, kind, young people who do that. It really is the best coffee in Oxford, and I recommend the place warmly.

And, last but not least, the small challenge. Elsewhere I have written about my delighted discovery of Fanny Hensel’s Das Jahr. Well, I thought it would be a good challenge for 2015 to try to play it. The first step was to spend the vast majority of my lovely publisher’s advance (not a vast amount in the first place, but…) getting my Bechstein upright piano tuned and cleaned – inside and out. Thanks to hours of work by Theo from Roberts’ Pianos in Oxford, the piano is in tip-top condition. Sadly, the same cannot be said for my piano technique. I have however made a start, with ‘March’ (my favourite movement), and I’m working through it, bar by painful bar. I can play the notes – just at a funereal pace rather than the opening’s specified 120 beats per minute, let alone the final section, with its seven sharps, and the instruction: Allegro moderato ma con fuoco.

So, here’s to a 2015 con fuoco!

Mothers and Daughters

I’ve been thinking about mothers and daughters recently – in part because my older daughter is such a brilliant writer – a fact that makes me 99% happy, and 1% deeply envious of her youth, talent and vision – but primarily because, as the book starts to take shape, I am beginning to see the mother/daughter relationship as a seam that runs through almost every chapter. Ideas about motherhood may change over the centuries, but some patterns keep recurring.

Most daughters lose their mothers to death, but there are also mothers who lose their daughters, whether to death, the convent or because the mother herself walks away from her child. Marianne Wieck left her marriage knowing that she could take her four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Clara, with her – but only for a few months. As soon as little Clara reached the age of five, she would be returned to very man Marianne was escaping. That is what the law of Saxony in the 1820s required. Clara was allowed to visit her mother from time to time, but it was the dominating Friedrick Wieck who brought her up, and set her on the path to international celebrity – the performer/composer we know as Clara Schumann would his creation. (Amateur psychologists might want to consider the connection between Clara’s childhood and her own performance of motherhood – see https://shadowofthecourtesan.wordpress.com/tag/clara-schumann-google-doodle/ to fuel that fire.)

And there are the mothers who live out their own dreams through their daughters, talented women who see an even greater talent in their child, or work to create a world in which that talent can express itself. It does not always make for an easy life, for mother or for daughter. Now is not the moment to ask questions about the real identity of the woman known as Princess Raïssa Mychetsky of St Petersburg.

Suffice to say that she created, first as the young wife, and then the young widow, of the much-older Ernest Boulanger the perfect Parisian shop window for her two surviving daughters’ talents. What is more, she turned a blind eye to the long-standing affair which served to help her older daughter’s career, and assiduously supported, and relentlessly interfered in, her younger daughter’s progress, whether smuggling little treats into the Palace of Compiègne or accompanying her every step of the way to Rome. The rules said that family were not allowed at Compiègne or Rome. Raïssa ignored the rules: did Nadia and Lili Boulanger gain or lose from her devotion?

But there are a couple of moments, a couple of relationships, that stand out for me. One comes at the very beginning of my story, the other at the very end. Both involve mothers and daughters who are professional musicians: three out of four of the women are composers.

Back in Medici Florence in the seventeenth century, Francesca Caccini was determined to keep control (whatever that might mean) of her daughter, Margarita’s, future. Francesca lived and worked, and was a mother, in a world which straightforwardly valued boys more highly than girls. Indeed, Caccini’s biographer speculates that when the composer herself was born there may well have been a somewhat muted banquet because, regrettably, she was a girl. The problem with daughters went beyond the belief that the birth of a girl signified weakness in one parent or the other, and into the more practical realm of money. Girls needed dowries, so, when Francesca was 7 months’ old, her father, the composer Giulio Caccini, sold land and farm buildings in Fiesole so that he could place 600 scudi in an account at the Monte di Pietà, Florence’s principal dowry bank. As an adult, and as a mother, Francesca Caccini, should have prioritised her (almost noble) son by her (almost noble) second husband. Instead, all her emotional energy seems fastened on her (singer) daughter by her first (artisan) husband. Not only that, she seems uninterested in achieving a marriage for her daughter. Threatened by the loss of teenage Margarita, who was going to be removed from her care and tuition, Francesca Caccini did everything in her power to keep the girl with her. To us, it seems that she uses the language of utility and business, not sentiment. Caccini has trained up Margarita as a singer. If she is not allowed to keep her daughter near her and thereby continue her musical education, then not only will the girl lose ‘all that she has learned’, but her mother will lose a source of income. Caccini would be left with ‘all my time wasted, and with no fruit…’ Finding out whether Caccini succeeded in her struggle for her daughter, and learning more about the consequences of that struggle (not to mention reading between the lines for the kinds of emotions we value today), has been fascinating, revealing so much about the world in which these women lived, but also the similarities and differences between now and then, them and us.

Fast forward 350 years, and move from Italy to England, and we are in a more familiar world – in some respects at least. The composer Nicola Lefanu remembers

hearing my mother playing the piano when I was in bed going to sleep at night when I was very tiny. I think of it as a sort of romantic memory but it’s really the opposite; she was a professional composer and at that stage the only time she had to write music was when her children were in bed.

These childhood experiences inform Lefanu’s understanding of what it is to be composer. It is very much a vision of the composer in the world.

I never saw myself as a composer set apart because I don’t think composers are set apart, really. I think music is a social art, and that composing is a solitary activity but it comes to fruition in a social context, and that’s always been something I believed. I don’t see composers or writers or anyone as on a pedestal; I don’t have a nineteenth-century view of them like Wagner did; maybe that’s the advantage of having had a mother who was a composer. On the one hand it’s the most fantastic role model, but, equally, I knew that being a composer was quite an ordinary thing; it’s a lot of hard work and it can be very distressing: works can get turned down, and all kinds of bad luck can get in the way, but it can also be very elating and wonderful when things go right. I was very familiar with the vicissitudes of the profession and I had absolutely no illusions about it.

Lefanu’s mother was Elizabeth Maconchy, one of the great composers of the twentieth century. Maconchy’s daughter is not saying that her mother was ‘ordinary’ – obviously Maconchy was exceptionally talented as a composer – but making the crucial point that it was entirely ‘ordinary’ that Maconchy was both composer and woman (and mother). This meant that as a child, Nicola Lefanu thought it was self-evident that she herself could be a composer. It never entered her head that composing was a male activity, that it would be an odd job for a woman. Instead, she took it ‘completely for granted’.

(Prayer Before Birth, Maconchy’s 1972 setting for women’s voices of Louis MacNeice’s powerful poem, which he wrote during the darkest days of World War II, seems appropriate here. Maconchy was heavily pregnant with her first child when war was declared in September 1939. Nicola was her second daughter, born in 1947.)

Lefanu’s personal experience taught her something that our society still seems slow to realise. It is, or it should be, ordinary for a woman to be a composer. It is, or it should be normal for a Mum to be a composer. Earlier this year, I ended my radio talk with the utopian vision of a future in which hearing women’s music, whether in our concert halls or on Radio 3, would be the ‘new normal’. It really shouldn’t take growing up with a composer for a Mum to make that possible.

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.

And what I actually said was…

Here are a few of the bits that were cut by Radio Four – a pity, since I think they took out some feisty stuff.

Here’s Fiona Maddocks (a music journalist who knows a hell of a lot about the classical music industry today):

it seems baffling, if not shocking, that even now we still use the two words woman and composer together as a collective noun, whereas it has long been out of date to refer to Barbara Hepworth or Tracey Emin as women artists.

And here’s a bit more about publication as prostitution (and Fanny Hensel…)

Respectability is never going to work for you, so you decide to move into the new media (which in the seventeenth century is print, not old-fashioned manuscript). Now, women are not supposed to publish (publication is often figured as another form of prostitution – an idea that continued well into the nineteenth century, and is one of the reasons that you know Felix Mendelssohn’s Wedding March but you don’t know his just as talented sister’s music…) but, ironically, you’re not really a woman, you’re a courtesan. You’re already damned, you might as well publish. You are Barbara Strozzi, and you have works in print than any other composer of your generation, your century even.

And, finally, here’s how I thought I had ended the talk….

I wanted to end with Chrissie Hynde’s admirable ‘advice to chick rockers which sums things up pretty well (for the record its “Don’t think that sticking your boobs out and trying to look f*ckable will help. Remember you’re in a rock and roll band. It’s not ‘F*ck me,’ it’s ‘F*ck you!’”), but, sadly, I can’t because this is the BBC – but I can quote Beth Ditto – who is riffing on Mahatma Gandhi, as you do…‘if you don’t see it, create it. If you don’t see what you want, be the change you want to see’. Or hear in this case…Because the silence of the women is a symptom of a much wider malaise that stifles female creativity from cradle to grave – so, why not get on to Radio 3, call in to Classic FM, let’s do it for Francesca and Barbara, for Chrissie and Beth – let’s escape or embrace the shadow of the courtesan, and make hearing women’s music the new normal.

 

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