shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the tag “Elizabeth Maconchy”

Gloriously alive: making music in 1931 and 2016

IMG_1053 I made a pilgrimage recently to this unassuming building, just off the Portobello Road in London. Why? Because it embodies the spirit and determination of a group of composers and performers who – denied a more conventional platform – created their own space for new music.

I have been moved to tell their story  by the inspirational initiative of the London Oriana Choir whose five15 series will offer something as exciting and something, sadly, as needed in 2016 as it was in 1931. You can find out more here!

This building matters because…

The young composer Elizabeth Maconchy, fresh from success in Prague, and a Proms debut in the summer of 1930, was finding it hard to get her music played. The lack of a career infrastructure and performance opportunities for all young composers was exacerbated for women by good old-fashioned sexism in the classical music industry. Even after the triumphs of 1930, Maconchy later recalled no one

suggested a commission, or a grant, or even a chatty interview on the radio, let alone another performance. The publishers weren’t interested. They were all men, of course, and tended to think of women composers being capable of only the odd song or two.

They would have ‘liked some pretty little thing – I don’t mean a pretty little person – not steady, serious music.’ Maconchy singled out Lesley Boosey, of Boosey and Hawkes, as particularly hostile. One of Boosey’s readers ‘was frightfully keen to publish some songs and a string quartet’ of her, but ‘all Boosey would say was that he couldn’t take anything except little songs from a woman.’ Later, using her typical understatement which masks but does not completely hide her bitterness, she would say ‘that really was a very difficult thing to get over.’

But she did – with a little help from her friends.

Faced with the intransigence of the music industry, a remarkable group of women got together in 1931 and changed the face of music in London, at least for a few years. One was Iris Lemare, that rare thing a female conductor. The other two were the violinist Anne Macnaghten, and the composer Elisabeth Lutyens. Together they launched a series of concerts to showcase new music by young composers, alongside works from eras under-represented in the concert halls of London at the time. The Macnaghten-Lemare Concerts were to prove a lifeline for Elizabeth Maconchy through the 1930s.

And this is where the building comes in – the small, necessarily cheap Ballet Club theatre in Notting Hill, once a Ragged School would be their venue. It had been bought in 1927 by Marie Rambert’s husband as a performing and rehearsal space: the blue plaques today honour Rambert. There is no acknowledgement of the Macnaghten-Lemare initiative.

The women’s methods were collaborative and informal, with no committee, no hierarchy, just the drive to create a platform for their own work, whether as performer, conductor or composer: ‘honestly,’ remembered one of the organizers, ‘it wasn’t altruistic, it suited each other’s ends.’ Anne Macnaghten, who shouldered much of the organizational responsibility, was, however, eloquent about the driving vision, her words relevant to the world of music, past, present and future: ‘the great thing is to have lots of music going on all the time, lots of things being performed.’ Committees might set themselves up as arbitrators as to what is good and what is bad, but the thing is – get the music played, and

it will settle itself sooner or later. As long as there’s plenty of opportunity to get new works performed, no harm will be done; what is awful is if somebody is really doing something very good but nobody knows about it.

I could dwell on the predictable (and sexist) responses to the concerts, I could ask why they seemed to help a very young Benjamin Britten launch his career, but offer yet another dead end to the women involved, but – on the day on which my book is published in the United States, I’m determined to be optimistic. So I’ll leave the last word to the Musical Times:

there is nothing quite like these concerts in London. The concert givers get to grips with the real thing in a most delightful, unconventional way, and after an evening spent with them one feels that music is gloriously alive.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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