shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the tag “Fanny Hensel”

A Valentine for Johanna

Do listen to this….

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

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

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

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

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

So far so good.

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

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

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

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

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

Kinkel Lieder

 

 

Great music by great women: just one click away

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

Discover the composers in ‘Sounds and Sweet Airs’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessie McCabe – this girl did

It took me decades of music making, after years of music education, to reach what I’ve called elsewhere – on Four Thought – my Morecambe and Wise moment (the moment when you ask yourself ‘Why are Eric and Ernie sharing a bed?’ and life is never the same again, there’s no way back to the days of innocence). I suddenly, and belatedly, realised that I had never played, sung or studied a single piece of classical music by a woman, and that I could count on the fingers of one hand the performances I had heard. Actually, one finger of one hand.

And now, here’s Jessie McCabe, aged seventeen, who, with the clarity (and effortless command of social media) of youth, is telling truth to power – specifically calling out the EdExcel exam board on their male-only syllabus.

Suddenly people (or rather people in the media) are talking about the issue, all thanks to Jessie McCabe. Do have a look at this piece by Caroline Criado-Perez in The Independent. She not only asked intelligent questions when she interviewed me, but listened to my answers. And just this morning, I cycled in the pouring rain up to Radio Oxford to do a live interview on the Today programme. You’ll find me and James Naughtie sandwiched between Greg Rutherford and the nine o’ clock news, so it’s all a bit rushed, but for a girl like me who was brought up without television and still doesn’t watch much of it (apart from the cycling), this is nearly as good as it gets. Nearly, because I can still dream of Private Passions on Radio 3…Michael Berkeley, hear my prayer.

As ever, as I cycled back down the Banbury Road, and as I slowly stopped shaking, I thought of all the things I should have said, or said more clearly. I regretted not speaking more about creativity against the odds, or about the hunger out there for women’s music (surely it’s not a coincidence that when Radio 3 listeners were asked which composer should feature in a listeners’ choice special edition of Composer of the Week, they chose Louise Farrenc?) or about how we can change the way we talk about women composers, which happened to be the subject of my most recent post. But most of all, I feel guilty and foolish at having singled out Fanny Hensel as the forgotten composer with most to offer us – but I hope the ghosts of Caccini and Strozzi, of Jacquet de la Guerre and Martines, of Boulanger and Maconchy will forgive me. (Clara Schumann can look after herself…)

This mini media frenzy – I should also mention that this very blog has been featured by WordPress – has slightly overshadowed the more mundane, but nevertheless, to me, thrilling moment when my book moved off my desk and into production. It now has definite publication dates (7 April 2016 in the UK, 12 May in the USA – careful readers will note that 1 April did indeed turn out to be a joke), a beautiful cover, more of which next time, and you can even now pre-order it on amazon. If you use amazon.

But the last word, today at least, should go to Fanny Hensel because, lying behind my appreciation of her exceptional talent as a composer is an appreciation of just how hard-won a victory it was for her to get her music published in the final years of her life, and how short-lived that victory would be.

Fanny_Hensel_1842 The happiness that exudes from Hensel in 1846, four years after this portrait was commissioned by her family (who ensured that it contained absolutely no indication of her musical ability, whether as performer or composer) is infectious and inspiring. Here’s how I write about it, which includes, more importantly, what she has to say about finally moving out from the private to the public world.

when asked by publishers, Hensel compiled a list of her compositions which were still ‘floating around the world concealed.’ Three more collections headed for the presses. The year ended with the writing of a piano trio, conceived (as so many previous works had been) as a birthday present for a family member, in this case, her sister Rebecka. The Trio’s first movement begins in suppressed tension, and builds to a powerful close. The second movement runs seamlessly into the third, which is marked Lied, linking it clearly with Hensel’s earlier ‘Songs for piano.’ The writing for the piano is fascinating, giving great freedom to the performer whose part, in the final movement is marked ad libitum. As an album note puts it, the musicdrives to a grand climax as the strings, once again set two octaves apart, soar high above the tremolandi piano, and the trio powers its way to a resounding close in D major.’ In her diary, in May 1846, Fanny Hensel wrote ‘I feel as if newly born.’

She was only too well aware how long this moment had taken to arrive: ‘I cannot deny that the joy in publishing my music has also elevated my positive mood. So far, touch wood, I have not had unpleasant experiences, and it is truly stimulating to experience this type of success first at an age by which it has usually ended for women, if indeed they ever experience it.’

The wonder is heightened by a sense of the time that has passed: ‘To be sure, when I consider that 10 years ago I thought it too late and now is the latest possible time, the situation seems rather ridiculous, as does my long-standing outrage at the idea of starting opus 1 in my old age.’ Fanny is, of course, being ironic about her ‘old age.’ She was only forty, and feeling good on it, noting in August 1846 that ‘the indescribable feeling of well-being, which I have had this entire summer, still continues.’

We need to talk about Fanny (Hensel)

I just downloaded another recording of Hensel’s solitary String Quartet (which remained in manuscript until the 1980s). It’s an exhilarating performance by the Quatuor Ebène, almost raw in its intensity compared to the one, by the Asasello Quartet, with which I’m more familiar.

I wanted to find out more about the Ebène quartet and their brave (yes, it is still brave to record women’s music, it still needs a defence, so we are reassured that the quartet is ‘worth hearing’ – phew, what a relief, I haven’t wasted nearly twenty minutes of my life on something worthless) decision to play Hensel. I wanted to know why a young, all-male quartet with quite an edgy image

The adventurous Ebene Quartet kicks off a week of live chamber music at the Greene Space at WQXR in New York.

Hensel sketch

chose to play this woman’s work.

And so began a miserable encounter with the language we continue to use when talking about female composers, language that patronises, dismisses, misrepresents, ignores, and always and ever ends up comparing a composer to her male counterparts. The composer becomes, implicitly, a (failed) contestant in a race that they were never invited to join in the first place. It’s all the more miserable because I can’t seem to crush my optimism, can’t quite stop myself from feeling thrilled when I find that the Ebène quartet won a BBC Music Magazine award for their interpretation of Hensel’s quartet – wow! mainstream! – that they were praised and rewarded as advocates of her music – wow! progress!

But then it all goes horribly wrong. This is from a website promoting the CD.

“Felix’s quartets speak with intimacy, but are not devoid of violent, stormy emotion,” says Ebène cellist Raphaël Merlin. Although Fanny’s sole contribution to the genre is lesser known and undoubtedly less accomplished than her brother’s, the group simply “fell in love with her string quartet” and with sublime, spirited playing made a compelling case for the rarely recorded work.

No, no, no. What does ‘undoubtedly less accomplished’ actually mean? No matter: whoever wrote this sees it as a given, and doesn’t need to justify it with any rational, let alone musically-based argument. Yes, the quartet is less well-known. Would it not be interesting to ask why that is? How that happened? But instead, we are simply encouraged to make the lazy causal jump from ‘less accomplished’ to ‘lesser known’.

I pressed on regardless, wanting to find out why the musicians ‘fell in love’ with Hensel’s Quartet. Gramophone Magazine spiced up the quest by praising, in April 2013, the Ebène for their ‘ full-on playing and lively engagement with the music’, noting that with every disc that they record ‘there’s the unmistakable sense that they have something to say and an urgent need to say it’.

So what did they want to say about Fanny Hensel’s quartet? I watched over thirteen minutes of video footage, which promotes the CD. It was fascinating to hear the four musicians talk about their art. But (oh, again, my idiotic optimism) not a word about Hensel. One player said ‘you have to respect the person who created the music’, but the video referred exclusively to ‘Mendelssohn’ (ie Felix). In a final kick in the teeth, the only female voice that is heard is off camera at the start of the film, and she is the recipient of what I am forced to call banter, including a final joke about the male players’ preventing her having an orgasm. It’s all here at no fanny hensel.

I kept looking. I found that the quote about falling in love with Hensel’s quartet was originally followed by the comment that she composed ‘with surprising freedom’. Great – but wouldn’t it be interesting to think about why you find it surprising? Alternatively, wouldn’t it be a sign of ‘respect’ for the composer to try to understand why certain kinds of ‘freedom’ were utterly denied to Hensel, as a composer, as a woman?

But, the bottom line is, I am grateful to the Ebène quartet for making this music live, and in awe of their ability to do so.

My real despair centres not on these screamingly obvious examples of sexist banter or patronizing dismissiveness. They are easy to spot, easy to call out. What is more insidious is well-meaning phrases like these, from Presto Classical’s review of the disk: Fanny ‘being a woman, was never in a position to build a career in the way that her brother had’. Her quartet ‘contains themes, ideas and moments every bit as good as anything from Felix’.

I know I should be grateful for this justification of the quality of Hensel’s music (she’s just as good as her brother), and for at least the acknowledgement that her chromosomes determined whether she could build a career. But there’s such passivity in the words. Fanny Hensel was ‘never in a position to build a career in the way that her brother had’ because time and time again, and in subtly powerful ways, over decades, she was stopped from doing so – by others. That she did at last – gloriously, courageously – ‘build a career’ in the final months of her life is, for me, one of the most moving struggles I have written about. Critics who do take Hensel’s music seriously cannot resist bringing Felix into the equation. They appreciate the ‘darker soundworld of Fanny Mendelssohn’s’ quartet’ (ie darker than Felix’s) or celebrate her work as ‘formally and harmonically, more daring than Felix’s’. Add to the mix the fact that Fanny is invariably known by her maiden name. Is this about reassuring people of her pedigree? Is it an attempt to trick naïve buyers into consuming women’s music, sweetening the bitter pill? Surely the composer deserves to be judged in her own right, rather than always placed in a sentence along with her brother, the same brother who – for reasons that made absolute sense to him, and much of the Mendelssohn family, together with much of elite Berlin society – worked tirelessly to ensure that she would have no ‘career’.

I need cheering up. You probably do too. So, in a narrative leap that makes complete sense to me, and might just make sense to you, here (thanks to ITV 4) is Marianne Vos, the greatest female cyclist of our era, responding to Anna van der Breggen’s victory in La Course. (For those of you who do not follow cycling, La Course is a step forward in women’s cycling. The women are allowed a couple of hours of racing before the men on the final day of three week Tour de France. It’s a start.)

http://www.itv.com/tourdefrance/2015-la-course-mariane-vos

Enjoy!

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

 

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!

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.

 

New music – an old idea

Tokaido Road – compelling, haunting musical theatre is created through mime, and song, and photography, the audience entering a visual and sound world that is both Japanese and European, yet also something more than the sum of its parts – something other.

within the circle of your transience – inspired by a phrase from Siegfried Sassoon, a piano trio creates a sound world that is fraught with tension and yet, confusingly but hauntingly, peaceful at the same time.

I heard both these works at their world premières this past week. Tokaido Road is the work of Nicola Lefanu, an established composer; within the circle of your transience is the work of Josephine Stephenson, who is just starting out. Yes, both composers are women, but that’s not what has stayed with me.

I’m not sure I’d heard a ‘world première’ before, let alone two in a week, despite decades of concert going. Which, part from revealing my appalling conservatism, also illustrates how things have changed since the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Back then, performers were often composers (because of the need for new music to showcase their own talent), and, more generally, the vast majority of pieces played would be being heard by their audience for the first time. That’s a simplification, of course, but it does show up the difference between then and now – when it is notoriously hard to get new music programmed, let alone recorded and played on Classic FM.

The irony is that two of the composers I’m writing about, Fanny Hensel (earlier Mendelssohn) and Clara Wieck (later Schumann) were significant figures in this process whereby the music of earlier eras was reified. They helped to create the very canon that would exclude them. (There are other processes going on here, connected with German nationalism, or family loyalties, but the outcome was the same).  As I put it in my book, thinking about the reasons why Clara Schumann stopped composing at the death of her husband, Robert:

To stop composing would do no harm to Clara Schumann’s career in widowhood. Unlike the era in which she had made her name as a child virtuoso, performers were not now, in the 1850s and beyond, expected to play their own compositions. The same went for improvisation. The nature of concerts had changed…with each passing year, Schumann established herself more firmly as an interpreter of the new classical canon, and worked ever harder to make sure that her husband would become part of that canon.

The canon was, of course, male. This added yet another obstacle to the path of female composers over the following century and beyond.

Again and again, while writing this book, I am overwhelmed with admiration for the ways in which individuals overcame those obstacles. Yesterday, I was introduced to another composer – and familiar obstacles. I heard for the first time Rebecca Clarke’s Piano Trio from 1921 played by the Albany Trio at the Royal College of Music (see http://albanypianotrio.com/).  Another time I’ll write about the reasons why going to the RCM was a surprisingly emotional experience for me, but, here, I want simply to celebrate the performance I heard. My heart belongs to the early-modern period, so for me to be blown away by a post-Romantic work was a tribute to the visceral intensity and technical brilliance of the playing which did passionate justice to a work both grand and moving.

This morning, I’ve been finding a bit more about Rebecca Clarke, and those obstacles. Yesterday, it was mentioned that, when the Trio won second prize in a competition, questions were asked. Was Rebecca Clarke a pseudonym? Perhaps s/he was actually Ernest Bloch? How could a woman have created such a formally rigorous yet powerful work? Have a look at http://www.rebeccaclarke.org/ for more stories, including the one about the proposing violin teacher and the violent father.

A friend suggested that writing this book is making me bitter. No, not bitter – just sad, and at times frustrated by the mind-forged manacles and the social mores that prevented (prevent?) women creating music. But that sadness and frustration is simply blown away by performances such as I have heard this week – whether of new work or of forgotten work – and all that remains is joyful appreciation of the composers and their music.

 

Somewhere else

This is an unashamed and gratuitous trainfest of a post, although I will start by noting the significance of trains to the lives of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Clara Wieck Schumann – and the way in which their experiences illustrate the phenomenal pace of change in the period. Hensel was born in 1805, Wieck only fourteen years later, in 1819.

In 1834, Fanny Hensel can write to her brother, Felix Mendelssohn, with amazement that there might be a new railroad project that could take a person to Dusseldorf in 4 hours‘. Her husband, Wilhelm, travelling in England in 1838, witnessed, excitedly, not only the coronation of Queen Victoria, but also the opening of the Great Western Railway (‘the most complete railroad’) on 4 June. Within a few years, the Hensels are regularly travelling (admittedly fairly short distances) by train, most, if not all of the wonder, gone.

By the early 1840s, Clara Schumann, newly married with young children in Leipzig, relied on the railways to keep in touch with her father, who had bitterly opposed her marriage to Robert, and now lived in Dresden. Friedrick Wieck, desperate for a reconciliation with his daughter, tried to encourage her to make the journey by reminding her that she could bring the baby, and not even pay for her. Clara travelled on the first German long distance railway line between the two cities: Leipzig Hauptbahnhof was the largest terminal station in Europe, a hub for central European rail travel. In 1843, Robert Schumann organised a surprise visit for his wife to her mother in Berlin. Marianne had left Clara’s father when her daughter was only four. Clara took her oldest daughter, Marie, still only a toddler, and her account of the journey will be familiar to many parents: ‘It was fortunate that we travelled first class because Marie didn’t sit still for five minutes on the whole trip….’ On arrival, however, Marie was not tired at all. Clara Schumann was exhausted, but then Marie ‘would only get in my bed. I didn’t sleep all night, for there was hardly enough room for one person, let alone two’. Marianne, however, was delighted with the visit.

When Clara and her family moved to Dresden, they lived close to the railway station there, quite a way from the courtly heart of the city, perhaps to enable her getting back to familiar (and more musical) Leipzig. Or perhaps because it was cheaper. Whatever, the approach into Dresden from Leipzig is spectacular, the courtly splendour of the city contrasting with Leipzig’s bourgeious respectability.

arriving into Dresden Railways, of course, facilitated Clara Schumann’s punishing touring schedule throughout Europe. And, one final cruel twist of railway fate, Robert Schumann died alone, because Clara had gone to the railway station to meet their friend, the violinist, Joseph Joachim. Clara had only just been allowed to see Robert, as he neared death, after years of separation, supposedly for the good of his mental health.

Looking at Dresden station now, it is easy to imagine it filled with steam trains, and Clara and her children (six of them by the time she left the city) travelling between the cities of Saxony and Prussia.

Dresden station

In Florence, a bigger task of historical imagination is needed, to imagine the city without the station of Santa Maria Novella, and instead, to see the streets and piazzas and churches of Francesca Caccini’s seventeenth century neighbourhood. Via Valfonda, where she lived, and owned property, runs beside and beyond the station.

via valfonda now The building of the station in the 1930s destroyed the city end of the street, whilst the coming of the railway itself some hundred years earlier destroyed the more rural sections. In Caccini’s time, the city end of via Gualfonda, as it was known then, had a moderate number of households, some with servants, some even owned by patricians. Further out, towards the Palazzo di Valfonda, it was less urban, and poorer.

Before returning to the gratuitous trainfest, a word about the title to this post. I found them in a poem by Wisława Szymborska – which you can find at http://www.fernuni.de/wbs/mk/szymborska. The poem captures a significantly empty moment at a train station and ends, elusively:

Somewhere else.

Somewhere else.

How these little words ring.

Quite why I love being taken ‘somewhere else’ by train more than any other form of transport I don’t know. I do know, however, a good train when I see one: the Venice to Vienna sleeper.

the perfect train Just look at that shine! I booked a single berth (never done that before), which, confusingly but happily, was the same price as a triple. God knows why, and bluntly I don’t care, because not only did I get a compartment to myself, but I also got lots of goodie bags (slippers! Wine! A pen!) and a breakfast menu.

goodie bags Of course, the return journey – Vienna to Rome – in a six-berth compartment, crammed with teenagers (delightful Viennese teenagers, fluent in English of course, and off to Florence to study Italian, but still teenagers), was less perfect. But, even with minimal sleep, there was the huge excitement of waking up to the details of a different landscape – Italy again! ‘somewhere else’ – which is one of the glories of overnight train travel.

And, to close, two images from Sicily.

ragusa This is Ragusa, which, for some people, is significant because it’s where they film the TV series Montalbano. Indeed, the restaurant where we had lunch advertises itself as one of the places where the fictional policeman eats, life confusingly imitating art. But, for me, the wonder of Ragusa is the railway line which reaches the city, despite its position on top of a hill – actually two hills, and two cities, but that’s Sicily. My map gave me an almost overwhelming thrill when I realised how the engineers had solved the problem of reaching Ragusa. The train has to go through a tunnel which almost completes a circle as it climbs ever higher. Oh my goodness. So, I will have to go back to Sicily, if only for that train ride.

In the mean time, I will have to make do with the Cotswold line. I took my bike on the train on Saturday, and had a delightful cycle through pristine villages, complete with classic car rally, a church group out for a group ride, and English countryside. charlbury the maybushes in bloom.

It was not the same.

My final image was snatched on my last expedition out from Palermo. I’d been up to the hills above Cefalu, where Sicily gets as close to looking like a poor-man’s Tuscany as it ever does. As it turned out, and as I should have predicted – see my last post – the bus which I had been told to take to get home again didn’t actually go back to Cefalu (from whence I had a return ticket for the train back to Palermo, along the beautiful north coast). So the bus driver came up with a plan, dropping me off at an unsignposted junction, and pointing me along a somewhat desolate-looking main road. He told me there was a railway station a few hundred metres on the left. He was right. There was: Campofelice. The name was not apposite. But from Campofelice I took my last Sicily train, and the railway gods gave me one final treat. An announcement came, instructing the handful of waiting passengers (passengers, not customers….) that we had to move to the other platform. Which meant crossing the tracks. Which is, for me, one of the most exciting, if shortest, journeys that a person can make.

 crossing the tracks

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