shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the tag “francesca caccini”

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!

Free Ruggiero

Two things are really valuable when we approach the unknown or the unfamiliar in the arts.

One is for people who know about a bit about the unfamiliar experience to share their knowledge: give us some background, help us understand why we don’t know about it, point out what we might enjoy, what we might find challenging, and, maybe, share their informed enthusiasm for this new, strange experience that awaits us.

The other is for the performance itself to be wonderful – for all those involved in it to have imagined, worked tirelessly on, and then delivered something vital and engaging and transformatory.

If you have the latter, you can live without the former. (It doesn’t work the other way round – a humbling realisation for someone like me who only writes about music…)

Sometimes, if you are very lucky you get both, as I did when I saw the Brighton Early Music Festival’s production of Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero on a windy, rainy night in November on the south coast of England. Here’s an image from the closing minutes – channelling ‘Votes for Women’ from Mary Poppins – or is that just me?

 

ruggiero ensemble

You really did have to be there but trust me, it worked, the audience loved it, and (cultural historian hat on) it was yet another delightful nod to the gender politics which surrounded Caccini’s work back in 1625, and which were explored intelligently and creatively in the programme notes by Laurie Stras.

Caccini’s opera is rarely performed. (Ok, it’s not strictly an opera, but that’s how it gets into the music history books – as the ‘first opera’ written by a woman – and I’ll take any media hook that’s going if it helps to get her work performed.) When writing about La Liberazione in my book, I believed that it was unlikely I would ever see a live performance. How wrong I was – and how lucky I was that the first performance I saw was the one in Brighton.

Witty, exhilarating, beautiful, thought-provoking…but don’t take my word for it, the reviews were glorious, and rightly so. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/nov/09/la-liberazione-di-ruggiero-review-francesca-caccini

As I walked back to my airbnb room that night, I truly was lightheaded with excitement. In one evening of entertainment, that performance had done more to make the music of women a normal, natural, glorious part of our shared culture than anything else I’d come across in the years I have been engaged in exploring women’s work in the classical tradition. I could even dream that La Liberazione di Ruggiero might become part of the repertoire.

So, it was with great anticipation that I headed to Paris this last weekend to see a second performance of La Liberazione in the Palace of Versailles. I was particularly excited because I thought that to see the work in such a splendid setting – La Liberazione was originally written for princely patrons, first performed at a Medici palace in the hills above Florence – would reveal yet another side to Caccini.

The first disappointment was that it was a concert performance. Now, I know I should be grateful that the programmers at Versailles decided to put even one work composed by a woman into their entire season, but part of the thrill of Caccini’s work is that it is multi-media entertainment. In the original 1625 production, one character arrived on stage on a dolphin; magical transformations, of sets and costumes, occured before the audience’s very eyes; and there were dancing horses. Dancing horses.

Even if you strip out the visuals, however, there’s still a spicy threesome at the heart of the drama. Put simply, a wicked (but oh so attractive) sorceress, Alcina, seduces a knight, Ruggiero, to her island and entraps him there in order to take her pleasure. Worse still, he, and a host of other previous victims, seem thoroughly to enjoy the experience. Fortunately, however, a ‘good’ witch, Melissa (bigendered, because s/he can appear as either male or female), triumphs over Alcina, and liberates Ruggiero and his fellows. Having seen the Brighton production, I can report the subplot – concerning some enchanted plants, and which, having read about it, I had previously dismissed as a bit of a bore – was, in performance, just as compelling.

So, maybe any concert performance was going to fall a bit flat. I take my hat off to Michaela Riener who did her damnedest to make Alcina the sexy threat to world peace that Caccini makes her (no time here to go into the political message of this work, but rest assured, it’s there and, yes, Brighton brought it out). But Riener didn’t stand a chance, with the overwhelming physical presence of the conductor – do we really need an old-style ‘look at me, I’m the boss’ conductor in music from this era? –  literally standing between her and her lover Ruggiero – who looked a little lost – and her arch-enemy, Melissa, sung here by a woman rather than a counter-tenor (because….? Who knows?)

A far cry from November in Brighton. Here Ruggiero attempts (not very successfully) to resist Alcina, watched from behind the bath-house by Melissa. You can almost hear the latter tutting his/her disapproval.

ruggiero alcina and melissa

Other factors conspired to take the edge off my enjoyment. The seating arrangements in the Salon d’Hercule at Versailles left a lot to be desired. I paid 50 euros for a seat in the back row. This was my view.

salon d'hercule

The acoustic wasn’t great either. A couple of the singers were pretty disappointing, although the fact that the room was very, very chilly might not have helped. There was no libretto available (as far as I could tell) – certainly no-one around me had one, and I’m not sure how anyone could have worked out who was who, let alone what was happening, without it.

There was, however, a paragraph in the season guide which left me gasping, although it shouldn’t have done, since I’ve been living with these sexist cliches for years. Apparently Caccini’s arias are very melodious, and one perceives the subtilty of the feminine hand/writer in them. I searched the rest of the season’s offerings, and couldn’t find anything similar written about the male composers who fill up the programme. (I’m not blaming the performers for this. Having tracked down their website, the phrase is missing. It’s the Royal Opera of Versailles that’s the culprit.)

Overall, I was left with the impression that the evening was more about sitting in a big room in the palace of Versailles than about the music. Having said all that, my companion for the evening (a nineteenth-century opera fan, for whom this was a first Ruggiero), enjoyed the performance far more than I did. He was pleasantly surprised by the variety in the music – I’d warned him about the dominance of recitative – and was delighted in all sorts of ways by Alcina.

Now, a little voice tells me that I should be oh so grateful to anyone for putting on any music by women. But damn it, there are performances which transform their audiences’ lives and create a space for new music (for this IS new music), and there are performances which keep women composers safely in their ‘feminine’ box, specimens to be viewed from time to time, but never truly freed to take their rightful place in our musical culture. That’s why the hashtag for the Brighton performance #freeruggiero was just so, so right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Barbara di Santa Sofia

It’s been a busy couple of months, working through the suggestions of my editor, Sam Carter, at Oneworld – which can be satisfying (‘God, that bit was clunky – thank goodness he spotted it’); humbling (Sam suggested a bonfire of the howevers, and he was right – it’s an academic tic that is, nine times out of ten, completely unnecessary); and anxiety-inducing (every time I change a phrase, I sense that the whole book, or at least the whole paragraph, has lost its coherence). But it is done.

Leaving a gap in life, of course. I promptly filled it by heading, with my rucksack, to a dirty, beautiful city: this time, Sarajevo – more of which another time. Getting there took around three days by train – broken by a pastoral idyll in Slovenia at Lake Bohinj – but any journey which starts with the night train to Venice is a good journey in my book. Passing through the city, and indulging in my favourite Venetian past-time (sitting at the back of a vaporetto) I snapped a picture of Santa Sofia, the church in Canareggio which Barbara Strozzi was christened back in 1619. On my return to Oxford, there was just time to add in a few more sentences to the book, sentences which simply could not have been written (at least by me) unless I had been to the place itself.

Santa Sofia’s date of foundation is hazy, perhaps as early as 886, perhaps not, no matter, myth is powerful in Venice, but by Strozzi’s own lifetime the records show that it had already been rebuilt twice, first in the early thirteenth century, and then again in the composer’s great-grandparents’ generation. Now, in the late seventeenth century, Strozzi saw her baptismal church once again restored. Santa Sofia would then burn to the ground; be rebuilt; suffer suppression under Napoleon; be sold to the Jewish community; and re-open as a church. Despite or because of all the re-buildings, the church’s façade remains unfinished. Not only that, it is hidden, now by the priest’s house, but as early as 1500 by the encroaching buildings. The campanile, once taller and more elegant according to the evidence of a woodcut of 1550, is now chunky and the interior is plain by the standards of Venice, not least because on its suppression most of the church’s riches were dispersed, amongst them a Veronese Last Supper. Santa Sofia, half-hidden by the buildings that crowd around it, stripped of its glories, such as they were, and with little obvious beauty to it, is hardly a tourist magnet, but it endures, rising from the ashes again and again.

santa sofia 1550 santa sofia june 2015

Then again, I suppose I don’t really need to travel to see the past. There are other ways to get that sense of lived experience, to catch glimpses of the environment in which writers and musicians and artists do their work. In recent weeks, I’ve been searching for illustrations that would bring this out, and, when it came to the chapter on Francesca Caccini, I didn’t want another classic, ostensibly timeless view of Florence – although the terrace at San Miniato happens to be one of my favourite places on the entire planet, and when one is tired of looking down on Florence, and beyond to the Appenines, one is tired of life. I wanted an image that would act as a reminder of a living city, in which music, amongst other recreations, happened on the streets, just as much as behind closed doors. I came across a painting of a calcio Fiorentino (Florentine kick game): a early form of football (still called calcio of course in Italy) being played in the square of Santa Croce in Florence, just a few days after the performance of Caccini’s opera up at Poggio Imperiale.

calcio fiorentina

The most striking features of the sport (gleaned from Wikipedia – where it is somewhat unclear as to whether this is how the game is played now, or was played then, but so be it) is that it is/was played on sand, had a narrow slit for a goal which ran the width of each end, and that each team comprised 27 – twenty-seven?! – players who were allowed to use both feet and hands to pass and control the ball. Goals (or cacce) are scored by throwing the ball over into the netting at the end of the field. (I cannot resist, at this point, linking to a quite brilliant piece of satire produced by Norway Women’s Team – 2:30 mins is particularly relevant…)

I love this image of seventeenth-century street sport because it’s a reminder of just how blurred the boundaries between everyday life and sport/games were all those years ago – and I think the same was true for music-making.

Next stop: Sarajevo.

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.

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.

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

389 years and one day later…

The three best ways to travel – if one can – are by train, by bike, or (especially in cities) on foot. Going by plane is simply not travelling. It is annihilating distance and, for me at least, identity. And I’m writing this having experienced one of the slowest train journeys imaginable (the night train from Palermo to Roma) – having experienced some imaginative but definitely decline-able propositions from said night train’s conductor (the only one that tempted was accompanying him up to the deck as the boat, with train in its bowels, made its way across the Messina Strait, but I regretfully decided that maintaining my virtue and/or not punching the gentleman should be my priority) – and having experienced severe delays out of Roma Termini because of the sadly international phenomenon of a body on the line. And yet, all these, and the fast, cheap, trains from Rome to Florence and back again, were journeys.

Similarly, the February rains in Florence did not for one moment detract from the pleasures of wandering the city’s streets. I can, at least, justify this in terms of ‘research’. Only when one moves to older rhythms, walking rhythms, can one understand time, distance, and indeed power in the past. Walking up the hill to Villa Poggio Imperiale,

Poggio Imperiale

past the city walls, through the Porta Romana, up an immense tree-lined avenue, to a place away from, and just as important high above, the Pitti and the Uffizi made me realise just how interesting a choice of venue Poggio Imperiale was for Maria Magdalena d’Austria when she sought to display her power – as a regent, as a woman, as the ruler of Tuscany. She had the power to bring anyone who was anyone out of Florence, up to her palace, through her avenue of trees, into her domain, to see her entertainment, with music composed by her composer, Francesca Caccini.

view from Poggio Imperiale down into Florence

My visit occurred precisely 389 years and one day after La Liberazione di Ruggerio was performed on 3 February 1625. If it gets into the music history books, La Liberazione is described as the first opera to be written by a woman. As Suzanne Cusick, the superb biographer of Caccini points out, the work is not in fact an opera – although on the other hand it’s hard to say what it is. It certainly ended with an extraordinary balletto a cavallo (a dance on horseback, imagine dressage set to music), watched by the rich and powerful from the balconies and terraces of the Villa. I can’t help wondering if it rained that day as well…

nuns with guns II

When in doubt, spend one’s idle moments dreaming up titles. This book has gone through a number already. It began as In the Shadow of the Courtesan – travels in search of women composers (thus the blog title – can’t quite let those courtesans go). By the time I’d got a serious proposal worked up, it had become La Musica, a title I still love, since it suggests the embodiment of music in the professional female composer. Francesca Caccini, the wonderful composer that I am writing about now, appears in the account books of the Medici as ‘la musica’. She quite simply is the music. But non-English titles are, apparently, off-putting to the UK/US market. OK. So the working title at the moment is A Secret Art, which is nice and suggestive, but a bit Da Vinci code.

There have been other suggestions. My daughter proposed Looking for Fanny, inspired no doubt by her deep and abiding concern to celebrate the life and work of Fanny Mendelssohn. Thanks for that. Matt Harvey has offered the best suggestion so far: Nuns with Guns II. I’d happened to mention that music-making nuns, working in dangerous political conditions, featured quite heavily in my early research. Matt took the idea and ran with it. The ‘II’ is particularly inspired, and hints not only at a completely illusory Nuns with Guns I (which was obviously successful enough to inspire a sequel) but also might encourage a gaming tie-in. Watch your back, Call of Duty. Where are your nuns with guns?

a nun with a gun

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a nun with a gun.

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