shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the tag “Nicola Lefanu”

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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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.

 

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