shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the tag “women’s history”

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.’

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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.

A bit of ruff

Young Bess

I am delighted to report that Bess Throckmorton, the woman who served Queen Elizabeth I, married Sir Walter Ralegh, who rode the rollercoaster that was the Tudor and Stuart era, and whose soundtrack should surely be ‘I will survive’, lives again – in digital form. The picture above is, probably, Bess as a young woman – and a detail of the painting lies at the heart of the political and sexual triangle formed by Bess, Sir Walter, and the Queen. (However, when I was interviewed by the Daily Telegraph about Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which has its own historically implausible take on that triangle, the best I could come up with is that the film might have an ’emotional truth’ to it…) If you want to know more, take a look at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bess-Life-Lady-Ralegh-Walter-ebook/dp/B00SZ4JF2W/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1423494584&sr=8-1&keywords=bess+endeavour and if you are feeling kind and generous, spend £2.99 on a bit of ruff, and if you are feeling even more kind and generous (and you like what you have read), offer a one-line review on amazon…

Bess was the fore-runner to the eight women I’m writing about now, so it’s really satisfying to see her re-emerge again in this way, thanks to the publishers, the Endeavour Press. And, even more importantly, it gives me a chance to put up a picture of Bess’ favourite swashbuckler with hang-ups, the greatest poet of his time, and a man confident enough in his sexuality to wear pearl earrings the size of goose eggs – I give you Sir Walter Ralegh.

Sir_Walter_Ralegh_by_'H'_monogrammist

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