discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the tag “Writing”

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



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.

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 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.


Goodbye Monemvasia

I seem to have many hours in recent days climbing up stone steps to reach once impregnable cities which are now in ruins.

  Mystras Castle

My overwhelming sense (as one climbs to the castle in Mistras, shown here, high above the valley where modern Sparta now lies, or the Upper Town of Monemvasia – where I’m currently staying – which once held 30,000 people and now has nine permanent residents) is of just how frightening the world must have been to necessitate living on top of a very high rock, and locking oneself in behind a succession of gates and then for safe measure, a further array of thick walls. And yet those gates, those walls, that height, failed again and again to protect the inhabitants. Even if an all-out military assault was deemed too wasteful by whichever power coveted the city, it was just too easy to lay a siege, and starve the people out. And so Mistras and Monemvasia were both kicked like a football between the Byzantines, Turks and Venetians – not to mention the occasional Corsican or Arab opportunist.

IMG_0620 The view from the Upper Town gate

And now Monemvasia is a Byzanto-Disneyworld. At least, the Lower Town is. The Upper Town is currently off-limits, as things gear up for its restoration. Workmen are building a terrifying hoist up the side of the sheer rock so that work can start. In just a week, they have nearly reached the top. But given the scale of the ruins, and the length of time those ruins have been left undisturbed, not to mention the sheer difficulty of reaching them – despite the hoist – it’s hard to know when the Upper Town will be accessible again. It was a magical place to wander: I can only hope that their is neither the money nor the will to restore it to Knossos-esque perfection. As for the Lower Town, and its nine permanent residents, building after building has been restored to within an inch of its life, all for the likes of me, wealthy tourists dipping in for a few days of peace and quiet.

I was last here in what feels like another lifetime, with my then young daughters, the self-styled Cat Girls of Monemvasia, who relished the freedom to wander around the streets without cars, whilst I relished the freedom of not worrying about them wandering. Now I find the cats at best irritating, at worst unhygienic, menaces, and the carefully manufactured silence of the cobbled lanes slightly unnerving.

cat picture A giant killer cat stalks the walls of Monemvasia

The surrounding sea retains its lure, however. Early this morning, I watched the sun rise over the waves crashing in upon the old, old walls. And the not-quite geometric lines of the buildings, crowding shambolically but purposefully up the slopes of the rock, have a beauty that I have rarely found elsewhere.


But enough is enough. I thought I’d stay here four weeks, but I’m off tomorrow, after only 9 days. I know it’s just plain wrong to be unhappy in paradise, but that’s the truth of it. I’ve tried to forge a connection with my surroundings, listening to, and thinking about, the music of the ninth century Byzantine nun, Kassia. And I’ve kept working, churning out the words. But I’m not sure the words make any sense and Kassia’s probably only going to get a paragraph in the book. So, despite knowing that ‘doing a geographical’ is never an answer (‘it’s not about where you are, Anna, it’s who you are’ – thanks for that my inner therapist), it’s goodbye Monemvasia.



Corsets, refugees, and skipping ropes: what I’m not saying about Lili Boulanger

There are two things that I tend to say to students, and to myself. One is to imagine a fierce (fierce because she cares, of course) Anna standing at one’s back saying ‘So what?’ The other is to remind the non-fiction author, even those who are writing academic essays, and particularly those who are not, that one’s work should not anxiously display everything one knows. In other words, cut, and cut again.

But, hey, who says that I’m right? So here are some thoughts about underwear, starving refugees, and skipping ropes – three topics which cannot, will not, be squeezed into an already bulging chapter on Lili Boulanger.

So, underwear first, naturally. Lili Boulanger was a very sick woman for most of her life. Born in 1893, she was tall for her time (five foot nine inches), and very slender. No, she wasn’t anorexic, she – probably – had Crohn’s Disease, or, since Crohn’s had not been ‘discovered’ then, abdominal tuberculosis. The labels don’t really matter. She suffered horribly, and there was nothing anyone could do to help.

I’ve been trying to understand how her experience of illness impacted upon her career as a composer – it’s not always straightforward – but I’ve also been thinking about Lili’s day-to-day life in the 1910s. How did she actually manage to function with her dismal repertoire of symptoms? Forget for one moment her compositional activity. How did she, a young ‘lady’ from a privileged Paris world, cope practically with the round of dinners, picnics, balls, concerts, long journeys to the South of France…whilst experiencing recurrent acute abdominal pain, diarrhea, and fevers to name but three of the most distressing symptoms of Crohn’s?

Which is why I was thinking about underwear and the myriad ways in which women’s clothes make life just that little bit harder than it needs to be. Especially if you are sick. I found out that (and all things are relative), it would all have been even worse for Boulanger if she had been a decade or more earlier than she was. For anyone with severe abdominal pain, any kind of corsetry must have been unpleasant, at times agonizing, but at least this

S-shaped corset wasn’t the fashion by the time Boulanger reached adulthood.

Nevertheless, in the liberated 1910s, the stomach still remained compressed by the new, more ‘natural’, corsets – and women still wore five pieces of underwear: chemise, corset, corset cover, drawers, and petticoat. Nipping to the loo is not really an option under these circumstances. You can sort of see why bed rest might have been the easier option for a sick woman. All this makes me even more delighted that Lili Boulanger (lightly corseted, one hopes, and with a skirt that reached just above – yes, you read that right, above – her ankles) learned to ride a bike in the summer of 1911, pedaling in the lanes around Hannecourt, a hamlet west of Paris, close to the Seine, where the Boulangers had their second home. Lili’s first lesson was on 27 July. Two weeks later she has been on an expedition to a hamlet some six kilometres away, then the following day, sixteen kilometres, there and back, to Mantes-la-Jolie, her local town. A day off the bicycle was followed by an impressive expedition to Houdan, just over thirty kilometres away. Forty miles and a novice. Chapeau, Lili!

I visited Hannecourt while I was in Paris, travelling by slow train as Boulanger would have done from the Gare St-Lazare, close to her city address in the 9th arrondissement. But I didn’t get off at Gargenville (Hannecourt’s village), but kept going a couple of stops to Mantes-la-Jolie, to see an exhibition called Maximilien Luce: quand l’art regarde la guerre: 1914-1918. I was the only person there, which was a relief in that I was shaking after only a few minutes, and spent much of the time trying not to sob. Luce was a pacifist, and his work speaks eloquently to the horror of war. And suddenly I realized that, although Boulanger notes (in passing) that there are Zeppelins overhead at 10am in Paris, and writes with despair when she hears about the Battle of Verdun, it is as if the war is happening to other people, somewhere else. Luce’s art, and the documents provided in the exhibition, shows that it was happening right on Boulanger’s doorstep, whether in Paris or Hannecourt. Surely there was no way to escape the sight of columns of Belgian refugees trudging

through the village near the Seine,Luce refugees

no escaping the sight of young men heading to the killing fields from Paris’ own Gare de l’Est?

luce gare de l'est

I have to admit that writing the life of Lili Boulanger has been tough – one of the reasons I write is to get a sense of detachment from lived experience, and that detachment is difficult to maintain in the face of terminal illness or the mud of the trenches. I was, however, greatly cheered when I came across the following photographs here: Lili Boulanger’s greatest achievement, according to the music history books, was winning the Prix de Rome, the most prestigious prize in French music. To win, she had to go into a kind of retreat with the other finalists at the palace near Paris, and produce a particular piece of music. Sort of Big Brother meets the Great British Bake-Off but with a cantata rather than a lemon tart as the outcome, and a cast made up of young male composers (and Lili). Anyway, these photos, taken, I think, a year or two before Boulanger’s time at Compiegne, show the Finalists having a joyous time.

skipping rope 1

skipping rope 2

I just hope Lili Boulanger, in the summer of 1913, got to jump rope.

Looking for Lili

I could almost re-print, word for word, my first post on this blog, written just after arriving in Palermo. Just change Palermo to Paris. It’s the fantasy that one can touch down in a strange city, and suddenly writing will become easy. And then the reality. In practical terms, so many little things need to be sorted out (getting the coffee right, getting hold of more pillows…these things are important, no?). Emotionally, a small voice is saying, quite insistently, ‘what are you doing here far from the comforts of home and loved ones?’

Fortunately, due to the fact that I was arriving in Paris on Monday night, and Professor Sassanelli of Bari University was leaving Paris on Wednesday morning, I was forced into action, and out of the apartment, on my very first day – the professor being someone I wanted to meet in connection with my research into Lili Boulanger’s short life (1893-1918). Sassanelli has been working on the contents of a locked suitcase deposited in the Bibliothèque nationale de France by Nadia Boulanger, big sister to Lili, and fierce protector of not only her own formidable reputation as one of the great figures in music in the twentieth century, but that of her composer little sister.

Nadia placed a long embargo on the suitcase being opened (she died in 1979), and even when the embargo ceased, nothing was done for a time, perhaps because of anxiety about its contents.


Put simply, there are two dominant narratives in play concerning Lili Boulanger – and her family. One is of Saint Lili, the sweet-natured, supremely talented, doomed girl-woman. The other, proposed by her most recent biographer, Jerome Spycket, is more ordinary and, in that sense at least, more convincing. Lili, it seems, did have some very good times in her short life – and it’s thanks to Spycket that I know about Lili and her bicycling adventures – more of which another time. For the moment, here’s a gratuitous image of a woman on a bicycle, dating from 1922, but relevant to 1911 as you will find out if you click on

To return to Spycket: his book is also much more speculatively salacious. He identifies a host of ‘mysteries’ surrounding Lili Boulanger and her family, and does not hold back from offering his own solutions to those mysteries. (I should add that there’s also an eminently sensible book by Caroline Potter which tries to re-focus everyone on the music).

So, that’s the state of play at the moment. Over coffee, Professor Sassanelli filled me on some of her findings. I, like everyone else, will need to wait to find out the detail – until her work is published, and until the documents themselves have been through the cataloguing system of the library. For now, however, and without jumping the gun on Sassanelli’s months of hard work, it is enough to say that we had an interesting talk about Nadia Boulanger’s belief that certain aspects of her life needed to be kept out of the public domain, most likely out of a desire to maintain her professional standing.

And so, once again, the shadow of the courtesan is cast. Nadia Boulanger believed, perhaps rightly, that any hint of an emotional, let alone an erotic, life would compromise her professional standing. To achieve what she did (and, by God, she achieved a lot), that aspect of her existence had to be sacrificed and/or concealed.

That was yesterday. Today it’s been a complete change of gear. No more Lili Boulanger for a while – instead, it’s time for the composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who flourished in another Paris, that of the last years of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Her territory was the Île Saint-Louis, about 10 – 15 minute walk from my tiny fourth floor apartment near Place Monge.

Here’s the island (Isle au Vaches) before Louis XIII and those seventeenth-century property developers got hold of it.

Tomorrow, the plan is to set off early to avoid the hordes of tourists that I witnessed yesterday as I walked to and from the Bibliothèque nationale (I found out later that Beyoncé was visiting Notre Dame Cathedral that very day, and that her daughter, Blue Ivy, played the keys of the organ, as can be seen in some touching family photos posted by the-artist-who-is-coming-to-haunt-this-blog) and seek out Jacquet de la Guerre’s Paris. I’m looking forward to my early morning walk, and might continue what I like to call research by visiting the handful of magnificent churches where Jacquet de la Guerre’s male relatives plied their musical trade (Notre Dame – complete with its organ touched by Blue Ivy, Saint-Chapelle, Saint-Severin, Saint-Eustache…it’s a very fine itinerary). By then, it will be time for a long lunch I expect. Just don’t ask me tomorrow evening how many words I have written.

Little Angels? The mystery of the Alleota sisters

One of my duties as a non-fiction author, and I take this duty seriously, is to bear witness to the past – and, in the case of this book, to uncover the details of lives that have tended to be overlooked or undervalued. Myths are as important as facts, however. Take the following description of the exceptionally talented choir of nuns of the convent of San Vito, Ferrara:

It appeared to me that the persons who ordinarily participated in this concert were not human, bodily creatures, but were truly angelic spirits.

Just in case the reader thinks the writer is finding nuns attractive, there is a careful distancing. The reader must not ‘imagine that I refer to the beauty of face and richness of garments and clothing’. No, ‘one sees only the most modest grace and pleasing dress and humble deportment in them.’

The demand for modesty, grace, humility, for little angels, is one that informs women’s lives, that teaches us all, to quote Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl. As the ground-breaking musicologist, Suzanne Cusick, writes about Renaissance composers: women are seen in their own time as angels or sorceresses, not truly human, ‘never what they are actually are …. formidably talented musicians’. My job, as a non-fiction author, is to move past the myths, and try to shine a light on what those nuns actually were – ‘formidably talented musicians’ – and what enabled them to be so.

But sometimes, just sometimes, I come across individuals whose lives might be better explored in fiction – not only because there are so few historical facts to play with, but also because one feels that the psychological story could be told better that way.

Take the intriguing sixteenth-century Alleota sisters, based in Ferrara, seventy miles south-west of Venice. One of the few points of certainty about the Alleota sisters is that (as so often in the lives of female composers) there is an ambitious father in the background. Giovanni Battista Alleoti was a successful engineer and architect for the powerful Este family in Ferrara.

So far so good, but then there is mystery. Were there two composer sisters or only one? One story has Vittoria learning her art simply by watching her older sister, Raphaela, being taught. Little Vittoria emerged as something of a prodigy, outstripping her older sister. Another view of the evidence suggests, however, that Vittoria and Raphaela are one and the same person.

A simple reason for the two names can be found in the fact that Vittoria was sent to the convent of San Vito – that same convent of angelic nuns noted above – when she was seven, and chose to stay there, if that is the right word, when she was fourteen. For Vittoria, it was a simple choice between continuing a musical life within the convent, or getting married and not doing so. It is quite possible then that, at some point during her time as a nun, Vittoria changed her name to Raphaela.

But two publications appeared in the same year, 1593, one by Vittoria Alleota, the other by Raphaela Alleota, one secular, one sacred. Neither publication acknowledges the other. One scholar, whilst acknowledging that there may well have been two sisters, has hinted at an almost schizophrenic division of personality if there was only one:

One senses that Vittoria and Raphaela, whether the same or different persons, did not wish to know one another.

She goes on to argue that whilst her/their father is in control of the secular music, Raphaela writes her own dedication to the Sacrae cantiones.

Perhaps Raphaela sought to heal a private demon by asserting a new identity that distanced her from her family, especially from her father. Little Vittoria, father’s pride and prodigy, seems to disappear completely, replaced by an independent woman who could select her own texts and lifestyle.


Move forward a few years, and we find a description of the ‘Maestra’ of the Convent of San Vito, Ferrara who ‘sits down at one end of the table and with a long, slender and well-polished wand…’ No angel, this Maestra beat time, in an era when the idea of the conductor was entirely new. The Maestra is named as Raphaela Alleota. It seems she had found her place. is no portrait of Alleota, so a modern female conductor, Anu Tali, and her ‘wand’, will have to do. For an entertaining look at the growing presence of female conductors in the classical music world, 400 years and more on from Alleota at the convent San Vito, see Progress is, however, slow…



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  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 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.


Sherlock and me

One of the great challenges for a writer is the difficulty, nay, the impossibility, of knowing whether one is writing crap. That’s why we have friends. And enemies. And Creative Writing courses. And editors. And red wine.

Another great challenge is the impossibility of defining success. Finishing a book? Getting it published? Selling a few hundred copies? A few thousand? A million? Getting the most UK reviews of a non-fiction book in January 2008 (no matter that some of the reviews were vicious, some were patronising, some were both)?

I can’t say my personal experience of that last measurement led to any lasting contentment. In fact, until today, my feel-good moments have been provided by an annual Public Lending Right statement. This shows an author how many people have been borrowing your books from the library. It’s not about the money, although the £41.97 I received this year did bring me a lot of pleasure. It’s just the warm glow of knowing that one’s books live on.

But all now is changed. Who amongst you, my fellow writers, have been featured in an episode of Sherlock? Yes, Sherlock. My work (for the record, John Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot, which you’ll recall was the most reviewed non-fiction publication of January 2008) can be seen on the bookshelf of a minor character in episode 2 of season 1. How do I know that I appear in ‘The Blind Banker’? Because of this:

Mid0nz, whoever you are – you have my eternal gratitude. I feel, well, special.

The Search for the Modern Explorer

Expedia are looking for The Modern Explorer ( – and sorry, people, the competition is now closed…) and they’ve asked me to be one of the judges. The winner will retrace the journey from Portugal to India made by Vasco da Gama some five hundred years ago. One of the ideas behind Expedia’s competition is that the reasons we travel, and what we (and others) gain from travel has not changed much over the centuries – it’s just that we communicate in different media these days.

It’s my long-term relationship with this guy Image that has got me on to the judges panel, I think. In the words of the interviewer on Woman’s Hour, ten years ago now, I’m a Sir Walter Ralegh groupie, not least because he was not only an explorer – and supporter of explorers – but a superb writer as well. Thinking about Sir Walter, which is no hardship, one of the many things that made him exceptional for his time was his realisation that new media – in his case, print – was his friend. He, in effect, created a PR campaign for his quest for El Dorado – no matter that he completely failed to find the golden city (he didn’t even find a workable gold mine), his inspiring, eloquent account of the expedition up the Orinoco was designed to finance the next expedition – and the next. Compared to Francis Drake who did, I acknowledge, circumnavigate the globe (but couldn’t and didn’t write anything worth repeating about it) there’s no contest. Sir Walter may have failed to finish pretty much every project he turned his hand to (from finding El Dorado to completing ‘The History of the World’ – incomplete, but still 1400 big pages long), but, not only did he travel hopefully, he had vision and the ability to communicate that vision to others.

What of the prospective Modern Explorers? I’ve been enjoying learning more about the finalists – it’s quite interesting to see that the vast majority are female, even though the publicity for the competition focuses on the male explorer tradition (as does this post – and what follows…so, just for the record, I’m not throwing stones from my glass house here, just noticing…) and it’s exciting trying to find the perfect mix of engaging personality, great communicator, and intrepid traveller.


Judging the entries has made me think about the writers who influenced me when I was younger. The single most important book was Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy. It redefined the art of the possible for anyone reading it – but particularly a girl from the London suburbs. You could just get on your bike and keep going. On your own. And rely on the kindness of strangers. I have continued to read Dervla Murphy over the years, but it is an earlier writer (more writer than explorer really, although with a huge courage all of his own) who, in one of his earliest books, articulates what, for me, are some central truths about travel. This is Robert Byron, in First Russia, then Tibet, recording journeys made in 1931-2.

As a member of a community, and an heir to a culture, whose joint worth is now in dispute, I would discover what ideas, if those of the West be inadequate, can with greater advantage be found to guide the world.

It’s a far cry from Vasco da Gama’s motives for exploration – one recent book about him is simply called Holy War. Byron continues:

And to this end, I would also know, in the language of my own senses, in whom and what the world consists. […] it is only from the sum of isolated journeys that even the shadow of an answer to [these questions] can ever be expected.

Byron knows that most of us are unlikely to gain much insight from our travels – his cynicism fuelled by being an adolescent in the first world war, and witnessing as an adult the slide into the second. But he has hope. To those who say that travel is pointless

the traveller can only reply that at least he desires to know more and more about more and more.

And he also knows that travel is not all about gaining profound insights and stopping wars – it’s about travelling with your friend on ancient roads – although they are new to you – in a beat up old car with that all-important crate of whisky at your side. Inspirational.

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