Friday, July 19, 2019

Three books on music, part 3: Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music

Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Anna Beer, Oneworld Publications, 2016, 370 pp.

On the cover: Portrait of Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre by François de Troy, 1704 or earlier. Image: Readings

In Sounds and Sweet Airs British writer Anna Beer highlights eight women composers, from Francesca Caccini in the early 17th century through Elizabeth Maconchy in the 20th. If you're thinking "Who?" that's precisely Beer's point. Although not all of the composers featured in the book are forgotten women, as the subtitle has it—there are dozens of recordings of works by Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann currently available, to name just three of Beer's subjects—they are all under-performed and under-recorded with respect to their male contemporaries.

They also faced far greater barriers to success. Marriage and motherhood meant that women were expected to place needs of spouses and children ahead of their own. Alma Schindler had composed more than a hundred lieder before becoming the wife of Gustav Mahler; a few months before their marriage he wrote to her a notorious letter that is worth quoting at greater length than does Beer:
[H]ow do you picture the married life of a husband and wife who are both composers? Have you any idea how ridiculous and, in time, how degrading for both of us such a peculiarly competitive relationship would become?. . .You have only one profession from now on: to make me happy!. . .The role of "composer," the "worker's" role falls to me, yours is that of loving companion and understanding partner. . .You must give yourself to me unconditionally, shape your future life, in every detail, entirely in accordance with my needs, and desire nothing in return save my love! [1]
Fortunately some husbands, such as those of Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, actively supported their wives' musical activities. Still, the burdens of raising children and managing the household fell disproportionately on women. The marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann was an artistic companionship in theory; in practice Robert monopolized the piano, while Clara was frequently pregnant and regularly needed to embark on gruelling concert tours to bring in money.

Remaining unmarried might provide women with the freedom to compose, but it had its own dangers: it could expose them to salacious gossip and social rejection. Marianna Martines (born in Vienna in 1744) never married and for respectability's sake lived with two of her brothers and the elderly librettist Pietro Metastasio, for whom she was a caregiver.

Portrait of Marianna Martines by Anton von Maron, ca. 1773. Image: Wikimedia Commons

As a young woman Martines received music lessons from a teenaged Joseph Haydn, who at the time was living in the attic of her family home, and from Nicola Porpora, who may also have been living with the family. She held musical salons at which she played keyboard duets with one Wolfgang Mozart (she was doing him the favor; he was trying to gain entry into Viennese society). She received invitations to visit Naples and Bologna, other important centers of musical activity, but declined them and remained in the city of her birth.

Because it would not have been seemly for a woman of her social position, she never wrote an opera. We have some idea of what a Martines opera might have sounded like, though, from her cantatas with orchestral accompaniment. Anna Bonitatibus singing Martines' setting of Metastasio's "Orgoglioso fiumicello" with La Floridiana led by Nicoleta Paraschivescu:

Martines hosted private musical evenings because it was not befitting for a woman of her social station to give public concerts. This was also true of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (born 1805), the older sister of Felix Mendelssohn.

Fanny Mendelssohn by William Hensel, 1829. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Although Fanny received the same musical training as Felix, she was not granted the same opportunities. Fanny's father Abraham wrote her, "Music will perhaps become his [Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament, never the root of your being and action. . .You must. . .prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman—I mean the state of a housewife." When their mother urged Felix to help Fanny publish her music, he wrote her that to do this "is contrary to my views and to my convictions." [2]

Felix was generally supportive of Fanny's composing, but he did not think it fitting for his sister to place herself in the public eye by publishing her works under her own name. Instead he published six of her songs under his name in his Opus 8 and Opus 9. Here is one of those songs, "Sehnsucht" (Longing, based on a poem by Johann Gustav Droysen), performed by Barbara Bonney with accompanist Geoffrey Parsons:


Fern und ferner schallt der Reigen.
Wohl mir! um mich her ist Schweigen
Auf der Flur.
Zu dem vollen Herzen nur
Will nicht Ruh' sich neigen.


Fainter and fainter is the sound of the dancing.
I'm thankful that silence surrounds me
In the halls.
To my full heart
peace will not descend.

Horch! die Nacht schwebt durch die Räume.
Ihr Gewand durchrauscht die Bäume
Lispelnd leis'.
Ach, so schweifen liebeheiß
Meine Wünsch' und Träume.
Listen! The night wafts through the rooms.
Its robes rustle through the trees,
Softly whispering.
Just as, burning with love, wander
My wishes and dreams.

For women composers the difficulty of getting work published meant that it could be misattributed (as in the case of "Sehnsucht"), neglected for decades, or lost entirely. The music Francesca Caccini (born 1587) wrote for the stage, for example, has largely vanished. Only one opera has survived in a performable state: La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall' Isola d'Alcina (Ruggiero's Liberation from Alcina's Island, 1625). She also wrote hundreds of secular and sacred songs, only a few of which have been preserved.

Caccini's "Dolce Maria," performed by Shannon Mercer with Luc Beauséjour (organ and harpischord), Amanda Keesmaat (cello) and Sylvain Bergeron (theorbo):

Until relatively recently women were largely excluded from professional positions at court, in cathedrals and at conservatories, which meant that they often could not support themselves through nor find ready outlets for their art. They were passed over for prizes and fellowships, and their work was infrequently programmed in the concert hall or on the radio.

This was the case for Irish composer Elizabeth Maconchy (born 1907), the subject of one of the most interesting chapters of Sounds and Sweet Airs. Her father, a solictor, died of tuberculosis when she was 15, and her mother moved the family from Ireland to London after Elizabeth won admission to the Royal College of Music the next year. She became a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and in 1928 applied for the prestigious Mendelssohn Scholarship. She did not receive it, however, being told by the head of the RCM that "if we'd given it to you, you'd only have gotten married and never written another note!" [3]

"Ophelia's Song," composed by 19-year-old Maconchy while at the RCM in 1926, performed by Caroline MacPhie with accompanist Joseph Middleton; the words are from Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act IV Scene 5:


How should I your true love know
  From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff,
  And his sandal shoon.

He is dead and gone, lady,
  He is dead and gone,
At his head a grass-green turf,
  At his heels a stone.

White his shroud as the mountain snow
  Larded with sweet flowers,
Which bewept to the grave did go
  With true-love showers.

Maconchy did get married in 1930, and kept right on composing (when she wasn't debilitated by bouts of tuberculosis). Fortunately in the 1930s three women in the London music scene—the conductor Iris Lemare, the violinist Anne Macnaghten, and the composer Elisabeth Luytens—established a concert series to present music by composers whose work wasn't being performed elsewhere. Maconchy wound up being the most-performed composer in the Macnaghten-Lemare Concerts, ahead of another young unknown named Benjamin Britten.

After World War II Maconchy received a bit more recognition. Hers was the winning entry in the London Council's competition for a Coronation Overture for Elizabeth II (Proud Thames, 1952), and in 1959 she became the first woman to chair the Composers' Guild of Great Britain. She received a CBE appointment in 1977, the year of Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, and a decade later was made Dame Commander. But despite these honors, she remains relatively little known and rarely performed. I did not know her name and had never heard her music before I read Beer's book.

From Maconchy's Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1952-53), the second movement (Lento) performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Odaline de la Martinez:

In Sounds and Sweet Airs Beer necessarily focusses on a few composers and tries to generalize from their experiences to the difficulties faced by many other musical women. Every composer she profiles deserves more attention, so it feels a bit churlish to complain about those who are not represented. There are no composers from the medieval period, so abbess Hildegard of Bingen and the trobairitz Countess of Dia are absent (although the latter provides the book's epigram). And Beer neglects to include any composer from the church. That's odd because not only is sacred music a huge part of the classical tradition, the church often offered greater opportunities for women to compose than did the stage or the concert hall (the 17th-century nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani might have made a good subject).

When in her chronological survey Beer reaches the late 19th century, she does not mention Ethel Smyth; in the 20th, Americans Ruth Crawford Seeger and Mary Lou Williams are absent. In the chapter on Maconchy, Beer tantalizingly quotes from the delightfully entertaining writings of fellow composer Elisabeth Lutyens, the daughter of the architect Edwin Lutyens (designer of much of New Dehli), who seems like a highly engaging subject in her own right. We can only hope that Beer is planning a second volume.

Other books in this series:

  1. Letter from Gustav Mahler to Alma Schindler, 19 December 1901. Quoted in Julia Moore, "Alma Mahler, or The Art of Being Loved" [review]. Notes, Second Series, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Mar., 1993), pp. 972-977.
  2. Quoted in Carol Neuls-Bates, Women in Music: An Anthology of Source Readings from the Middle Ages to the Present. Northeastern University Press, 1996, pp. 144-148. 
  3. Quoted in Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, Oneworld Publications, 2016, p. 294.

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