POST SCRIPT & DISCLAIMER NO 1: I have genuinely spent ages, literally hours, trying to find a different name for this post but it seems that there are no decent synonyms for ‘badass’. Nothing else seems to encapsulate what I’m trying to say quite as concisely with a such a footprint of powerful attitude. If you do have any ideas for alternate names, please do get in touch though!
I woke up this morning to the grim news that David Cameron does not know the price of a loaf of bread. Of course I shouldn’t have been too surprised but I just thought that maybe, particularly it being the day of a meeting on food banks at the tory conference, that he might have wised up a bit as to avoid such a (public) schoolboy error. But no. Even looking that info up was below him. This naturally led me to think about other standard omissions of information, such as the Most Common Flaw in a vast majority of ‘Music Histories’. Even when I’m reading musicology that seems in many other ways progressive, I feel like I’m shouting in a Monty Python style ‘ARE THERE ANY WOMEN HERE!?’. The response isn’t as comic as that of the bearded stoners (throwers of stones surely = stoners?) in The Life of Brian though. In my head it’s just a load of blokes cackling at their pretty successful attempt at erasing women from the history they have written. Then I notice a few women in the crowd at the back, winking at me through their felted Python beards as I stand, bewildered and despondent, in front of the gaggle of stoners (these are now musicologists/canonic composers, I think, please excuse sketchy image/analogy).
A man who does not even know the price of the nation’s staple food is running the country, there must be some hope SOMEWHERE, I tell myself. So began my quest to trawl through look round those corners the musicology mainstream didn’t want to look, finding the characters that weren’t honoured by the canon. To my delight I did manage to find some truly uplifting stories about women who not only wrote some amazing music, but did a lot of other SUPER AMAZING things. Sadly, because no one really gave a toss at the time, or really since, there are mainly only fragments available of these tales of courage, creativity and composition, but I thought I’d put a some highlights of a small few in one place for your easy viewing pleasure! Hopefully this will be the first in a series.
DISCLAIMER NO 2: I have not done extensive research, these accounts are based on just a few sources. Although it’s not original research, I haven’t found anything similar to this thus far 🙂
I will start with Teresa Carreño- born in 1853 in Venezuela. She seems to have been a no-nonsense type and married three times, was offered piano lessons by Liszt but declined (that must have been a smack in the face!) and there is allegedly a crater on Venus named after her… as well as a music centre in the Venezuelan capital! She played in the Irving Hall aged just 8 and later in front of Abraham Lincoln in the White House, before touring as an opera singer in later life. Her main output was piano music but she also composed for choirs and orchestras.
Six years earlier in Brazil, Chiquinha Gonzoga was born. She had always shown a talent for music but when she was married off aged 16 her husband, eight years her senior, prohibited her education and music-making. The story could have ended there, but it didn’t. After giving birth to her third child she fled her husband and became is believed to have become the first woman ever to legally divorce in Brazil. Her father was not so impressed and declared her dead and of ‘unpronnouncable name’. I personally reckon this was a mistake. She went on to shun gender stereotypes and joined various ensembles normally reserved for men, composed her own pieces and was actively involved in politics, in particular striving for the abolition of slavery. Not bad. Oh, and her music is pretty cool.
Augusta Holmès may strike you as a strange name. That is partially because it is sort of made up. Augusta was from Ireland but added a snazzy accent to her surname to fit in when she became a citizen of France. As with many female composers though, she felt it necessary to have a pseudonym, and fair enough, it was pretty spectacular: Hermann Zenta. Oh, ok, not quite as cool as I thought. I originally read that as Hermann ‘Zanta’. Like Santa, but with a Z, because she was that cool. Oh well, I still reckon she was pretty cool andby all means a breaker of boundaries. She found ways to have private lesson in music as she was, being a ‘she’, denied entry to the Paris Conseravtory, and as another finger up in the face of general established customs she had FIVE children, not with her husband but with her PARTNER. Imagine. She wrote a work for 1200 performers for the centennial anniversary of the French Revolution- take that Mahler! Wait, I think she wrote that before he did his biggest stuff, maybe she was leading the way hence the extra motivation to make sure that women weren’t being creative first… Anyhow, Sait-Saens made an interesting statement on her that is sort of really great but sort of downright disheartening but I guess this post is supposed to be OPTIMISTIC cos Dave doesn’t know how much bread costs, so YAY! Look at what Camille wrote in Harmonie et Mélodie, “Like children, women have no idea of obstacles, and their willpower breaks all barriers. Mademoiselle Holmès is a woman, an extremist.”
A Short Paragraph For Rosalind Ellicott (1827-1824): It would be great to know a bit more about Rosalind Ellicott’s music but since she was essentially forgotten about most of her music was destroyed, or at least wasn’t preserved. I’d love to know more about what Charles Parry meant when he said that “handl[ed] her brass as if [she] had been at it for twenty years”! Ominous. Suggestive. And the end. Of that paragraph, anyway.
Hedwige Chretien: now firstly what an awesome name. You only have to look at a picture of her to know that this lady was self-assured as from the sounds of it, she was simply AMAZING at what she did. Records tell us that she wrote over 150 works, from opera and ballet to chamber music and was appointed a Professor by the Paris Conservatory. We also know from the program of Concert de Chambre Hebdomadaire that in 1881 she was the first place winner in competition categories for fugue, harmony, counterpoint, piano AND composition. Unfortunately, once again, that is pretty much all that is know of her. Other than these objective sort of ‘facts’, no one seemed to have been interested enough to find out about her life and write about her at the time, or really afterwards. At least some one managed to protect her scores, and these are preserved in archives in the US.
Susie Frances Harrison, born 1859, is thought to be the first ever woman to write a string quartet in Canada. Like many female composers she began writing under a pseudonym- ‘Medusa’. I mean I reckon it must have taken confidence to send that to a publisher! Indeed some of her work was published, including the poems and novels she also wrote, but preliminary research suggest it is ALL OUT OF PRINT now. Some works were never published, and you guessed it, no one bothered preserving them. Like many other women I’ve mentioned, distinguished contemporary scholars proclaimed that she was something special, but appears that no one was listening. I for one would have thought that her two novels would have gained some attention with their subject matter apparently centring around horror, madness, aristocratic seigneurial manor houses, and decadent Catholicism…
I definitely should be cooking food for my family not because I’m being oppressed but because I am hungry as are my siblings and despite my sister’s GCSE in ‘Food Technology’ she can make various versions of a Key/Quay Lime Pie but not much else. My brother is ten an he wants to make baked potatoes filled with cheese and sausages with the remaining potato mashed on the side. This will not be happening, not because I want to restrain his culinary creativity but because we have none of the required ingredients or energy today. So, I’lll leave you with a couple more for extra goodness: Cornelie van Oosterzee was the only woman to enter Heinrich Urban’s Master School of Instrumental Composers in Berlin and to top this she was awarded Knight of Order of Oranje-Nassau in 1897. I must say I did not know that was possible, but there you go. A brief sad fact: EVEN LAURA LEMON USED A PSEUDONYM AND THAT’S AN AWESOME NAME. A brief set of happier facts: Despite travelling from Boston to Munich to study, Margaret Lang was still barred from entering the Conservatory which didn’t allow women to take counterpoint lessons until 1889, she managed to become the first woman ever to have her composition performed by an American symphony orchestra and on top of that, holds the record for the longest consecutive subscription holder at the Boston Symphony Orchestra (91 years!)
There you go! Hope you found that interesting, enjoyable and at any rate better than Davey C.