George Henderson was born in Scotland many years ago and has been creating music in New Zealand since the mid-1970s and releasing it fitfully since the mid-80s, mainly as The Puddle. In this our 21st Century he has taken a renewed interest in his so-called art and released a string of Puddle albums on his brother/drummer Ian’s Fishrider label. George also writes and records for/asThe New Existentialists. After correcting various self-induced health problems including those most characteristic of that occupation, he now works at PreKure. You can tweet him or read his views on the Twitter by checking him at @puddleg
“Where has this music been all my life?” On women composers in the 20th Century
By George Henderson
“Where has this music been all my life?” Amy Beach (1867 – 1944)
I own perhaps a hundred recordings of classical music, bought in op shops and second-hand shops over the past few years for as little as a few cents per disc. Until a few weeks ago, only two of these were of works by a female composer – Jenny McLeod’s soundtrack to The Silent One on LP, and her Rock Concerto on CD. I bought these because I saw the Silent One on late-night TV years ago and fell in love with its soundtrack – and if you don’t hear something you won’t know if you’ll love it or not. But at $1 a pop, you can take a risk. I’ve long been aware that I was missing female composers and wondered if they existed in the “Modern History” era of music I care about. I knew Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelsohn composed, but the music of their era interests me less and nothing about their works, listened to on YouTube or the odd radio show, had stuck.
But the other day I was op-shopping in Richmond Road and saw a 2-CD set of late romantic piano concertos. That’s my era, but the romantic piano concerto is an over-supplied item, so I could have left it, but noticed a woman’s name among the contents – Mrs H.H.A. Beach. That seemed to promise something stuffy and Victorian, but I had to give it a listen. And what a marvellous creation Amy Marcy Cheney Beach’s piano concerto is – I have listened to it over and over, in the car, in bed falling asleep, and find myself following the action from start to finish – Beach is a storyteller. I researched her history and learned that Amy Beach was a successful composer in her lifetime, honoured until her death – books were written about her during her life – but forgotten soon after. On the same CD there’s a concerto by Edward McDowell that is also brilliant, from a similar time and place, with a similar reputation; this allows us to perform a comparison in which all variables other than sex are controlled as well as possible. McDowell’s 2nd piano concerto has been recorded 20 times between 1934 and 2002, according to Wikipedia which has probably missed a few. Beach’s concerto has been recorded 3 times, and one of those recordings is the one I added to Wikipedia, the first recording in 1976 by Maria Louise Boehm, who rediscovered the concerto that year. Boehme (who died in 2002) says in the liner notes that whenever she performs the piece people ask her “where has this music been all my life?” Where, indeed.
Amy Beach was as prodigious a talent as music has seen, learning 40 songs by the age of one, composing piano music in her head by the age of four, you get the picture. Later in life she recorded bird song and folksong melodies to inspire her composition. She was a piano virtuoso and, like many virtuosi, wrote the concerto as a showcase for her talents, but added a great deal more to it. The melodies are based on earlier song settings of poems by her husband, a successful Boston surgeon, and, according to Beach’s modern biographer Adrienne Fried Block, the concerto is a commentary on her relationship with her husband and the mother who had married her off at the age of 18. Dr Beach, like many husbands of female musicians in the olden days, extracted from Amy the promise that she would not tour on the concert circuit, unseemly for a married woman, but could instead focus on her composition. This was a better deal than that offered most earlier female composers, who were discouraged from composing if they married, and while Amy chafed, she made the most of it, despite the presence of her mother, who had moved in with the newlyweds and sat with her daughter as she composed, knitting or interrupting her as she saw fit. Now, Sergei Prokofiev, a prodigy at a similarly young age, took his mother with him wherever he travelled, but is unlikely to have let her stay in the room while he worked – besides, Sergei’s mother was doting and nurturing of his talents to an exceptional degree, whereas Amy’s was a Calvinist who had tried to restrict her access to the piano. While American male composers of the era like McDowell studied in Europe, hobnobbed with Liszt and Brahms, and so on, Beach, forbidden this experience, had taught herself composition in America, translating classic works on orchestration by Berlioz and others into English as she went.
Dr Beach died in 1910 and Amy’s mother passed away soon after – after she recovered from this loss, Beach was finally able to tour Europe, where she played her concerto to critical acclaim, fleeing Belgium during the German invasion of 1914 then returning to Europe after the War to praise Mussolini in the press, as celebrities did in those days. When she died in 1944, Beach was both internationally famous and comfortably-off; the first successful woman composer of art music in the USA.
And yet, the 1900 concerto which is her masterpiece wasn’t recorded till 1976, when it was rediscovered by a female musician…
“Girl conducts symphony” – Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940)
Once I discovered Amy Beach, something interesting happened. As I listened through the rest of her work on YouTube, the algorithms kicked in. A lot of bad things get said about algorithms – why did we ever grant AI the freedom of speech we deny ourselves? – but sometimes the system works, and other female composers started to appear in my recommended videos. Classical music YouTube is a different world in any case – long threads of respectful comments like you wouldn’t believe, a model of what the internet could be if the world was more civilised. Choosing music by its date, I stumbled onto the works of Czech composer-conductor Vítězslava Kaprálová (the stress falls on the second “a”), a futuristic fusion of post-romanticism, modernism, neo-classicism, jazz, and Moravian tunefulness. Kaprálová’s story has everything – triumph and tragedy, home and exile, love and Nazis – if it is ever made into even a half-decent film it will win all the year’s Oscars.
Czechoslovakia, as a new democracy embodying the Liberal ideals of the inter-war era, was perhaps the ideal place for a young girl with musical talent and ambition to grow up in – Kaprálová’s father, a piano virtuoso, had been a student of Leos Janáček, the great Czech original many of whose works, such as the first string quartet called “The Kreutzer Sonata” and the operas based on the naturalistic plays of Gabriela Preissová, carried a feminist message. She studied music, a double major in composing and conducting, at the Prague Conservatory and after graduating at the top of her class, age 20, conducted the first movement of her Piano Concerto, a glowing, unusually retro earworm of a concerto with echoes of Rachmaninov and Korngold. The next year she conducted the concerto in full with the Brno Radio Orchestra.
On each occasion the piano part was played by her friend Ludvik Kundera, father of the novelist; secure in her role as composer and conductor, she seems never to have performed her several piano works herself in concert. Czech contemporaries described Kaprálová conducting “as energetically as a man and with the certainty that was a spontaneous exercise of self-confidence” – the word “courage” occurs often in these early reviews, and is a quality Kaprálová herself thought essential to her work. Most of her composing, before and after the Concerto, was in a modernist idiom, yet more accessible at first hearing than the work of her peers, composers like Bartok and Berg – to my ears she seems to have synthesised the modernist, romantic and neo-classical ideas of her musical zeitgeist with clear tastefulness and not a little humour, rather than making a virtue of difficulty or dissonance.
She also has a wonderfully succinct quality; the songs are short and bitter-sweet. Her story is bound with the fate of her beloved country; 1937 and the growing Nazi threat saw her begin studying in Paris; on a trip back to Prague she met the preeminent Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů before the premiere of his opera Julietta; 25 years her senior, already married, Martinů became obsessed with both Kaprálová and her music, dedicating his 5th string quartet to her, becoming her teacher and soulmate, as well as a timely advocate on her behalf. Together they travelled to London in June 1938 for the International Society of Contemporary Music, where Kaprálová, or “the little girl conductor” as the English newspapers called her, opened proceedings by conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in her Military Sinfonietta, a work dedicated to Czech president Dr. Benes “which the programme carefully explained was in no way militaristic”. Her performance was filmed for television, and part of the program was sent by short-wave to the USA and rebroadcast by CBS. The great British symphonist Havergal Brian was present and reviewed the Military Sinfonietta as “an amazing piece of orchestral writing: it was also of logical and well-balanced design.”
On the 27th September 1938 the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain would describe the Czechoslovakians as “a people of whom we know nothing”, as Hitler prepared to occupy the Sudetenland.
Kaprálová become an exile in Paris after the Nazi invasion of her homeland, which for a time ceased to exist as a country, living on scant commissions and at one point receiving help from Dr Benes. Realising that Martinů would never divorce his wife, she married a man her own age, the Czech playwright Jiri Mucha, son of the painter, whose second wife, Geraldine Thomson Mucha, would also be a composer. Two weeks later, Kaprálová became seriously ill, at the age of 25, possibly from typhoid misdiagnosed as the miliary tuberculosis recorded on her death certificate. Evacuated to Montpelier on the Mediterranean coast, she died two days after the Germans entered Paris. Her last words, describing the music she heard as she lay dying, were “it is Julietta”.
At her death, Vítězslava Kaprálová left some 50 compositions, under 25 opus numbers, including a large number of very distinctive art songs, and several chamber works and larger orchestral compositions. A strong voice at a young age, she created a lot in her short life that is perfect, unique, interesting, and satisfying enough to be durable. Kaprálová was equipped not only to write great music, but, as a conductor, to be seen to do so, and to act as an arbiter of taste – in other words, to become a public figure and a household name.
She was not forgotten in her native land, the Czech composer and violinist Milos Sokola (1913-1972) composing Variace na tema Vitezslavy Kapralove (Variations on a Theme by Vitezslava Kapralova) in 1940, to be performed in 1957. Nor is she forgotten elsewhere – the Kapralova Society, based in Canada, promotes her music and that of other female composers, and a “once over lightly” treatment of her music and story made a welcome recent appearance in season 3 of the TV series Mozart in the Jungle.
If we encounter sexism in the silence of Amy Beach, it is not obvious in Vítězslava Kaprálová’s story – instead we have the bad luck of an early death. Two other female composers who should have been serious contenders also died in their 20’s – Lili Boulanger (1893 – 1918) and Morfydd Llwyn Owen (1891-1918).
“A good performance of her music” – Grace Williams (1906-1977)
It is something of a relief to turn to a female composer who gets her due in Mark Morris’s indispensable guide The Pimlico Dictionary of 20th Century Composers, and one who succeeded in being prolific. Grace Mary Williams was a Welsh composer who wrote often in a restless strain of Celtic romanticism, beautiful and ecstatic. Somewhat like the idiom of Arnold Bax or Ralph Vaughan Williams (who was her teacher) to begin with, but soon developed in ways that are highly individual and seeded with references to welsh folk song melody and, after 1955, Welsh song design, attractive music with little to date it for an age where the late romantic idiom is being rediscovered by composers and audiences alike. In fact, I might digress here to speculate that the music of 20th C women composers will become more and more popular precisely because so few of them fell into the Emperor’s new clothes trap of dodecaphony and the other over-sold but inadequately musical trends in composition that cost male composers their mass audience and eventually undermined their self-confidence during the second half of the 20th C. Experimental scales and intervals do frequently appear in Williams’ writing, but are used for effect where appropriate, not as a system. Perhaps the rainbow didn’t end with Richard Strauss after all – fit that in your canon.
(Fashion is thus likely a third factor in the neglect of music written by women; it’s notable that I haven’t been able to unearth a single female composer from Germany or Austria, the epicentres of 20th century music theory).
Williams père was an amateur director of choral music and an unconventional pedagogue who taught his musical family to learn music notation solely by allowing them unlimited access to his library of music scores and recordings. In 1926, already showing enough talent as a composer to win the scholarship created in Morfydd Owen’s name, his daughter moved to London where she attended the Royal College of Music – her teachers included Vaughan Williams, who encouraged his female students, who included Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994), Dorothy Gow (1893-1982), and Imogen Holst (1907-1984), to meet frequently to hear and criticise each other’s works. Maconchy in particular remained a close friend and correspondent for the rest of William’s life. In 1930, Williams won the prestigious RCM Octavia Travelling Scholarship, enabling her to complete her training in Vienna with composer Egon Wellesz; the influence of Mahler and Strauss that can sometimes be detected in her later work can be traced back to encounters in Vienna.
Williams destroyed most of her earliest works; Sea Sketches from 1944 was the first piece to show her mature style – said to be the most honest portrayal of the sea in music, its alternatively turbulent, swaying, surging opening is the sea as it is, and not the sea as anyone but the most windswept romantic – say, Shelley on his last day – would want to sail on. Living in London during wartime rationing and post-war austerity on the earnings of a music student wore down William’s health and optimism (Owen, Boulanger and Kaprálová had all died in wartime) but a return to her parents’ home in Barry in 1947 restored her energy and she worked, and became a successful composer, in Wales thereafter. In 1948 she became possibly the first woman anywhere, and certainly the first in Britain, to score a film, “Blue Scar” (dir. Jill Craigie), set in a Welsh mining village. Her Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1950) is a meltingly beautiful, sunset coloured work, among the best of its type, with hints of Strauss in the first movement and Prokofiev in the scherzo. Penillion, a symphonic poem from 1955, shows a further progression as the orchestra emulates the progress of Welsh vocal improvisation, with the orchestral instruments (including her favourite, the trumpet) taking the place of harp and singers. From this period onwards Williams based her writing on Welsh speech patterns (similar to Janáček, who had based his melodies on Czech speech patterns); as a result of such practice she was one of the few composers to be able to turn the poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins into art songs. Grace Williams was offered an Order of the British Empire for her services to music in 1966 but turned it down – a good performance of her music, she said, meant more to her than a decoration.
There may have been more meaning in this comment than appears at first sight. By the time I became familiar with Grace William’s music, I was getting a bit annoyed; though it has all been performed, there are far fewer studio recordings than there should be, which helps to explain why I’ve never seen them in second-hand shops. The problem seems to lie in what record companies and orchestras choose to record, with an eye on the bottom line, which is what the public have always bought, which is of course also what they’ve always heard, which is the male composers, even if it’s some piece of music that’s been recorded twenty or a hundred times already. The radio stations are a bit harder to explain – Radio New Zealand is practically a hot bed of feminist agitation, yet the RNZ concert program struggled to get Amy Beach on the playlist on Suffrage Day last year last year, with a correspondent responding to the rather mild explanation of her Piano Concerto given above with “Please don’t use Suffrage Day as a chance for more anti male propaganda. We get enough of that from RNZ NATIONAL and RNZ ‘news’ without having it rammed down our throats by presenters on CONCERT FM (sic). Have a great day.”
When I complied 2 hours of works by 20th century female composers for The Audible World show on 95bFM recently, I realised that this was more of such music than I could find in a week (168 hours) of RNZ Concert playlists.
My suggestion is, just add the works recommended below regularly to the usual programming on all the usual days. If necessary, start after midnight where there are no announcers. Listeners – even the grumpy correspondent, I reckon – will love them. There is indeed a lot to be said about these works, but it can be said later – the music is what we’ve been missing.
Piano Concerto in C# Minor (1900)
Piano Quintet Op. 67 (1907)
Theme and variations for flute and string quartet (1916)
January for Voice, Piano, Flute, Two Violins and Cello (1933)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1935)
Military Sinfonietta (1937)
Partita for piano and Strings (1939)
Sea Sketches (1944)
Violin Concerto (1950)
Penillion (1955) – credit where due, I’ve heard this on RNZ
Lili Boulanger (note there a couple of good items on Lili at the RNZ Concert website.)
Pie Jesu (1918)
Vieille Prière Bouddhique (1917)
D’un Matin de Printemps (1917)
D’un Soir Triste (1918)
Florence Price (1887-1953) (See Alex Ross’s New Yorker article)
Violin Concerto No. 2 (1952)
Morfydd Llwyn Owen
Nocturne for orchestra in D flat major (1913)
There are plenty of others, but you’ll need to discover them for yourselves!
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