Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Fugitive pieces

It took me longer that normal to get through Anna Beer's new book Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. This isn't because of any defect in Beer's writing. Just the opposite: each chapter sends me off discovering a new composer, which gets me immersed in new worlds of music, history, sociology and gender politics. Beer begins with a couple of 17th century Italian composers, each of whom managed to build significant musical careers through talent and shrewd politics. Here's a superb canzonetta by Francesca Caccini called "S'io men vò" ("If I leave"), an assertion of female power. It's beautifully sung by Canadian soprano Shannon Mercer.

This music is clearly as advanced as anything else being produced in Florence in the first half of the 17th century. Caccini's gifts as a singer and a father who was a fine composer in his own right were two advantages, but there were minefields of class and gender and local politics that Francesca had to navigate before she was able to attain some measure of success. Caccini's body of works isn't as large as it should be, nor was she able to completely fulfil her potential, but what we have is really remarkable, and it's showing up in a significant recording legacy today.

A few decades later Barbara Strozzi walked her own fine line to win some (fleeting) fame and modest fortune in Monteverdi's Venice. All of Strozzi's obstacles and her hard-won triumphs are entertainingly detailed by Beer. This is fine story-telling based on significant primary and secondary scholarship. Here is the extraordinary aria Lagrime Mie, from Strozzi's 1659 cantata Diporti di Euterpe. It's telling that this pupil of Francesco Cavalli can match this aria against the best works of her teacher.

Of the other composers in Beer's book, my personal favourite is Clara Wieck Schumann, whose reputation is growing as her compositions become more widely known. Nearly shouldered out of the music books altogether by Robert Schumann on the one hand, and Johannes Brahms on the other, Clara's music dovetails so easily into her husband's, but there's a distinctive voice here. This lovely Larghetto (played with great sensitivity by Cristina Ortiz) is from the four Pieces Fugitives she wrote in 1840. Fugitive pieces is a fitting title for music by all eight of the composers in this book. Whether they were mansplained or ignored or openly despised, these strong-willed renegades kept their heads down and produced excellent, sometimes great music that deserves more attention. Sounds and Sweet Airs is a major step in bringing these outlaws into the light.

It was a bit of a disappointment that there is little mention of composers after Elizabeth Maconchy, who died in 1994, and stopped writing music in 1985. I understand that even the eight chosen composers
Caccini (born in 1587)
Jacquet de la Guerre
Maconchy (died in 1994)
represent a huge historical range to master with Beer's high scholarly standards. But I hope that the popularity of Beer's book makes people aware of women composers other than the Anna Beer Eight (Grazyna Bacewicz for one), and especially composers alive and working today: like Lydia KakabadseKate MooreSadie Harrison and Cristina Spinei. Listening to Ladies is a great place to go for more information.

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