Women composers on the A-level syllabus

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 August 2015 under Daily Life, Musings  •  3 Comments

17-year-old Jessy McCabe’s petition for more women composers to be  on the A-level music syllabus has been in the news today. It has generated quite a lot of interest and discussion, too. Good for her.

The Independent asked if I had any comments to add, and some of my observations are included in their article (to appear in the paper on Thursday 20 August).

If only there were a simple way to remedy the lack of women composers on the A-level syllabus! But the whole issue is extremely complex, as ‘gender studies’ experts keep reminding us. Women have often composed, but their music has equally often been suppressed by societies which believed it was not women’s ‘proper sphere’ to be creating works of music when they could be minding the children, cooking the dinner, supervising the servants, entertaining their husbands’ friends and business associates, or merely looking decorative. Even fathers, mothers and brothers conspired to convince young female would-be composers that it was unacceptable for a women to ‘expose herself to comment on the platform’, to borrow Oscar Wilde’s phrase. Composing great music takes time, dedication, support of various kinds, and the ability to work peacefully for long periods, undisturbed by demands and distractions. This has hardly ever been possible for women, either then or now.

It’s often pointed out that there are great women writers of past centuries, but writing novels is a little different from writing music. Writing a book is usually a private activity, to be read in private too. Music on the other hand is often written to be performed publicly, sometimes by large numbers of musicians in front of large audiences. That takes the composer into a public realm not considered seemly for women in previous eras.

It wasn’t really until the 19th century that women could begin to hope to have their music published and performed publicly. I’ve learned that Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, was a fine composer but was discouraged by her own family from developing her skills, and in any case she had to give up composing when she married a widower and became responsible for looking after his children. Supposing that Nannerl was in any way as talented as her brother Wolfgang, it’s sad to think about what we’ve lost there.

In Robert Schumann’s diaries there’s an entry where he writes, apparently without irony, that his young wife Clara was really a very promising composer, but unfortunately would not be able to develop her talent because of her domestic duties and responsibilities, ‘as she well knows’.

In 1891 the editor of ‘The Women’s Journal’ tackled the issue of why there were no great female composers. Her comments seem unanswerable, and still depressingly relevant today:

‘When women have had for several centuries the same advantages of liberty, education and social encouragement in the use of their brains that men have, it will be right to argue their mental inferiority if they have not produced their fair share of genius. But it is hardly reasonable to expect women during a few years of half liberty and half education to produce at once specimens of genius equal to the choicest men of all ages.’

The changing status of reviews

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 August 2015 under Concerts, Musings, Reviews  •  4 Comments

The news that Alex Ross is now the only full-time classical music critic on an American magazine has got me thinking about the changing status of reviews.

Gone are the days when an ‘important’ concert would routinely be reviewed by all the major papers. When I was a young professional I used to walk down to a newsagent’s shop on the morning after a big concert – yes, on the very morning after a concert! – to see what the critics had made of my or my group’s performance. I rifled secretly through the arts pages to see how many papers were worth buying. Often they were all worth buying.

Reviews were very useful as ‘calling cards’ to attract the interest of promoters, festival directors, grant-making bodies and so on. We used to keep stacks of photocopied reviews and send them around. In a profession where there’s no straightforward way to prove your credentials, reviews were the best way we knew.

With the advent of the internet, music websites sprang up and offered their own reviews. Sometimes those were the only reviews of one’s concert. But managers were very snooty about ‘web’ reviews. We were told not to bother sending ‘links’ because ‘nobody would take them seriously’. I remember applying for a foreign work visa and being told that only hard copies of reviews in prestigious newspapers were acceptable proof that one had some reputation as a performer.

That was fine when there were plenty of newspaper reviews to send. But then press coverage of classical concerts started to dwindle at an alarming rate. A year might go by with lots of concerts but no newspaper reviews at all. Debut concerts, premieres and fiendishly clever programming (usually guarantees of press interest) were no longer routinely reviewed. Newspaper reviews sometimes took three, four, five days to appear, by which time everyone had sort of lost interest. Links started to take the place of hard copy reviews.

Now it’s often said that ‘everyone is a critic’. People voice their opinions on blogs, Twitter and Facebook and more. At the time of writing, however, I’m not aware that any arts manager or festival director would take seriously a review or a complimentary remark posted online by marmaladegirl82, dolphins’R’us or the ProppingUpTheBar blog (to make up some examples). We seem to be in a phase where, in the absence of ‘proper’ newspaper reviews, high-status online reviews are acceptable, but punters’ comments are not.

Where’s it all going? Nobody knows for sure. Soon a festival director may merely need to know that your performance garnered 5,347 ‘likes’ on Facebook.

Pitch rolling

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 July 2015 under Concerts, Musings  •  3 Comments

I went to a concert recently (I won’t say where or when). In the group was an older musician playing quite a prominent role on a string instrument. Unfortunately his control of pitch had become unreliable. He was smiling and concentrating, trying to play the right notes, but couldn’t manage it. The pitch wavered all over the place, sometimes horribly sharp, sometimes disturbingly flat. The other players either tried to ignore it or found themselves pulled into its giddy orbit. It was unsettling to watch and listen to.

I happened to know players in the group, and I asked them afterwards if it wasn’t a difficult situation. They explained that it was, but that they didn’t know what to do about it. The player concerned was well respected and had been with them for ages. He was popular with audiences too. His colleagues realised that being a performing musician was still tremendously important to him, in some ways more so than ever. But they were beginning to notice some puzzled expressions on the faces of some of their listeners, and  when the tuning went haywire it was an effort not to show the strain.

Usually musicians themselves are the first to worry about any perceived loss of skills or judgement. They’re famously reluctant to ask for help, and probably step back before they really need to. But then there are others who, for all kinds of reasons, plough on. They may simply need the money. They may feel it’s vital for their mental health to cling on to music and music-making. Sometimes their very difficulties (hearing or otherwise) make it hard to assess the impact of their playing on the rest of the group.

Fellow musicians are all too aware that someone’s hearing problems may have been caused by playing for too long in a noisy environment – next to noisy brass or percussion instruments, for example, or to over-loud amplification. Sufferers may feel that their difficulties are no fault of theirs, and should in all fairness be tolerated by those who know the occupational hazards of this particular workplace. And their colleagues are sympathetic, because they do know the hazards, and sometimes wonder if they themselves will succumb.

So it becomes a question of musical standards versus human needs. In a democratic group there’s no HR manager to step in, rulebook in hand, and deal with the problem in some remote office. Every independent group has to grapple with the situation themselves. Some might ruthlessly get rid of a failing player ‘for the sake of the music’. Others might carry on out of friendship or indecision, until critics and audiences begin to voice their concern openly. Audiences might in fact be tolerant for quite a long time, especially if they have been following the group’s fortunes. But if the musician seems oblivious to the problem, who should eventually tackle it with them? Nobody wants to be the fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread.

25 years of the Cerne Abbas Festival

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 July 2015 under Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

DSC02579Just back from the 25th anniversary festival run by the Gaudier Ensemble in the lovely old Dorset village of Cerne Abbas (in the photo I’m rehearsing a Mozart piano concerto with (from L to R) Marieke Blankestijn, Lesley Hatfield, Iris Juda, Steve Williams and Christoph Marks. I think I’m right in saying they are veterans of all 25 years of the festival, whereas I have been taking part for a mere 23 years.

During the 25 years of the festival, the core members of the ensemble have fanned out across Europe and now have jobs and families in Austria, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Italy as well as the UK. To give just one example of the quality of players: there are currently four leaders of European symphony orchestras playing violin in the group. There are half a dozen orchestral principals, too, such as artistic director Richard Hosford, principal clarinet in both the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. There are guest artists, music students and local schoolchildren involved in different concerts. All this makes it far too complicated and expensive to gather everyone together more than once a year. Rehearsal has to be done ‘in situ’ in the days running up to the festival. Musicians are matched with village residents willing to have them as house guests. This works amazingly well and often leads to lasting friendships.

The festival has been popular from the beginning, and already when I joined in there was talk of people joining the Friends’ Organisation so that they could get their hands on tickets before everything sold out. Even as a Friend it wasn’t easy for people to get exactly the tickets they wanted; over the years I heard of people driving to Cerne Abbas with their form to hand it in personally to the ‘box office’ (a long-suffering saintly resident of the village) on the first day of booking. One of the things I most like about the festival is seeing the same faces in the audience year after year. They are not all local faces, either: people come from other counties, even from other countries. This year I met a Dutch couple who happened upon the festival by chance while on holiday a decade ago, and have returned every year since.

Every summer when national newspapers publish their guide to ‘music festivals’, they ignore events like this, of which the UK is full. I’ve never been able to understand it, except as a non-supportive attitude towards classical music. In the past I’ve written to editors to complain and (more constructively) send in details of the festival programme. Silence follows, and as far as I know, the Cerne Abbas Music Festival has never been acknowledged in the mainstream press. Critics don’t come and the concerts are never broadcast, despite being a superb example of cross-Europe collaboration.

Sometimes it feels quite jolly to be involved in something that’s an ‘insider tip’. But given the press coverage accorded any pop festival which can assemble some mud and a field to camp in, it’s baffling that a musical success like the Cerne Abbas festival is still an insider tip after twenty-five years!

Edward Greenfield: a word of appreciation

Posted by Susan Tomes on 2 July 2015 under Books, Musings, Reviews  •  1 Comment

Sad news that Edward Greenfield has died. He was senior music critic of The Guardian for many years, and a longstanding contributor to Gramophone magazine. Although ‘Ted’ was a professional critic, it always seemed to me that he was determined to accentuate the positive, which marked him out from many of his peers.

I had particular reason to be grateful to Ted Greenfield when my first book, Beyond the Notes, was published. The book had had a long and painful journey towards publication. In fact it took ten years. A few well-wishers had encouraged me to publish the manuscript, but none of us knew what a difficult climate it was for ‘niche subjects’, a phrase I grew to hate. The manuscript did the rounds of several publishers, often being kept for months before it was returned. At one point a leading publisher kept it for over a year before returning it to me with the explanation that they were dropping classical music books entirely from their list as sales were just too low.

I was told that my manuscript wasn’t long enough for a book,  that classical music wasn’t interesting to enough people, that I wasn’t known as a writer, so nobody would buy it. I was told to add to it, but also recommended to prune it severely and publish it as a single article in a music magazine. One eminent literary agent told me it was more suited to private publication as a ‘family memoir’. It was only when one publisher commissioned a couple of reports, and those reports turned out to be glowing, that things started moving. Finally I was put in touch with the enterprising Boydell Press, who took a leap of faith and published it in 2004.

After so many setbacks, I felt painfully sensitive to the book’s reception, so when Ted Greenfield reviewed it for The Guardian I couldn’t have been more delighted and relieved. I inhaled his words. In fact, a decade later, I can still quote long passages from memory. Ted Greenfield and I didn’t know one another, so he had no reason to think that I needed a boost at that particular time, but he was the first major reviewer to give me a generous vote of confidence, and I shall never forget the good it did me.


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