Scotsman magazine article about Women and the Piano

20th April 2024 | Books | 1 comment

Today’s Scotsman magazine (20 April 2024) has an article by music critic David Kettle about my book Women and the Piano. As the online version is behind a paywall on the The Scotsman website, I thought I’d quote it here:

‘The irony is inescapable. I’m a middle-aged, middle-class white man, writing about the new book by Edinburgh-born and -based pianist and writer Susan Tomes, Women and the Piano. But that’s a conscience-pricking situation entirely in line with what Tomes describes.

‘Her book is at once a celebration of female pianists from the 18th through to the 20th centuries, and a work of sadness and anger – at how these figures’ eventful lives and breathtaking achievements have been largely erased from musical history, and at how much more they might have achieved given the support, encouragement and understanding doled out without question to their male counterparts.

‘“The whole thing did make me feel quite sad, actually, when I was researching and writing it,” Tomes admits. “I quickly became aware of how many disadvantages women in the past were labouring under. I guess the situation is improving, but I don’t think we’ve quite solved these problems yet.”

‘Not that Women and the Piano is a book of furious polemics. Its tone is one of joyful rediscovery and recognition, across 50 biographies of 50 colourful musicians – from the more familiar Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, even Nina Simone, through to pianists we barely remember today. “I realised it was probably a bit of a public service to bring some of them into the spotlight,” Tomes continues. “The scary thing is how well known some of these women were in their own lifetimes. Like Sophie Menter, whose fans were so enthusiastic that they unhitched the horses and insisted on pulling her carriage themselves. Or Nancy Weir in Australia, who was so admired that people would try to touch her dress as she was walking down the street.”

‘While full of fascinating, often poignant detail, her succinct biographies also serve to paint a rounded picture of a musical world that’s full of familiar figures and events, but which feels like it’s had the bits that are usually left out put back in.

‘Tomes bookends her vivid pen portraits with more general considerations of issues around women making music, not least the need to struggle through a system very much defined by men, and attempts to overcome deeply rooted prejudices, biases and assumptions. She also takes the temperature of female pianism today, revealing findings of interviews with several current women pianists – whose words are anonymised, allowing them to speak freely without fear of harming their careers.

‘One observation is the difficulty of finding solidarity in a business that’s so deeply competitive. “I did get the sense that each person was feeling somewhat alone,” Tomes says. “They’re all competing for the same opportunities, but I did have the sense that each woman felt she was carrying on a lonely battle against these obstacles.” Competitions themselves – those high-profile public contests of pianistic prowess so crucial for young pianists’ early success – are another area that Tomes investigates with rigour and frankness, as well as the unspoken expectations that their winners will be (and almost always are) male.

‘Nonetheless, things are changing. “I had an email from someone who runs a concert series in England,” Tomes continues, “and he told me that after reading the book he’d realised he was one of the gatekeepers I was talking about, which made him reflect on the way he’d chosen his performers – and the fact that most of them were men.” She’s also been playing recitals devoted entirely to women composers herself (many of the figures she describes in her book blended pianism and composing), and setting well-known male composers in the context of their lesser-known female relations: Robert and Clara Schumann, for example, or Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

‘But these figures are just the tip of the iceberg –  the ones with the determination and resilience to have struggled against the obstacles. How many more remain unrecognised, and how much potential was left unrealised? “I did realise that I was writing about the feisty ones,” Tomes agrees.’

1 Comment

  1. Mary Cohen

    So good that this book is being reviewed by men, who are having to face facts about how famous, successful women have been ‘airbrushed out’ so consistently.


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