Thursday, 20 October 2005

The Monstrous Regiment

This is a an abbreviation of the title of a misogynist 16th century tract by John Knox : The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

My own view, based on a lifetime’s observation, is that many women are really quite nice when you get to know them. And their achievements, considering the handicap under which they labour, have sometimes been most laudable; their contribution to literature, for example, cannot altogether be ignored.

I have fond memories of many happy hours spent cuddled up with (for example, wildly at random): Iris, Maeve, Joanna, Vera, Charlotte and Anne (not both at once), Ruth, various Margarets, Virginia, Antonia and many others including, in earlier years, a couple of Phyllises (Bottome and Bentley). I was never attracted to Jilly, Danielle or Barbara and thought Anita a bit depressing and Agatha and Dorothy unreadable, but this was not because of their gender. Never for a moment have I given credence to the theory that the incomparable Jane was actually a man (Arthur, according to some accounts).

In that field, then, there are many names to conjure with; in music, on the other hand, there are few. Dame Ethyl Smyth certainly had a conjurable moniker, but although she was apparently very big in Germany there cannot be many music lovers in whose experience her six operas have figured largely. (This is not to say that she was an uninteresting character: love affairs with Mrs Pankhurst, the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the wife of Queen Victoria’s private secretary, the wife of Brahms’ friend Heinrich von Herzogenberg, and Virginia Woolf; hunted, became mountaineer and bicyclist, had notorious rows with Adrian Boult and conducted the first performance of her own Suffragette Hymn with a toothbrush in Holloway prison. Even apart from her music, it was what you might call a full life.)

In the roll call of famous women composers, that seems to be about it, or so I believed until recently. Some friends who know about music pointed out gently that I should have been aware of (at least) Lily Boulanger, Judith Weir, Nicola LeFanu, and Elizabeth Lutyens, and I was duly ashamed.

On the other hand, I cannot feel that my ignorance of the music of the twelfth-century mystic and saint Hildegard von Bingen was particularly heinous.

In my defence, I suppose it depends on what you mean by famous: it must mean widely known, and not just among experts. Most lettered but not necessarily literary people could put surnames to many of the female authors I list above, which to my mind makes them famous. You couldn't say the same of Lily, Elizabeth, Judith and Nicola, let alone the blessed Hildegard: you'd have be quite a serious music-lover to have heard of them.

Then, the other day I tuned in by chance to a very agreeable piano trio that was unfamiliar to me; I thought it sounded a bit Schubertian or possibly Mendelssohnish. I wasn’t far out: it turned out to be by FANNY Mendelssohn. She was Felix’s sister; he was supportive (though their father wasn't) but she lived in his shadow and 'one can only speculate that had Fanny’s life not been short a number of other important compositions might well have been left to posterity. It may even be that recordings such as this will lead to the revival of other pieces by her that are currently held in the archives of the Prussian State Library'.

I took these comments from the sleeve note of the CD referred to, which I hope someone will give me for Christmas. It also has on it a piano trio by Clara Schumann, about whom I had also been shamefully ignorant. A reviewer wrote: 'I'm sure no-one would have been happier to find two such engaging performances side by side than the two ladies themselves'.


Froog said...

I agree that Hildegard isn't exactly famous, but I would say she's considerably less obscure than most of these other musical ladies you mention, and I'm surprised that such a music-lover as yourself had never heard of her.

If you're still living in ignorance of her music, you really should give it a try. It's exquisite stuff. If you like plainsong, that is.

Tony said...

Really? I'll take your word for it.