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'That no woman has ever been a great composer is an accepted fact;
that she is never likely to become so, more than a probability.'
So declared an anonymous writer in 1887 in The Musical Times. Such statements may seem laughable today but still raise some interesting questions about our own attitudes towards the musical canon. What is a ‘great’ composer? Does a composer have to have written large orchestral works to qualify as great? What do we really know about the women composers of this country and the music that they have written? This recording brings together an exciting collection of songs written by women over a period of a hundred and fifty years, starting at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
At the end of the eighteenth century, and the beginning of the nineteenth, there were many women working as professional musicians in Britain who also wrote and published their own compositions, such as pianist Jane Guest (c1765–c1830), harpist Sophia Dussek (1775–c1830) or the singer Maria Barthelemon (c1749–1799). Most of these women had parents who were musicians and were given a musical education so that they could enter the family business. Women from the upper classes were also given a musical education, since singing and playing the piano were seen as necessary accomplishments for any well-bred woman. But women from these classes could never venture outside the home and give public performances. At that time it was unthinkable that an upper class woman should have a career or earn money. Any kind of public appearance would have been seen as shameful, and this extended in many cases to publishing any music that such women might have written.
But throughout history there have been women who refused to do what was expected of them. During the first half of the nineteenth century more and more women from all classes began writing and publishing music. By the 1850s and ’60s many of the best-known and best-selling composers of songs and ballads were women. Song-writing became a genre that was particularly associated with women and several male composers even started publishing songs under female pseudonyms. There are many reasons why women should have been drawn to writing songs. In the nineteenth century most women’s access to the musical education needed to write complex large-scale works was very limited. Women could not receive music degrees from Oxford University until 1921. Although they were accepted as students at the conservatories and colleges of music, few women were encouraged to study composition. Positions in the church, in the universities and with orchestras were all closed to women. They were therefore excluded from many of the ways in which male composers gained both an income and important exposure to a wide range of musical experience. In a century where one of the main forms of family entertainment was the singing of songs round the piano, song-writing could be extremely profitable and sales of sheet music huge. Women who needed to make a living from composition would find that producing songs was the only way that writing music would bring them an adequate income. It has always been much easier to arrange a performance of a song than of an orchestral work. Without access to most of the networking opportunities of the musical establishment, many women found that the only works that they were likely to see performed were songs and piano pieces.
It is important to remember that a Victorian woman’s place was still firmly within the home. The image of such a woman was of someone pretty, gentle and unassuming and any music that she might write would be expected to mirror such ‘feminine’ qualities. Women should be writing simple, tuneful songs and not bombastic overtures or intricate sonatas. It was also widely believed that women’s brains did not have the same capacity as those of men and that they were actually incapable of the kind of creative thought needed for the composition of complex orchestral or chamber works. Although many women internalized such beliefs, there were also many women throughout the nineteenth century who refused to conform to expectations or give in to the lack of opportunities and continual rejection. These pioneering women, such as Kate Loder (1825–1904), Anne Mounsey Bartholomew (1811–1891), Alice Mary Smith (1839–1844) or Ethel Smyth (1858–1944), wrote music in a wide range of styles and genres. In doing so they paved the way for the many women who have built successful careers as professional composers in the twentieth century. But it is vital that the work of women who wrote songs is not dismissed. Some women composers have concentrated almost exclusively on song-writing, while others included songs among their works in different genres. Within the genre of song itself, women have written in a wide variety of styles and communicated a range of ideas and emotions. And, as this recording shows, they have produced a wealth of beautiful, powerful and absorbing music.
The real name of Miss L H of Liverpool is not known. Her song My Mother, published some time in the first decade of the nineteenth century, appears to be the only work by her to have survived. Many of the women who published their music at this time hid their identities behind a pseudonym or, as in this case, initials. In this way they brought no shame upon themselves or their families. My Mother was published by the Liverpool company Hime and Son, and it has been suggested that Miss L H was a member of this family. The verses that she set were taken from a longer poem by the poet Ann Taylor (1782–1866) whose better-known sister, the poet Jane Taylor, wrote Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
Caroline Norton (1808–1877) is probably better known as a writer and campaigner for legal reform than as a composer. She published her first book of poems, The Sorrows of Rosalie, in 1829 shortly after her marriage to George Norton and soon became well known as a writer, publishing other volumes of poetry and novels as well as contributing to a variety of magazines. The first songs that she published were issued in collections together with the work of her sister Helen, later Lady Dufferin. George Norton turned out to be a violent and abusive husband and in 1836 Norton left him. But as a woman she had no legal right to take her three sons with her. They remained with their father who refused to give them up. Norton then launched a fierce campaign to get the law changed, succeeding in 1839 when the Infant Custody Act was passed. She continued to write songs throughout her life, usually to her own poetry. Many of these songs became very popular and provided her with a very welcome source of income. Juanita was her most popular song and was written in 1851 for one of her sons to sing to the guitar.
Virginia Gabriel (1825–1877) came from an Irish military family and had a very thorough musical education. She studied the piano with Johann Pixis, Theodor Döhler and Sigismond Thalberg, and composition with the Italian opera composer Saverio Mercadante. Her earliest published song appears to have been printed in the mid-1830s when she was still a child. During the 1850s she wrote and published many elaborate piano pieces and songs to Italian and French texts. During the following two decades Gabriel’s songs and ballads to English texts became extremely popular. She also turned to writing operettas, with works such as Widows Bewitched (1865) and Lost and Found (1870), and cantatas, including Dream-Land (1870) and Evangeline (1873). She found it much harder to get these larger-scale works published, although her songs continued to be widely performed and published. Gabriel died at the age of fifty-two after a carriage accident. Her song Orpheus, to words from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, was written in the early 1860s.
The daughter of a Scottish MP, Annie Harrison (1851–1944) was publishing piano pieces, such as The Elfin Waltzes and Our Favourite Galop, by the age of thirteen. In 1877 she married Lord Arthur Hill, the commanding officer of the Second Middlesex Artillery, and continued to write and publish songs and piano pieces. She also wrote at least two operettas, The Ferry Girl and The Lost Husband. But none of her works achieved the remarkable popularity of In the gloaming which Harrison had written in 1877, just before her marriage. A setting of a poem by the Victorian poet Meta Orred, this song sold more than 140,000 copies between 1880 and 1889. It had reached a fiftieth edition by the mid-1890s and was still being issued in various arrangements in the 1950s.
During the 1880s and 1890s Maude Valérie White (1855–1937) was regarded as one of Britain’s leading song-writers, which makes it all the more extraordinary that her beautiful songs should be so neglected today. Educated as a child in England, Heidelberg and Paris, White spoke many different languages and spent much of her life travelling and living abroad, especially in Italy, a country she adored. She studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music with George Macfarren and in 1879 became the first woman to win the coveted Mendelssohn Scholarship. By the time she left the Academy in 1881, White’s songs were being published and performed at prestigious concerts all over London. She later took further composition lessons with Robert Fuchs in Vienna. Although both Macfarren and Fuchs tried to persuade her to write instrumental or orchestral music, White made a decision to concentrate on song-writing. In later years she did write some instrumental and orchestral music including a ballet, The Enchanted Heart, from which she arranged an orchestral suite at the request of Henry Wood. A projected Prom performance during 1915 fell through and the work does not seem to have been published or to have survived in manuscript. White’s many songs reflect her cosmopolitan life. She set an enormous range of poetry in many languages, including English, German, French, Swedish and Italian. Her musical style ranges from her early lieder-like settings to the impressionistic qualities of her later French settings, while always retaining her own distinct voice. Above all, White’s music always communicates her unfailing passion for beauty, love and for life itself. White’s ebullient setting of Tennyson’s poem The Throstle was written in 1890 while she was in the Pyrenees at the end of a seven-month tour of Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Germany and France with her sister Emmie.
The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, published in 1899, was to claim of White’s My soul is an enchanted boat that ‘it is not too much to say that the song is one of the best in our language’. White herself performed this setting of lines from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound at a private party in December 1882, but it was made famous by Edith Santley’s performances at the Monday Popular Concerts. In her memoirs White described her feelings about Shelley’s text: ‘The ethereal loveliness of the words affected me so strongly, they evoked a vision of such ideal beauty, such ineffable happiness, that a burning longing arose in me to capture if only one drop of that essence, to make that one drop my own – my very own. I longed to make a casket to enshrine those words – a casket of music …’
In 1882 White was sent some verses through the post by Walter Herries Pollock, a prolific writer who as well as writing poetry produced books on fencing, Jane Austen and Henry Irving. Impressed by the poem that he sent her, White set it to music. The resulting song, The Devout Lover, became one of her most popular songs, sung all over England by Charles Santley. White’s haunting setting of Byron’s lyric So we’ll go no more a-roving became particularly associated with the singer Gervase Elwes. Roger Quilter wrote of standing with friends outside a room in which Elwes was singing this song and ‘how they were all perfectly unmanned’. In her memoirs White described travelling in Italy in the early spring of 1888 and a carriage drive to Sorrento in the middle of the night: ‘I shall never forget that drive, that exquisite drive along the mountain road, that exquisite view across the dark blue bay that lay spread beneath its canopy of stars! … the soft wind blew the delicious smell of orange blossoms towards us – the delicious smell that conjures up visions of the South so magically and fills the lover of the south with such unspeakable nostalgia! It was after that drive that, some weeks later, shut up in a room in London, I wrote So we’ll go no more a-roving.’
Teresa Del Riego (c1876–1968) was educated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart and the Central College of Music in London. She wrote her first song at the age of twelve and went on to write over three hundred more which were sung by the best-known singers of the day, including Emma Albani, Clara Butt, Gervase Elwes and Nellie Melba. Her most popular song was O dry those tears which sold 23,000 copies within six weeks of its publication in 1901. Another extremely successful song by del Riego was Homing, to words by Arthur Salmon, published in 1917, the year that her husband Francis Graham Leadbitter died in France. Del Riego wrote Slave Song in 1899, setting a poem by E Nesbit, the writer best known for her children’s books such as Five Children and It and The Railway Children. Slave Song soon became popular and was reissued in several arrangements including versions for female vocal trio and cello and piano.
Liza Lehmann’s father was the painter Rudolf Lehmann and her mother wrote music under the pseudonym ‘A L’. Lehmann (1862–1918) made her professional debut as a singer in 1885 and spent the next nine years singing at concerts all over Britain, often including her own songs in her recitals. In 1894 she married Herbert Bedford and, like most women of the time, gave up appearing in public. But this enabled her to concentrate on composition, something that she had wanted to do for a long time. Shortly after her marriage Lehmann wrote her most famous work, In a Persian Garden, a setting for four singers and piano of verses from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. The work was initially refused by publishers for being too difficult and involving too many singers. But a private performance given in 1896 was given an enthusiastic review by Hermann Klein in The Sunday Times where he described it as ‘a composition of very remarkable merit … the music was quite a revelation – not of mere talent, but of unsuspected power and variety of expression, of depth of melodic charm and technical resource’. In a Persian Garden soon became a huge success and was sung all over Britain and the United States. Lehmann went on to produce a wide variety of vocal music including cantatas, operas and operettas, songs as well as song cycles both for solo and for several voices, a genre that she did much to popularize in Britain. In 1904 she became the first woman to be commissioned to write a musical comedy, Sergeant Brue. This was a great success, playing in London for nine months. Lehmann made a distinction between her ‘serious’ music and her more popular work and grew increasingly frustrated by the demands of the public and her publishers for music in her lighter style. She was particularly disappointed by the lack of success of her opera Everyman, performed by Beecham’s Opera Company in 1915. Nevertheless Lehmann was one of the most respected women composers of her time, becoming the first president of the Society of Women Musicians in 1911.
Lehmann’s setting of Shelley’s A widow bird sate mourning was included in her Album of Nine English Songs, published by Boosey in 1895. The tenor solo Ah, moon of my delight from In a Persian Garden, also written in 1895, was extremely popular and widely sung as a solo song. The Lily of a Day, Lehmann’s setting of words by Ben Jonson, has never been published. It was probably a late song, written after the tragic death of her son Rudolph in March 1916. Lehmann set the Edwardian writer Frances M Gostling’s poem, Thoughts have wings, in 1909, the same year that she wrote her settings of Hilaire Belloc, Four Cautionary Tales and a Moral. This witty cycle for two voices and piano was first performed by Clara Butt and her husband Robert Kennerley Rumford in the Royal Albert Hall. Lehmann directs the story of Henry King ‘to be sung in a snivelling manner; much overcome’ while the story of Charles Augustus Fortescue provides the final moral.
Born in Chile where her father was the British Consul, Amy Woodforde-Finden (1860–1919) studied music with Adolph Schloesser and Amy Horrocks. Sometime in the early 1890s she travelled in India where she met and married Lieutenant-Colonel Woodforde-Finden of the Bengal Cavalry. At the turn of the century Woodforde-Finden returned to England and it was here that she wrote her most famous work, Four Indian Love Lyrics. These were settings of four poems from The Garden of Kama by Laurence Hope, the pseudonym of Adela Florence Nicolson who was also married to an officer in the Bengal Cavalry. Unable to interest publishers in the work, Woodforde-Finden published it herself in 1902. It soon became wildly successful and Boosey reissued it the following year. Woodforde-Finden continued to write many more songs and cycles, most of which continued to echo the Edwardian British obsession with the East. Her later cycles included A Lover in Damascus (1904), The Pagoda of Flowers (1907) and The Eyes of Firozée (1914). The songs Till I wake and Kashmiri Song are both from Four Indian Love Lyrics. Kashmiri Song, with its opening line ‘Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar’, is probably one of the most popular songs of all time. Hope’s poems are remarkably erotic, and Woodforde-Finden’s music is suitably impassioned. It is rumoured that the two women were lovers, although they did not meet until after Woodforde-Finden had written Four Indian Love Lyrics.
Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) was one of the many remarkable women of her time who refused to conform to society’s expectations of how an upper-class woman should behave. Her father was a general in the British army who was horrified at the idea of his daughter becoming a professional musician. After a fierce battle, Smyth persuaded him to let her study music in Leipzig where her early works – chamber music and songs – were published and performed. By 1890 she was back in England where she had two performances of orchestral works and, using the influence of her aristocratic friends, managed to get her striking Mass in D performed at the Royal Albert Hall. But Smyth’s ambition had always been to write opera, possibly the most complex of all musical genres and the most difficult to get performed, especially for a woman composer in Britain, a country which believed that only foreigners could write opera. Smyth put endless amounts of strength and determination into persuading producers and opera companies to put on her works. Her first two operas were written to German libretti and given first performances in Germany. Her third and greatest opera, The Wreckers, written between 1902 and 1904, was also premiered in Germany. At this time her musical language was undergoing a considerable change from her earlier Germanic style. She herself described her sensuous French chamber songs of 1907 as in her ‘latest manner’. In 1910 Smyth decided to spend two years working for the militant suffragette campaign, writing The March of the Women as the movement’s anthem and spending a few weeks in Holloway after throwing a stone through a cabinet minister’s window. In 1913 she went to Egypt to write her fourth opera, The Boatswain’s Mate. During the First World War she realized that she was beginning to lose her hearing and although she continued to compose she also began writing her many fascinating volumes of memoirs and essays. Among her later works were two more operas and a concerto for violin and horn. Fifty years after her death, Smyth’s vital and exciting music is finally beginning to achieve the recognition that it deserves.
Possession is the second of Three Songs written by Smyth in 1913 as she was coming to the end of her involvement with the suffragettes. Both this and the final song of the set are settings of poems by Ethel Carnie, a contemporary poet. The last song, On the Road, is dedicated to Christabel Pankhurst and Possession is dedicated to Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Women’s Political and Social Union. Smyth made no secret of her relationships with women. This passionate love song is a declaration of love for the woman who inspired her to devote over two years of her life to the fight for the vote. At the same time it is an acknowledgement of the importance of freedom and independence in any relationship.
Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979) studied composition at the Royal College of Music with Charles Stanford. After leaving the College in 1910 she worked as a viola player, becoming one of the first women to be employed by Henry Wood in his Queen’s Hall orchestra. She also worked with some of the leading chamber music players of the day as well as playing in two chamber groups – a string quartet with the famous d’Aranyi sisters (Adila and Jelly) and cellist Guilhermina Suggia, and the English Ensemble, a pianoforte quartet with Marjorie Hayward, May Muckle and Kathleen Long.
Clarke’s own music – songs and chamber works – is in the European tradition of composers such as Ernest Bloch and Maurice Ravel. Some of her early songs were regarded as startlingly modern by the British musical press. Her best-known works are the fiery Viola Sonata (1919), which tied for first place with Bloch’s Suite for viola and piano in a competition at the Berkshire Festival in the United States, and the compelling Trio for violin, cello and piano (1921). During the 1930s Clarke wrote very little music, later claiming that this was because she was having an affair with a married man which left her with no energy to compose! She wrote a few more works in the early 1940s when she was stranded in the United States by the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1944, at the age of fifty-eight, she married James Friskin, a piano teacher at the Juilliard school of music, and stopped both performing and composing. She lived in the States for the rest of her life and died at the age of ninety-three. Clarke’s gloriously ironic song The Aspidistra, to words by Claude Flight, was written in 1929. Shy One, a setting of W B Yeats’s poem To an Isle in the Water, was written in 1912, although it was not published until 1920. Like Clarke’s other Yeats setting of the same year, The Cloths of Heaven, this song was dedicated to and frequently performed by Gervase Elwes.
Elizabeth Poston (1905–1987) studied at the Royal Academy of Music and her music started to be published while she was still in her teens. One of her earliest songs, Sweet Suffolk Owl of 1925, was to become her best-known work. At about this time she developed a close relationship with the composer Peter Warlock with whom she shared a love of early music. Poston spent much of the 1930s studying and collecting folksong in Europe and on her return to Britain in 1939 joined the BBC. She worked for a time as the director of music in the European Service and was later involved in setting up the Third Programme. Most of Poston’s music was for voices and she published many collections of folksongs, carols and hymns as well as making arrangements of other composers’ music. She also wrote music for films and for the radio and always claimed that she had no desire to write what she called ‘big works’. In Praise of Woman, a setting of words from The Harleian Manuscript, was published in 1928 as one of Poston’s Five Songs. Like much of her music, it echoes the musical language of an earlier time.
Elisabeth Lutyens (1906–1983) was one of the first British composers to use serial techniques in her often complex and demanding musical language. Born into an upper-class family, her father was the architect Edwin Lutyens and her mother was Lady Emily Lytton. Lutyens studied music at the École Normale in Paris and then at the Royal College of Music. She later rejected most of the music that she wrote before her revolutionary Chamber Concerto No 1 for nine instruments (1939/40). Lutyens fought hard to get performances and broadcasts of her music and supported herself and her family by writing music for films. She finally felt that she had found her own truly individual musical language in the early 1950s, with works such as her sixth string quartet (1952) and the unaccompanied motet Excerpta tractatus-logico philosophici, a setting of text by Wittgenstein. In the 1960s, after a change in British attitudes towards serial music, Lutyens’ works began to be heard much more frequently and she became an important mentor to a younger generation of composers. She continued composing to the end of her life, continually developing her difficult but always lyrical musical style. As I walked out one evening was one of Lutyens’ Two Songs, both with words by W H Auden, written in 1942 while she was living in Newcastle during the Second World War. Like several of Lutyens’ works from this time, these songs do not reflect her serial experiments but are in a straightforward tonal language. They were first performed at Wigmore Hall in 1945 by Hedli Anderson and Norman Franklin.
Brought up in the countryside of England and Ireland, Elizabeth Maconchy (1907–1994) had heard very little music, other than that she wrote or played herself, before she came to study at the Royal College of Music in 1923. After the highly successful performance of her orchestral suite The Land at the Proms in 1930, Maconchy soon came to be regarded as one of Britain’s most promising young composers. Her orchestral and chamber works were frequently performed and broadcast throughout the 1930s, in spite of the fact that, having contracted tuberculosis in 1932, she was forced to move out of London and live in a hut at the bottom of the garden of a house in Kent. Like so many women, Maconchy managed to combine her career as a composer with looking after and bringing up her family. Although her powerfully expressive music includes works in every genre, her remarkable series of fourteen string quartets is central to her output. These works clearly demonstrate the aptness of her own description of her music as ‘an impassioned argument’. Have you seen but a bright lily grow? to words by Ben Jonson, and Meditation for his Mistress to words by Robert Herrick, are both early works written in the late 1920s. They were published, together with a setting of Shakespeare’s Ophelia’s Song by Oxford University Press in 1930.
Madeleine Dring (1923–1977) won a scholarship to the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music at the age of ten. She wrote incidental music for the plays that were put on there and developed a lifelong enthusiasm for the theatre. She also won an adult scholarship to the Royal College where she studied composition with Herbert Howells and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Dring later worked as an actor, singer and pianist in West End revues and published a variety of chamber music as well as writing much educational music and incidental music for radio, television and the theatre. Neither Crabbed age and youth, a setting of words by Shakespeare, nor To the Virgins, to make much of Time, the second of Dedications: 5 Poems by Robert Herrick, were published during Dring’s lifetime but are included in the recent five-volume edition of her songs published by Thames Publishing.
The first works that Phyllis Tate (1911–1987) composed were blues and foxtrots for herself to sing to her ukulele. At the age of seventeen she went to the Royal Academy of Music where she studied composition with Harry Farjeon. Like Lutyens, Tate later destroyed most of her pre-War music. The earliest work that she acknowledged was her sparkling Concerto for alto saxophone and strings (1944). Tate was fascinated by the exploration of unusual instrumental combinations, as can be seen in works such as Nocturne for four voices (1945), a setting of a poem by Sidney Keyes for four soloists with string quartet, double bass, celesta and bass clarinet, The Lady of Shalott (1956) for tenor, viola, two pianos and percussion or the Sonatina Pastorale (1974) for harmonica and harpsichord. Words were always important in inspiring Tate and she wrote much vocal music, including songs, vocal chamber music and choral works. Her sombre song Epitaph sets words by Walter Raleigh and was first published in 1948 by Oxford University Press.
Sophie Fuller © 1994