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Unchained melodies: the forgotten women composers of Western classical music

Sounds and Sweet Airs: the Forgotten Women of Classical Music by Anna Beer reviewed.

If a woman needs money and a room of her own in order to write fiction, what does she need to be able to write music? She must have musical instruction from an early age, ideally sustained over a couple of decades. She would spend her formative years exposed to the work of other contemporary composers – in the classroom, yes, but also in performance. A supportive group of musical mentors to guide and boost her would also come in handy. More than anything, she needs the cast-iron belief that she can make a living by writing music, though few women have historically managed to do so.

For the vast majority, this is an unobtainable set of conditions. To put it another way: a female composer’s room must not only be exclusively hers and come with a steady income, it must also have a good-quality piano in it.

Given the dearth of stories to tell, it would have been easy for Anna Beer’s survey of the few women composers in history to be a litany of woe – indeed, that potential is hinted at. At the start of the book, we get an account of Johanna Kinkel, who was praised by Robert Schumann and mentored by Felix Mendelssohn but ended up trapped in a marriage that required her to care full-time for an activist husband and their four children. Her life ended on the pavement outside their house in St John’s Wood in London – she fell, or threw herself, from an upper window – and her widower seemingly never got round to publishing her compositions after her death.

It would be possible to fill a whole book with stories such as this, the pages littered with the bodies of women who didn’t live to hear their music come to life. Yet Beer has a more positive objective. “I want to celebrate the achievements of the eight composers here,” she writes.

The lives of these women, laid out chronologically from Francesca Caccini in 17th-century Florence to Elizabeth Maconchy in 20th-century Britain, are the forgotten tales of Western classical music. Some are recognisable through their relationships with musical men, such as Fanny Hensel, Mendelssohn’s sister, and Clara Schumann, the wife of Robert. Where possible, Beer tries to give a sense of what the music sounds like but most of the time we are firmly in the realm of conventional biography, replete with furious fathers, faithless husbands and even the odd wayward nun – and occasionally Beer’s otherwise lucid prose lapses into melodrama.

Although they lived in different centuries, these women faced many of the same setbacks, such as the difficulty in securing any kind of professional musical appointment. Where men could work as a church or court musician to provide a steady income between compositions, for many hundreds of years it was considered unseemly for a woman to be anything more than a talented amateur, especially if she was also a wife and mother.

As well as these structural obstacles, Beer documents the less subtle barriers they faced. Robert Schumann, despite saying that he wanted an equal creative partnership with his composer wife, Clara, only allowed her to use the piano in their apartment when he was out. Barbara Strozzi, the 17th-century Venetian composer who had more music in print in her lifetime than any other composer of the era, was once described by a courtier in a letter to his master with the phrase: “Oh, what tits!”

Three hundred years later, the head of the Royal College of Music consoled a young Elizabeth Maconchy after she failed to win a prestigious scholarship with the sage observation: “If we’d given it to you, you’d have only got married and never written another note!”

Sexism is one reason why these women’s music is overlooked by history but far more disappointing is what happened to the legacy they left behind. Or rather, the lack of it. While the musical estates of their male contemporaries received fierce protection, too often these women’s music was allowed to disappear from view entirely, out of sight and out of print.

Even if they were celebrated in their lifetimes, in many cases their heirs saw no value in producing new editions or, later, recordings of the music after its composer was gone. In this way, even the few women who managed to compose against the odds were denied entry to the recognised canon we now adhere to and they vanished, rarely to be heard again.

Music by the composers mentioned here can be heard at:

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
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Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June.

Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge