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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: bit.ly/soundssweetairs

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

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist