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Playlist 2017: Second Commentary

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It's been a good week for listening to music by women. Both Radio 3 and Classic FM made an effort for International Women's Day, and to do them justice, it wasn't just on Wednesday, the whole week saw rather more music by women than you'd normally hear. Of course, I am grumpy as all get-out that this week's programming isn't the norm, but not as grumpy as I would have been had they made less of an effort! It will seem more like a 'celebration' of women's music (as the programming has been generally been billed) if it turns out that making an effort has made a difference.

Meanwhile, my collection of music by women is growing nicely. As with the pieces covered in my first commentary, I am delighted to find so many good performances available. It is all proving a very rich and satisfying musical experience. Keeping the general comments to a minimum today, as there are plenty of pieces of music to talk about since last time.

  • Lili Boulanger, Du fond de l'abîme (Psalm 130) (1917). Given my own musical activities, I find myself somewhat surprised to have got this far down the list before the first choral piece. I dithered between this performance, and one conducted by Lili’s sister Nadia from 1968. I think I prefer the orchestral textures in the other one, but the choral sound in this one.
  • Nicola LeFanu, Moon Over the Western Ridge, Mootwingee, Quartet for Saxophones (1985). I encountered Nicola LeFanu in 1991 when she welcomed delegates to the Music and Gender conference in London, the event that gave me permission to be a feminist musicologist when my undergraduate teachers had been actively discouraging me from attempting to me one. I found her both inspiring and comforting – in fact, she reminded me in some ways of my mother. Having spent some time with this piece, I still find her inspiring, but she no longer reminds me of my mother at all.
  • Ethel Smyth, String Quartet in E Minor (1902). One of the memorable moments in my undergraduate education was hearing Ethel Smyth described (by a lecturer, in response to a question as to who she was) as ‘some bull dyke who wrote suffragette songs’. And I guess if you only knew the 'March of the Women', you might not realise she also had the technique and imaginative stamina to produce this. So, now we know.
  • Clara Schumann, Drei Romanzen Op. 21 (1853). Clara Schumann is one of the most clearly documented cases of how the mythology of genius fosters the discouragements Impostor Syndrome. For someone who doubted it was possible for women to compose, she has an impressive output.
  • Louise Farrenc, Symphony no. 3, Op. 36 (1847). Oh my, if you want to see some patronising writing about a female composer, do pop over and read the Wikipedia entry on Louise Farrenc’s music. Of course, given the nature of Wikipedia, you could go over and edit it into something less irritating, and make the previous sentence here really confusing. I’d be okay with that.
  • Kaija Saariaho, Laterna Magica (2008). Includes a brief interview with the composer. Again, there are some interesting deployments of minimising rhetoric in the comments, but the magical soundworld transcends these quite readily. But this is making me interested in priming effects and music criticism, so we may get a spin-off post on this theme at some point.

    This was a composer whose work I did not know at all hitherto. I found her by chance on the website Composers Doing Normal Shit, and was quite enchanted by the fact that, unusually in that collection, she was actually pictured doing something very normal.

  • Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, Céphale et Procris (1694). This was one of two female composers mentioned in my undergraduate lectures, in a course on keyboard music. So it was a pleasant revelation to discover a full-length opera by her too. And it's a truly mesmerising recording, beautifully played and sung.
  • Maude Valerie White, 'John Anderson, My Jo' (1881). After a full-length opera, right to the other end of the scale with an art song for solo voice and piano. I picked this recording for the interest of hearing it performed in the composer's lifetime by one of the great stars of the early C20th, Nellie Melba.
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