Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Clara Schumann and the May Uprising

Clara Wieck Schumann
...from Berkeley

Happy New Year to all out in the blogosphere and beyond!

Thinking about Germaine Tailleferre's pregancy reminded me of another composer and another pregnancy--this time Clara Schumann (1819-1896).  Once again, there were armed men and guns involved, although luckily not quite so close up close and personal an experience as Tailleferre lived through.

Most music lovers today know at least a little about the tumultuous life story of concert pianist and composer Clara Schumann, nee Wieck--her lawsuit against her over-controlling father, her romance with Robert Schumann and her relationship with Johannes Brahms, to mention a few of the many highlights. A child prodigy who first performed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus at age 11, Clara grew up to tour as a world-famous concert pianist, had 8 children (7 of whom survived to adulthood) and supported her family with the help of Johannes Brahms after her Robert died (having committed himself to an insane asylum several years earlier). Clara was influential as a teacher, performer, and composer, shaping performance practice to this day as one of the first pianists to perform from memory, and directing musical tastes that affect the music we hear and play today as well, via which composers' works she chose to perform. A proto-feminist heroine in so many ways... and undoubtedly the worthy subject of a post or three for another day.

Today, though, let's look at a short, heroic moment in Clara's personal life... one Dresden day and night in May, 1849.

For months, much of Europe had been gripped by revolutionary paroxysms. Clara, seven months pregnant with her fifth child, and Robert, in weak health, were living in Dresden with their 4 children between the ages of 1 and 7. The government of Dresden, fearful of explosives said to be in the hands of the citizenry, had withdrawn behind barricades. When troops fired on the angry crowd, surprise, surprise... the city erupted.

Caught in the midst of this militant mess were the Schumanns: one very pregnant pianist, a sick composer, and 4 very small children.
Ferdinand c. 1885

The story goes that Clara hid Robert and the children as long as she could.  But when it became impossible, she slipped him out the back door, along with their oldest child, Marie, fleeing with them to safety, having left servants to keep an eye on the younger three children, Elise, Julie, and Ludwig. That night she snuck back into town past armed soldiers and roving bands of troops, risking her life to retrieve the rest of her children and take them back to the 'burbs, as it were, where the family stayed for a month.  Ferdinand, her fifth child with Robert, was born July 16 that year--2 and a half months later.

A brave woman, indeed, and one who lived a very full life.

What I'm reading: Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes; Alistair Grims Odd Aquaticum

What I'm listening to: smooth-voiced singers (Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra)

What I'm working on: Tailleferre, Delage, Poulenc, and Handel for January performances.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Germaine Tailleferre, part two--and Christmas

from Berkeley

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate!

Although it's not a particularly Christmas-y topic, today's blog continues the Tailleferre story I promised from last week.

But before we dive into the tale, the other modern French woman composer after Lili and Nadia Boulanger and Germaine Taillerre is...were you able to guess? No? This would be the influential and well-respected Betsy Jolas (1926- ).

Now, back to the rest of the story...

In most marriages, the announcement that the wife is pregnant is greeted with joy, or perhaps a smile mixed with resignation about another mouth to feed.

Germaine Tailleferre
But Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)--the only female member of Les Six, whom I wrote about last week--had a much darker experience.

Here's the back story....

It's 1929.* Tailleferre is 37 and has been married to NY caricaturist Ralph Barton for about 2 1/2 years, during which she has not been composing but rather, based on what she later says, hoping for a child. The couple had moved to NY in 1927, but Barton has been raging jealously about her career success.

Nonetheless, Tailleferre is delighted when she discovers she is pregnant! Quelle joie, non?

But Barton...loses it and what follows is a bit more of quelle horreur!

Ralph Barton
According to Tailleferre's memoire from nearly half a century later (excerpted and discussed here: https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-274519831/trauma-and-recovery-in-germaine-tailleferre-s-six), he tells her he'll shoot her in the abdomen to terminate the pregnancy, but that she'll be fine.


Imagine the scene: Barton with shotgun in hand. Tailleferre hiding in the bushes. (Awful jokes about shotgun weddings spring to mind and must be expunged.)  Hidden, she hears shots ring out. Luckily they miss and she remains unharmed. She flees to a friend of Barton's for help and subsequently divorces Barton, who commits suicide the next year.** By her reports she never sees him again after that episode, although she suffers a miscarriage as a result.

Tailleferre's Six chansons francaises from later that same year (1929) are one of her very first post-Ralph compositions. While not truly autobiographical, the poems are an assortment of six 15th-18th century French texts that are uniformly and scathingly bitter towards marriage and husbands, with lines such as "la fidelite n'a jamais ete qu'une imbecilite" ("Fidelity has never been anything but  idiocy"), "...mon mari qui ne vaut pas un grand blanc" ("...my husband, who is not worth a fine white wine"), and "Je n'ai bonjour ni demi avec ce mari mechant..." ("I have neither good days nor even half of one with this spiteful husband...").  You get the idea.  If ever the creation of art can be considered an act of personal exegesis--as it so often is--this song cycle has got to be it.

Curious? (Gratuitous plug time...) I'll be performing them with the talented Dale Tsang and Ensemble for These Times (E4TT.org) next month on Tuesday January 19 in SF at Noontime Concerts, along with other works by Debussy, Maurice Delage, and the Boulanger sisters. And if you can't come, you can still hear them on my CD with the Athena Trio, Fabulous Femmes (Centaur CRC #2461), with the wonderful Sylvie Beaudette at the keyboard.

What I'm reading: Well-read Women (a beautiful book of with sayings and watercolor drawings of 50 famous women in fiction), and Infinitas.

What I'm listening to: Tailleferre, Poulenc, Delage, and Handel

What I'm working on: same

*Quick quiz: Remember what major U.S. event happened in 1929?  Major hint: Think of two pairs of words...financial meltdown and stock market...

**In all fairness, Ralph Barton was a talented artist who achieved immense success and recognition during his lifetime, but he was also severely manic-depressive, a condition that grew worse as his life progressed, ultimately leading to his suicide. Tailleferre was his fourth wife and fourth (and final) divorce. When he shot himself in 1931, he wrote in his suicide note that his third wife, Carlotta Monterey, who had divorced him in 1926 was "the only woman he'd ever loved."  Although Tailleferre's treatment at his hands was beyond cruel, one can only feel great sadness and pity for his own suffering and mental illness.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Germaine Tailleferre

from Berkeley...

Returning to the 20th century French composers and especially French women composers from my November 10 post...  After the Boulanger sisters, two other women composers spring immediately to mind. First and foremost, Germaine Tailleferre, one of the most famous French women composers of the 20th century.

Tailleferre was the only woman of Les Six, a handful of six composers (well, that's the tautological point of the group name, no?) composers from the first half of of 20th century France. This is as opposed to The Five, another famous handful from music history, from 19th century Russia.  There are several apocryphal stories about who started the name and why, but all make clear reference to The Five or the Mighty Handful. i.e., five (yes, yes, that's why they're called The Five...) composers from 19th-century Russia, who never seem to have referred to themselves in that way.

The 20th century name, "Les Six," seems to have become official with an article by French critic Henri Collet and--unlike the Russians in The Five--the group did use that term for themselves.

Les Six did a handful (there's that word again) of collaborative projects, sometimes with other composers, and only once with all six of Les Six.

Mighty Five*
So who were the five in The Five and the six in Les Six?
The Five: Balakirev (at the top in the compiled picture,) Cui (below him, left), Mussorgsky (to his right), Rimsky-Korsakov (lower left) and Borodin (lower right).

Les Six (as noted in the picture, below, right): Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, and--miracle of miracles, a woman!--Germaine Tailleferre. They're depicted in this painting on the right by Jacques-Emile Blanche (Center: pianist Marcelle Meyer. Left, bottom to top, Tailleferre, Milhaud, Honegger, Durey. Right, standing, bottom to top, Poulenc, Cocteau; seated, Auric). 

"Les groupe des six," 1921
Not all of them are famous today, but all five in the Five have fared somewhat better historically compared to Les Six of, well, the six. It could just a question of odds, one in five being better odds than one in six. Or not. Plus one of the six was a woman. Women composers haven't fared well at all historically. Why that's the case is a very long discussion for a series of rainy days.

More on Tailleferre in a future post...and on who the mysterious other famous 20th century French woman composer is that I referred to at the start of today's post.

Any guesses who that mystery woman composer might be?  Comment if you think you know and/or check back in a week!

What I'm reading: Infinitas, The Map to Everywhere, the Handbook for Dragon Slayers.

What I'm listening to: "Six chansons francaises" by Germaine Tailleferre (from Fabulous Femmes, my own very first CD :), a nice blast from the past); Handel's Tolomeo, and Trois poemes desenchantes by Maurice Delage. (Plus I can't get the lovely Mozart Laudate Dominum from yesterday's Christmas concert out of my head. A delightful ear-worm to have running in my head!)

What I'm working on: same...

*"Mighty Handful". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mighty_Handful.jpg#/media/File:Mighty_Handful.jpg

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Yosemite and Hanukkah

...from Yosemite
Yosemite and Hanukkah?  Huh?  Is there some kind of mysterious, previously unknown connection here? Was John Muir secretly Jewish? 


My family!
The only connection is that they both involve family time, that they both are related to holidays in one way or another, and that we were in Yosemite for a family trip this weekend, right before the beginning of Hanukkah.

The valley was lovely, cool and crisp, with patches of snow and ice on the ground, snow on the distant peaks, blue skies and sun. Glacier Point and Tioga Pass were closed, as is usual at this time of year, and Crane Flat was closed for renovation.  But we didn't mind: we were headed to the Ahwahnee Hotel, where we sampled potential dishes for an upcoming wedding. (Not mine, my son's.) The food was uniformly delicious; the service excellent.  We took a little walk afterwards, just as the sky began to gray and the late afternoon winter air chilled. It was wonderful.

At this time of year, the Ahwahnee is decorated for Christmas, with banners up for the annual Bracebridge dinners that start in a week and Christmas trees scattered all over the place (literally. I counted at least 3).  For us, coming to the Valley was truly a trip down memory lane, as we took family trips to Yosemite once or twice a year with our son, and many times before he was born.  

But going back to Hanukkah and Yosemite... After a light lunch on Sunday at Slim's Koffee Shak (emphasis on light as we were still stuffed from the yummy Saturday afternoon tasting and the delicious dinner at South Gate Brewery), traffic was easy enough Sunday that we were home before sunset, in time to light a candle or two.

To all who celebrate the Festival of Lights, a very Happy Hanukkah!

In the shameless plug department, if you're in Berkeley on Sunday, Dec. 13 at 2 p.m., there should be a lovely Christmas concert at the First Church of Christ Scientist (the beautiful Maybeck church at the corner of Dwight and Bowditch), with seasonal and other selections from works that include Handel's Messiah, Bach's Magnificat, Mozart's Vespers, and by Hildegard von Bingen. The musicians will be soprano Eliza O'Malley, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Baker, violinist Michael Jones, cellist Adaiha MacAdam-Somer, organist William Ludtke, and moi, your blogger, 

What I'm reading: Dante's Inferno (for an upcoming translation; more on this another day ;)); When She Named Fire (a fascinating anthology of modern poetry by American women); Map to Everywhere

What I'm working on: The December 13 concert rep (soprano solos from Mozart's Vespers and Bach's Magnificat, carols &seasonal hymns), Handel's Tolomeo.

What I'm listening to: Meistersinger (fabulous production live last week at SFO), Les Troyens (from YouTube and another get SFO production last season), and Handel's Tolomeo), lots of chamber music for the Barbara Fritz Chamber Music Award applications.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

SF Music Day Live+Free

...from SF 

Several weeks ago I ushered for a wonderful annual musical event put on by the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music: SF Music Day Live + Free.  As the name suggests, it's a day of musical events that are 100% free to the public.  The SFFCM curates it, with a focused theme each year, and some 30-40 chamber ensembles perform classical music, crossover repertory, new music, and jazz, a half hour show each, with breaks along the way and a food truck or two serving snacks outside. This year it ran from noon to nearly 11 p.m.

It's been at various venues, but this year it was at the newly remodeled Herbst Theater (which I only caught a glimpse of from the inside, as I was mostly enjoying greeting duty)--a terrific venue. And there were raves about the music making from the many happy concert goers in the crowd.

What a wonderful event! (Full disclosure: E4TT is honored to be a fiscally sponsored affiliate of SFFCM, and I think they do such great work for chamber music in the community).

And for a plug: if you're near Berkeley on Dec. 13 at 2:00 p.m., don't miss the Christmas concert at the First Church of Christ Scientist on Dwight at College, a beautiful historical Maybeck building.  Bach, Mozart, Handel, Hildegard von Bingen, and seasonal favorites, with 2 sopranos, 1 mezzo, violin, cello and organ.

What I'm reading:Seymour Chwast's adaptation of Dante's Divine Comedy; Handbook of Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskel.

What I'm working on: Handel's Tolomeo, Mozart, Bach, songs by Germaine Tailleferre

What I'm listening to: Bach, Berlioz, and more Bach...'tis the season, not that Bach is ever out of season...and Wagner: tomorrow I'm hearing Die Meistersinger at SFO.