Playlist 2017: 9th Commentary

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Here are notes on the last tranche of playlist items. The exercise has reset my listening habits in all kinds of useful ways. It’s been an excellent discipline to make myself listen to lots of music I didn’t previously know – one of those things that is as enriching as you’d anticipate, but you don’t necessarily do unless you make the effort.

I have a few notes still to bring together about what it’s taught me about how women’s history is written, so that’s to follow up in the new year. I am minded to continue the process of seeking out women’s music for regular listening – having expanded my boundaries I feel I would miss it if I let go of this outward engagement too readily. I may not blog about every item next year, though, and I will certainly allow myself to go back and explore more than one work by a single composer.

  • Leopoldine Blahetka, Variationen op.39 für Flöte und Klavier. For a composer whose life seems to be quite well-documented, and who had an extensive list of works published, it has proved extraordinarily difficult to find any dates for most of the works. I suspect the forewords to the performing edition of these Variations is the best bet, although neither sales nor library catalogues entries for it are any help. Anyways, sometime mid-19th-century – which you could probably tell by listening.
  • Mary Lou Williams Zodiac Suite (1945). Well, this was a fabulous discovery – I love that feeling of finding someone whose work fits very clearly into a context you already know, but who has a distinctive creative voice that is entirely new to you.
  • Jeanne Beyerman-Walraven, Concert-Overture (1910). A completely different sound world from the previous item, but it evokes a similar response in that dimension of simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.
  • Francesca Le Brun, 6 Sonatas for Violin and Piano Opus 1 (1780). Lebrun’s biography gives a vivid picture of the way that the music profession ran in families during the 18th century. Her father and brother were musicians, as were her husband, daughter and granddaughters. Again, publication appears to be key in preservation of work – Lebrun’s sonatas were published and survive, her daughters were not and did not.
  • Francesca Campana, 'Occhi Belli' (1629). Some surprising harmonic twists and turns in this one, and I can’t help feeling they could be performed with awareness of the tonal drama. But a performance that makes you want to get hold of the music and perform it yourself has to count as a successful one at some levels!
  • Phyllis Tate, London Fields Suite (1958). This sounds so exactly like something you’d hear on the mid-20th-century BBC! Which of course it is, but it does make me wonder how much the institution shaped style through its commissioning processes.
  • Margaret Ruthven Lang, TThree Piano Pieces (c. 1890s). These weren’t published as a set, but are excerpted from an album of Lang’s piano music.
  • Josephine Lang, Arabesque (pub. 1905). Same surname as the previous entry, but no relation. There are a couple of recordings of this piece available on youtube – I found this one slightly over-pedalled, but chose it because I preferred the approach to shaping.
  • Priaulx Rainier, Cello Concerto (1964). Rainier seems to have been well-connected with the musical establishment, seeing her work performed by many of the big names of her day. And a lot of her music is still available for sale it turns out – I’d be interested (with my choral hat on) in her Requiem.
  • Meredith Monk, Songs of Ascension (2008). This video only gives excerpts of the full work, which is available as a recording released in 2009. It gives a good feel of the sound world, and inspires a trust that the longer musical spans will offer satisfyingly sustained narrative arcs.
  • Maria Francesca Nascinbeni, 'Una fiamma rovente' (1674). This piece reminded me about the intermittency of Wikipedia’s accuracy. The very brief article on this composer gave her dates as ca. 1640-1680, and also stated that the only information about her life came from the preface of her collection published when she was 16. It took a moment thinking about this before I wondered how her death date was derived. Anyway, the trusty New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers gives her birth date as 1658, with no death date vouchsafed, so we’ll go with that.
  • Sally Beamish, Awuya (1998). Really interesting use of the harp – such a feminised instrument in Western music, but here exploited to create a soundworld evocative of completely different associations. I am usually somewhat uncomfortable about classical evocations of African musics – they can feel appropriative – but the framing of this piece seemed somehow more humane than exoticising.
  • Laura Mvula, 'Phenomenal Woman' (2016). And this is the 100th item on the playlist, by the 100th different composer. Laura was a student of mine back before she was famous, and it never ceases to delight me how her musical imagination continues to deepen and grow. As she took heart from Maya Angelou’s poem in writing this song, so I’d like you all to take heart in listening to it.

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