It seems difficult to talk about anything these days without the Covid-19 pandemic cropping up, for it dominates conversation to the exclusion of almost everything else. Yet amidst the doom and gloom, a glance at human history can prove that such negative, cataclysmic events have also always coincided with positive shifts in social values. It’s as if humanity needs to be pushed through a vicious vortex in order to recognise fundamental inequalities and do something about them. Women’s suffrage ought to have been a matter of common sense from the start, but it took the First World War to bring it about in most of the world – though Switzerland, perhaps because it managed to remain aloof in war and peace, lagged far behind the rest of the West.
by Chris Walton
Perhaps – who knows? – in some distant future, when the worst memories of Covid-19 are past, humanity will also look back and conclude that it took a virus – something that in itself knows neither gender, class, creed nor colour – to make us address many of our continuing inequalities, such as those recently expressed by #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. And if we look beyond the depressing front-page news, we can already find that the world of culture is changing right now before our eyes and ears, in a strange synchronicity with viral disaster. Suddenly, it is no longer odd for a woman to conduct an orchestra, and it seems equally odd that we ever thought it so. The same seems the case with women composers – even the Master of the Queen’s Music in Britain is today a “mistress”.
It’s perhaps inappropriate for a man to be writing about gender equality. But there’s no doubt that commemorating anniversaries of major change can help us all to pause and take stock of how far we’ve come. The 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Switzerland, which falls in 2021, is such a moment, which is a good reason for it to be a prime focus of this edition of the DAVOS FESTIVAL.
Just as with women’s suffrage, it took longer for women composers to achieve recognition in Switzerland than elsewhere. Back in the 19th century, besides the Europe-wide assumption that “a woman’s place was in the home”, Swiss women were further hindered by a lack of professional training institutions. All the best male Swiss composers studied abroad; but no self-respecting Swiss father was going to let his daughter leave to study in Leipzig, Paris or Vienna – especially if he read the newspapers and knew about the “immoral” shenanigans of musicians like Wagner and Liszt.
Just as with women’s suffrage, it took longer for women composers to achieve recognition in Switzerland than elsewhere.
But even in more forward-looking countries such as France and Germany, where women were regularly admitted to the conservatories as they sprang up, the patriarchy long looked askance at them. The most successful woman composer of the 19th century, Louise Farrenc (1804 – 1875), was appointed a piano professor at the Paris Conservatoire in 1842, but she was the exception to prove the rule (and wasn’t actually allowed to teach composition). The next generations in France arguably had it even harder – Mélanie Bonis (1858 – 1937) studied alongside Debussy at the Conservatoire, but was pushed into marrying a widower who didn’t like music, and her life became a precarious balancing act between composing, childbearing, husband and lovers. Germaine Tailleferre (1892 – 1983) belonged to the generation after Bonis. But despite being a star student at the Conservatoire and the only female member of Les Six, she too found her energies drained by paternal opposition and marital disasters.
Things were little better in mid-19th-century Germany. Neither Fanny Hensel, Johanna Kinkel nor Clara Schumann achieved much recognition as composers, and their men were usually more a hindrance than a help. When Robert Schumann got Clara pregnant eight times in 13 years, it was probably his way of keeping her away from her composing desk. His own views on women were expressed clearly enough in his song cycle Frauenliebe und -leben, which obsesses over woman’s duties as lover, wife and mother. As for the later 19th century: Alma Mahler was famously banned from composing by her husband Gustav, while Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, friend of Clara Schumann and confidante of Brahms, suffered the posthumous indignity of her husband publishing eight of her piano pieces and deciding on their dedications himself.
There is, however, a fascinating link between Elisabeth von Herzogenberg and the women’s movement of the early 20th century, and we find it in the person of Ethel Smyth. Born in 1858 into an upper-class, military family, Smyth overcame major paternal opposition before being allowed to study in Germany. She found the Leipzig Conservatory dull, so she took private lessons from Heinrich von Herzogenberg, in whose wife Elisabeth she also found a willing mentor. Germany became Smyth’s spiritual home, and it was there that she enjoyed her first successes as an opera composer. Back in London, Smyth became acquainted with the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in 1910 and joined her in the battle for women’s suffrage. She wrote a stirring “March of the Women”, whose first performance she herself conducted in 1911. But hers was no merely passive struggle. In 1912, she and other suffragettes threw rocks at the homes of anti-suffrage male politicians, and spent several weeks in prison as a result. The advent of (limited) women’s suffrage after the war did not satisfy her, so she kept campaigning for women’s rights across the board. She also kept composing. Her concerto for violin and horn of 1927, one of the last works she completed, offers a fascinating combination of a conservative, post-Brahmsian language with an oddly elusive melodic melancholy reminiscent of the English interwar school. Although she had to cope with misogyny all her life, Smyth’s persistence and dignity brought her societal recognition in the form of honorary doctorates from Durham and Oxford, and even Damehood in 1922.
Smyth also neatly links us up with other “transgressive”, emancipatory movements. She was repeatedly photographed in the ostensibly masculine garb of jacket and tie, and made little attempt to hide her same-sex attractions. She enjoyed intense relationships with Emmeline Pankhurst, the writer Edith Somerville, the Princesse de Polignac and even Virginia Woolf, though the frequent focus on the extent to which any or all of these relationships were overtly “sexual” seems to be primarily a concern of male commentators. This need not bother us further here; what really matters is that Smyth offered an example of a gifted composer who did not have to fit the mould – neither in terms of gender or sexuality – to achieve public success and societal acceptance. As such, she can be seen today to have paved the way for subsequent generations of composers who felt emboldened to live the lives they wanted, even if they might themselves have felt little direct kinship with her – from Henriëtte Bosmans to Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein and beyond.
In these times when the world is sick, our mood is down and we’re all being taught to keep our distance: there can be no better way to look forward to better times than to come together, and sing for them.
The 2021 programme in Davos also features “transgressions” of a very different kind. In the New Year’s Concert, the BlattWerk Reed Quintet will perform well-known works by Rameau, Bartók and Debussy – but all in arrangements for wind quintet. Unlike the “classical” wind quintet ensemble, however, BlattWerk eschews flute and horn, instead comprising only reed instruments (oboe, clarinets, bassoon, saxophones, in various sizes) and thereby manages to square the circle of providing striking timbral contrasts while ensuring homogeneity of sound. Their programme is rounded off with one original quintet, Figurations de mémoire by the contemporary Swiss composer Walter Feldmann. And finally, as befits a festival commemorating the anniversary of a statement of equality, the concept of “inclusivity” will be given concrete form at the 2021 DAVOS FESTIVAL in the shape of its “Singwoche”. For the sixth time, Davos will be bringing together amateurs and professionals for workshops and tuition from the members of the Orion Vokal 4 ensemble, and all under the baton of Intendant Marco Amherd. Singing is a powerful tonic for both body and soul. And in these times when the world is sick, our mood is down and we’re all being taught to keep our distance: there can be no better way to look forward to better times than to come together, and sing for them.
New Year’s Concert 2021
Chris Walton is a Swiss music historian, writer and translator. He teaches at the Basel University of Music, runs a research project at the Bern University of the Arts, and is an Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. He lives today in Solothurn and Törbel.
This text was published in DAVOS FESTIVAL Magazin 1/21..
Photo: Orion Vokal 4 © Visual Moments