Tuesday 31 October 2023

Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World - violinist Fenella Humphreys introduces her programme of important but neglected figures of 20th century music

Leah Broad & Fenella Humphreys (Photo: Alejandro Tamagno)
Leah Broad & Fenella Humphreys (Photo: Alejandro Tamagno)

On Sunday 5 November 2023, violinist Fenella Humphreys joins forces with author Leah Broad and pianist Nicola Eimer at Milton Court Concert Hall to explore some of the most important but neglected figures of 20th century music. Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World features music by Doreen Carwithen, one of Britain’s first women film composers, Rebecca Clarke, acclaimed for her musical experimentation, Dorothy Howell, a prodigy who shot to fame at the Proms, and Ethel Smyth, a highly versatile composer of exceptional quality.

Here, Fenella Humphreys explores her introduction to the composers and their music.

When I was about eight or nine years old I was given Lili Boulanger’s Nocturne to learn. It was a genuine life-changer - I hadn’t realised until then just how music could make you feel, and it definitely made me want to become a musician.

It was only years later that it occurred to me how unusual it was that it was written by a woman. I look back at the music I played and sang as a child, and I barely remember any that wasn’t written by a fairly narrow group of men.

Once I started playing more new music I often played works by living women. With older repertoire though, led by my teachers on choices women simply weren’t included and it was so ingrained I didn’t even question it. 

After college, I started exploring music that wasn’t often played and gradually started finding more and more musically underrepresented groups (women, people of other ethnicities, people with the ‘wrong’ political ideologies etc.) who had simply disappeared or been written out of history. There was an attitude that if their music hadn’t survived it meant it simply wasn’t as ‘good’ as works that had, but the more of this music I played, the more really good music I was finding. The argument just didn’t hold water. But often getting hold of the sheet music was a real problem where works had fallen out of print and there was no estate fighting for the music.

I carry on searching out scores and composers - sometimes you’ll find things in charity shops, trawling through early proms programmes, finding old LPs - you never know what will pop up. And because I’ve recorded a few works that aren’t so well known, I now get sent music by families of composers which I always do my best to perform. Finding the funding to record can be more problematic but it feels so important where music is good, to make sure it doesn’t just disappear into the mists of time.

One place I knew I was always sure to find out about composers I didn’t know was Leah Broad’s social media. Eventually last year we met in real life at a festival celebrating the 100th anniversary of composer Doreen Carwithen. We decided it would be a great idea to collaborate. Looking through the lists of composers and repertoire that she’d researched I just couldn’t believe how much music and composers there still were out there I’d never come across.

We had a few ideas for programming and other ways we could collaborate outside the concert hall, but decided to start off with a words and music performance based around the four composers in Leah’s new book, Quartet - Ethel Smyth (1858-1940, Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), Dorothy Howell (1898-1982) and Doreen Carwithen (1922-2003). Each of them had written a sonata for violin and piano, and some had written more.

I already knew Doreen Carwithen’s Sonata through the good luck of having been asked by the William Alwyn Foundation (Alwyn was Doreen Carwithen’s husband) to perform and record it a few years ago. It’s an extraordinary work: bold, imaginative, well crafted and full of colour.

I was properly shocked when I found Ethel Smyth had written a sonata - I felt sure I’d have heard of a major work by someone that well known. But I hadn’t and it was a revelation when I started to get to know it. It was written in 1887, fairly early in her career when she was in her late 20s. The music is definitely influenced by Brahms and the the music she was hearing around her in Leipzig but again full of personality and passion. Fortunately it was still in print so at least it was easy enough to get hold of.

With Rebecca Clarke I had learnt her viola sonata which absolutely is core repertoire but hadn’t been aware of the violin music until fairly recently. I’d been asked to include her Midsummer Moon in a programme, and kept programming it elsewhere because it’s such special music. It’s one of those pieces that people always single out in a programme when they come to talk to you after a concert. With the two sonatas though, written much earlier, when I first started looking for the music I was worried we were going to have some proper work to do to find them. But by incredible good luck, just then Sleepy Puppy Press announced publication of new editions of both works. 

Dorothy Howell was the one composer of the four I didn’t know at all as we started - and she’s now possibly the one I love most. As a very young woman, her career started illustriously with Proms commissions and premieres - she was the talk of the town. But as writing styles around her changed and hers didn’t, she became less and less performed. We’re indebted to her niece and nephew who saved all her scores when, late in her life she felt nobody was interested in her music and was intent on burning it all. One of her works is available on IMSLP, and Schott are about to republish a couple of others that were out of print. However The Moorings and her Sonata which we wanted to include in the programme were both very much out of print. Leah asked around and eventually we found that alongside the copy of the sonata in the British Library there was one in another library. But it had been out on loan for a very long time. After some increasingly desperate messages back and forth it was returned and our programme was nearly complete. Just The Moorings was missing. After a good amount of detective work, Leah managed to get her hands on a slightly wobbly photo of the score off the black market somewhere. I re-typeset it and we were good to go. 

It’s been a wonderful time getting to know these composers and their music - and their stories through Leah’s brilliant narration. The plan is to extend these programmes to bring more composers’ lives and stories to light. In the meantime we can’t wait to perform the current programme of extraordinary music and stories at Barbican on 5th November at 4pm.

Violinist Fenella Humphreys is joined by pianist Nicola Eimer and narrator Leah Broad for Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World at Milton Court Concert Hall on Sunday 5 November 2023, featuring music by Ethel Smyth, Doreen Carwithen, Rebecca Clarke, Dorothy Howell.

full details from the Barbican website.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month