Playlist 2017: First Commentary
My musical adventure for 2017 is coming along nicely. I’ve been adding a new item to the playlist of women’s music every few days, and it turns out the goal of making it up to 100 items during the year means that it is never very far from my mind. I’m still thinking about the last one when it’s time to look for another.
So far, my search process is very informal. I think: which female composers do I know about, but not know very much of their music very well? I pick an example that seems rather different from the last one, and then have a furtle about in youtube. I can imagine I’ll have to get a bit more organised as I go on, but there is time for that later.
One thing that is abundantly clear already is what a wealth of music is readily available. The limitations on programming and curriculum decisions are really about the internal knowledge-scapes of the programmers and curriculum designers, not the lack of possible material. Looking at exam syllabuses and concerts and radio listings, you’d think things haven’t really progressed that much in 25 years, but we are so much better resourced for listening opportunities than a quarter of a century ago, it is really very cheering.
Two other points about the process before I say a few words about the choices so far. First, compiling a playlist is a great way to make you listen around. Whilst I only need to pick one piece at a time to add the list, I’ll find myself listening to several, asking myself which I like best, and which gives a nice contrast to what has come immediately before. I’ve been building in contrast of style by picking historically and geographically separated composers, but it’s good to get variety of instrumentation, genre and length too. So I’ll end up even more informed than I intended to get
Second, it made me realise how much we take for granted, with standard repertoire, having multiple performances available to listen to. And how that allows us to untangle much more readily what a piece, and indeed a composer’s creative voice, is really like.
If I hear a piece of Beethoven I’ve not heard before, I know enough of his work in depth to be able to discern pretty much immediately what of the overall experience I should be attributing to his compositional craft, and how much to the performer’s interpretive insight. But with a composer whose work I don’t know well, the performer has a far greater impact on my first impression, for good or ill. And you only really notice that when you can listen to another recording and get that shock of perspective of music brought to life through a different sensibility.
I suspect that, just as women’s work is often treated tokenistically in programming (‘Oh, we’ve got a piece by a woman, that’s covered’), so it also is in recording (‘Oh, that piece has already been recorded, we don’t need to’). Neglected repertories, by definition, don’t get the intensive interpretive effort that go into complete cycles of core-canon composers, with the result that neither performers nor listeners never really get to understand them in depth. And thus they remain undervalued, and the cycle continues.
Anyway, I have tended to choose pieces where there are multiple recordings available wherever possible to facilitate listening around. I have picked one I feel makes a good first impression, but please do continue on and listen to others. The pieces reveal all kinds of extra dimensions thereby.
And having considered what I am learning in general terms, a few words about the individual pieces:
- Francesca Caccini, 'Lasciatemi qui solo' from Il Primo Libro Delle Musiche (1618). I chose this performance as it seemed a more intimate style of delivery than some of the more dramatic versions. Whilst I suspect that this monody has more than a passing relationship with the emerging genre of opera, I found the balance with the accompaniment in this recording more convincing – there is a limit to how emphatic plucked strings can sound after all.
- Florence Price, Sonata in E Minor, 2nd movement (1932). This middle movement appears to be performed more widely than the outer movements (perhaps because it is less virtuosically demanding). But the only complete performance I found online didn’t have very good sound quality, so I picked this of several fine performances of the middle movement to share.
- Sofia Gubaidulina, In Tempus Praesens, concerto for violin & orchestra (2007). The decision here was much more about which piece to choose. As a currently active composer, Gubaidulina offers a significant body of recorded work, though few it seems with multiple recordings. I wonder if the fact she is still active is the reason why this is the first composer in this playlist to be subject to unpleasantness in the comments. Something I’ll keep an eye on as we go (you don’t need to check them out, it won’t make you happy).
- Pauline Viardot Garcia, ‘Madrid’ (1884). There are quite a few good recordings of this song; I picked this one for the fun of having the music to follow.
- Maddalena Casulano, "Morir non può il mio cuore" (1568). I think the text comes through more clearly on the Hilliard Ensemble recording, but I just liked the feel of living in the moment you get with the live recording.
- Anna Bon di Venezia, Divertimento in D minor, Op. 3, No. 3. This is the first piece in the list by a composer I didn’t know at all previously. Oh, the power of ‘you may also like…’