BY HARRIET CUNNINGHAM
There’s been a great deal of talk – and a bit of action, too – about improving gender equity in the field of composition in the last 12 months. Musica Viva’s Hildegarde Project, Ensemble Offspring’s punchy year of all-female composers, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s new appointments, and the recently announced Coro Innominata Women Composers Development Project. They’ve all shone a spotlight on some fantastic composers who, by the by, happen to be female. But, in spite of steps in the right direction, you don’t have to search too back far to find yourself in dead-white-male zone. It is a long road ahead.
I’ve been immersed in 1950s Britain for a couple of years researching the early days of the Dartington International Summer School of Music. It’s a fascinating time: war is over, belts are still tight, but there’s this excitement in the air about reinvigorating the avant-garde after six long years of insularity and nationalism. Boulez announces that Schoenberg is dead. Peter Maxwell Davies does the angry young artist thing. Stravinsky is the grand old man of modernism. But, if you know where to look, you’ll also find women – probably nasty women – making a noise right from the start.
The International Summer School of Music was founded by William Glock, a pianist and a music critic, who was fired from The Observer for writing about Bartok (ew, scary…) too many times. His tastes in music were Catholic – Bach to Berio, Haydn to Hindemith – and the team he gathered around him was extraordinarily diverse in outlook and, as it happens, gender. At the very first meeting of students, performers and composers, in 1948, Paul Hindemith and Nadia Boulanger were the composition tutors; Imogen Holst taught musicianship and conducted the choir; the Amadeus Quartet gave performances of Priaulx Rainier’s string quartet; and Dame Myra Hess played Beethoven.
Boulanger and Holst, in particular, made deep impressions on all who came. In an unpublished diary by broadcaster and administrator John Amis, he writes about his memories of their first week. Boulanger, he said “was almost a caricature of a French spinster. But what a dynamo she was”.
“Her analysis classes were given with just a few of us round the piano, perhaps on the latest work by ‘Mister’ Stravinsky. She would play from the full score, illustrating her observations with quotations: ‘You remember how in the seventeenth prelude from the quarante et huit Bach does this…’ Bach, Ravel, Beethoven, Monteverdi, she knew them all by heart. It was marvellous. She was marvellous.”
Meanwhile, Imogen Holst gave lectures with the most unassuming titles but Amis describes her as one of the finest lecturers he had ever heard:
“Dressed always in homespun, beige or light brown, she had penetrating bluest of blue eyes and she seemed always to be dancing, or on the point of doing so. She was thoroughly prepared always, and yet gave the impression of complete spontaneity. Her lectures could be on the simplest of subjects: ‘How to Listen’, ‘Dance in Music’, all riveting, the elementary things of music disclosed in such a way as to bring tears to the eye. In 1948 she had Hindemith and Artur Schnabel in her audience, putting small coins into handkerchiefs in order to jangle them rhythmically….She was a wonderful creature.”
I grew up at the summer school, hanging around while my parents worked in stage and artist management – ‘trogging’, it was called — during the 70s and 80s. I expect there were plenty of women involved at the time, but in my memory it was much more of a boy’s club, where serious young composers hung on every word that came from the power team of Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Sandy Goehr and Robert Saxton. Not that they weren’t inspiring, I’m sure, but I am thrilled with how, 30 years on, I am returning to a summer school where not only are there women composers, but also, for the first time, a female artistic director – pianist, performance artist and composer Joanna MacGregor. There’s the brilliant Sian Edwards, directing the opera conductors’ course, and Sarah Gabriel directing Sweeney Todd. And oh, look, there’s Stevie Wishart, playing the hurdy-gurdy, and Sally Davies directing the Folk Choir.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to observe that progress for gender equity – whether in music or life in general – seems to travel in waves. Perhaps now is a good time to get a ride, for women musicians (if not for music critics). Or perhaps it is, as ever, just a good time to keep on keeping on. It’s in that spirit that I’ll be heading to the summer school in August, armed with my violin and my computer, to listen and play and write in one of the most creative environments I know.
For more about this year’s Dartington International Summer School of Music, including a generous bursary scheme for students, look here. And to find out more about the book I’m compiling to celebrate the 70th anniversary, click here. I’m crowdfunding it, so any help – sharing on social media, spreading the word, or buying a book – would be hugely appreciated, and don’t forget to use the discount code ‘CutCommon’ to get ten pounds off!
Learn more about Harriet by visiting her blog.
Images supplied by Harriet Cunningham, credit Catherine Scudamore (Summer School Archive). Featured image of Dartington Hall by Phil Gayner via Flickr CC-BY-SA-2.0.