Looking through the posts here, I am disheartened but not at all surprised about how little female composers or musicians and singers feature. Must try harder is the note to myself, I think. Although we’ve worked hard to improve the balance in our physical stock, western classical music in particular is still mostly the preserve of dead, white men. This is even more the case when I look at our older material. This post however is the exception, looking as it does at Liza Lehmann.
I’ve had almost no time to work on a new post recently (an upgrade to our computer systems being partly to blame), so instead, I’ve returned to the second post I ever wrote. That also is in need of some improvement. So I’ve reworked it, adding in more content rather than relying on the illustrations alone (nice though they are).
Liza Lehmann (1862 – 1918)
Liza Lehmann was an English opera singer and composer – so it’s no real surprise that the music I discovered are songs. As she wound down her singing career after getting married, Lehmann turned increasingly to composition. The songs are mostly for one solo voice, but some are scored for a vocal quartet. They give the impression of being salon music – more for private gatherings than public concerts. Though I might be wrong as they were performed during her tour of the United States.
She was obviously aware of her position as a female composer and so, an outsider with limited influence in the mainstream of the classical music world of the time. Lehmann, Ethel Smyth , and Maude Valerie White were the main female composers in England at the start of the twentieth century. Late in her life, she became the first president of the Society of Women Musicians . This grouping first met with the aim of improving their mutual chances within a male-dominated profession and continued until the early 1970s.
Nonsense songs from ‘Alice in Wonderland’, (publ. 1908)
A cover, full of life, showing all the non-human characters (as well as Alice) depicted in the various songs. Quite why the white rabbit is clutching a musical brass instrument isn’t clear. And I was also puzzled by the crocodile. A quick search reveals that to be merely my faulty memory of the book. Here’s the poem that Alice recites in Chapter 2:
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale
How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spreads his claws
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
This satirical little verse is a sly reworking of a Victorian offering by Isaac Watts which preaches good morals. Lehmann has fun with the last line, the final piano chords sound like the jaws snapping shut:
Hips and Haws, (publ. 1913)
Here, the typography is both part of, and complementary to, the illustration. This song cycle is notable for setting five poems by the queer writer and poet, Radclyffe Hall from her collection, Songs of Three Counties and Other Poems. It is possible that the song cycle was written for Radclyffe Hall’s then partner, Mable Batten, an amateur singer. I find this fascinating. Although it was a number of years prior to the publication of The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall evidently wasn’t hiding her sexuality, living as she was with Batten at the time.
A very quick online flick through Lehmann’s autobiography doesn’t reveal any of her thoughts on the subject. Probably not that surprising, given the intended readership would’ve been completely shocked at any mention of a lesbian relationship. It could be of course, that Lehmann only did it as a commission, but somehow I think that’s unlikely.
The verses selected by Lehmann come from Rustic Courting, part of the main collection. Incidentally, the three counties of the collection title are close to us – Worcestershire, Shropshire, and Herefordshire. They are not conventional love poetry by any means, and the narrator / singer of the verses is not clearly of either sex. Superficially, they might come across as male, but given the likely singer, and the writer, this doesn’t seem quite true. The gender of the singer isn’t specified in the publication – it merely says ‘Voice’ (as was common).
Here’s part of the text for Jealousy:
I see’d yer turn the other day,
To watch a chap go by
Because he wore a uniform,
And held his shoulders high,
And then yer wouldn’t even smile,
Or say a word to I.
Or a snatch from Dusk in the lane:
Come put your little hand in mine,
And let it be at rest.
It minds me of a tired bird,
Within a warm brown nest.
And bend that pretty head o’ yourn,
And lay it on my breast.
I think it all very cleverly depends on the context.