Det Virtuelle Musikbibliotek » Lifting a Corner of the Veil

Lifting a Corner of the Veil

Volume: 8
Sider: 10 - 11
Ophav: Birgitta Huldt
Udgiver: NOMUS

“People had so often asked me whether there really were any women composers that I made this CD as a sort of collective answer to the question.”

The words are those of Solveig Funseth, whose CD is entitled Women Composers (Swedish Society SCD 1043). Funseth loves romantic music, so it was natural for her to begin looking for repertoire in the nineteenth century. The earliest work on the CD, which presents its composers in chronological order, is a Nocturne by the Polish pianist and composer Maria Szymanovska (1789-1831), who wrote chamber music, piano pieces and songs.

Funseth’s looks alone would be enough to make the hearts of latter-day romantics beat faster, but she permits herself no tonal or stylistic self-indulgence when she lifts the cobwebs that have settled on the ornaments and the pastel-shaded melodic patterns of this music. Restrainedly – one might almost say severely – she invites her listeners to draw their own conclusions about a work which in atmosphere and structure is strikingly reminiscent of Szymanovska’s younger fellow-countryman Chopin. She admits that this understated approach is a conscious part of her interpretative strategy.

Solveig Funseth is a pianist and teacher. She has given concerts both in Sweden and abroad, and among her teachers she counts the Swedish professor Gottfrid Boon with his legendary specialization in piano touch, Hans Leygraf, and Ania Dorfman with whom she studied as a visiting pupil at the Juilliard School in New York in the spring of 1983. The distinguished Swedish pianist Tor Ahlberg has been one of her mentors for many years.

The availability – or rather lack – of music has largely determined the selection heard on the CD. In spite of all the time and energy she has invested, Funseth has encountered many problems in bringing some of the earlier women composers to light and sharing them with a wider audience. She has done research in Swedish and foreign libraries, but the range of available material is still very limited. It also stands to reason that working with this largely unknown and unplayed music makes special demands: decisions about tempo, dynamics, expression, form and so forth have to be made without the help of any pre-existing models, and suspected errors in the original sources have to be emended.

Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn (1805-47) is represented by three pieces on the CD. These are her (op. 2, no. 1), Pastorella and Melodie no. 2 (opp. 4 and 5). It was hard to find any compositions at all by this talented older sister of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. The New Grove dismisses her with the comment that “Fanny is said to have been as musically gifted as her brother; she was apparently an excellent pianist, and composed in the same style as he did. However, her historical importance consists in her having provided, both in her diary and in her correspondence, much essential source material for the biography of Felix, to whom she was very close.” And this refers to a woman who began to write music when she was fifteen and left over four hundred pieces when she died at the early age of 41! The problem is that scarcely any of this music has been published.

Fanny’s fate resembles that of Clara Schumann, and the stories of both women have made a deep impression on Solveig Funseth. For the CD she has selected two Romances of Clara Schumann (op. 11, no. 1 and op. 21, no. 1), both intensely personal and expressive pieces written in minor keys. At the age of 35 Clara had borne eight children, but had continued between pregnancies to go on major concert tours – she was one of the outstanding piano virtuosi of her time. She did this not only to earn money for her family, but also to salvage what she could of her own career. She could scarcely have had much time or energy left for composition when her husband Robert as a matter of course expected peace and quiet in the home for the sake of his own writing. In view of this it is amazing how much she achieved. Funseth remarks that women who wrote music under these conditions must have been inspired by a tremendous yearning and have possessed enormous spiritual energy.

The two Swedish women composers on the CD are Elfrida Andrée (1841-1929) and Valborg Aulin (1860-1928). Both can stand comparison with their male contemporaries. Andrée was a pioneer in several fields at a time when advanced training in music was first made accessible to women, thereby creating opportunities for them to advance to senior official positions. She was the first woman telegraphist and the first woman cathedral organist in Sweden! Apart from her work as an organist and teacher, she organized more than eight hundred popular concerts in the city of Gothenburg. Funseth plays Elfrida Andrée’s Five Short Tone Pictures (op. 7), but it is worth noting that this fearless personality also worked on the large scale: she wrote two symphonies, one of which won a prize at a competition in Brussels in 1894.

Valborg Aulin is one of the composers dealt with by Eva Öhrström in her dissertation from

1987 on Middle-Class Women Musicians in Nineteenth-Century Sweden (Department of Music, University of Gothenburg). She was the sister of Tor Aulin the violinist, conductor and composer. She wrote numerous choral works, chamber music, two string quartets, songs and piano pieces; Funseth has chosen four works from the 1880s including a mazurka and a waltz. “Swedish mazurkas appeal to me,” she says, “though they are not always so easy for a classically trained musician to play. Though this one is a real village dance hall number it actually suits me very well, for in spite of the fact that I grew up here in Stockholm I have always felt that I had my roots in the countryside.”

What Funseth has in mind here is that her family originally came from Jämtland in the north-west of Sweden, close to the Norwegian border. This explains why she also feels a strong empathy with the Norwegian Agathe Backer-Grøndahl (1847-1907) and the fresh country atmosphere of her piano music: “I feel I come from the land of the great waterfalls and high mountains; I can hear the ram coming and the seed growing. I’ve always had this sensation, which is why the Norwegian musical idiom speaks so strongly to me.” On the CD we hear a complete version of the Three Piano Pieces (op. 25) by Grøndahl, who is unmistakably Norwegian yet quite individual in her style, though the influence of her European contemporaries is of course also apparent. Apart from op. 25, her Laendler and Albumblatt are favourites of Solveig Funseth’s.

The most recent of the seven composers presented on the CD is the Frenchwoman Lili Boulanger (1893-1918). Funseth says that she feels particularly drawn to this tragic figure and the pain expressed in her music, exemplified here in D’un vieux jardin D’un jardi clair and Cortège.

Women Composers is Funseth’s second recording; the first was entitled A Swedish Romance and contained works by the Swedish composers Emil Sjögren, Knut Håkansson Adolf Wiklund and Wilhelm Stenhammar (Aries 1901, distributed through the Swedish company BIS). Both discs have been very favourably received by the critics, though there have been some objections to the preponderance of short pieces on Women Composers. Funseth rejects the implication that short works are necessarily inferior in quality, quoting Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen as outstanding evidence to the contrary. It is wrong to judge these women’s piano pieces by comparison with the longer works of their male colleagues, and anyone who does so shows a lack of understanding of the conditions under which women composed in the nineteenth century.

Here Solveig Funseth has lifted a corner of the veil behind which so many female composer personalities of the past have been hidden.