The Salon Advent Calendar: Day Sixteen

Little seems to be known about Edith Maud Rawdon-Hastings (1833-1874). She seems best known for mothering six children and for saving Rowallan Castle in Ayrshire from dereliction. There are a few small drawings extant from her pen, kept safe in the galleries of the UK. They are all pencil sketches, and range from a rather beautiful landscape which wraps itself around a solitary walker and her dog, to this delightfully suave Skeleton Ball. There is movement in the dancers, wonderful detail in the orchestra, and every skull shows a different expression.

Skeleton Ball.jpg

Ethel Smyth is perhaps as close as any female composer gets to be a household name. Yes who can hum a tune by her, or recall the names of five of her works? In her own words:

“It may have puzzled certain readers when I said my friend hoped by this Festival to get my output at long last into the main stream. ‘But aren't you in the main stream now?’ such a one might ask.

Ah! it's a queer business! Because I have conducted my own operas and love sheepdogs; because I generally dress in tweeds, and sometimes, at winter afternoon concerts, have even conducted in them; because I was a militant suffragette and seized a chance of beating time to ‘The March of the Women' from the window of my cell in Holloway Prison with a toothbrush; because I have written books, spoken speeches, broadcast, and don't always make sure that my hat is on straight; for these and other equally pertinent reasons, in a certain sense I am well known. If I buy a pair of boots in London, and not having money enough produce an envelope with my name, the parcel is pressed into my hand: ‘We want no reference in your case, Madam!'

This is celebrity indeed! or shall we say notoriety? but it does not alter the fact that after having been on the job, so to speak, for over forty years, I have never yet succeeded in becoming even a tiny wheel in the English music machine; nor did this fantastic latter-day notoriety even pave the way that much it really might have done! to inclusion in programme schemes!”

The cello sonata, like much of Smyth’s output, demonstrates this subjectivity. It is music to be heard, both literally and symbolically. Dedicated to the cellist Julius Klengel, it is an exploration of virtuosic tone production rather than agility.