"And loved you better than you knew": finding the hidden stories

Over on Twitter and Facebook, each day we are commemorating the birthday of a woman active in music, as composer, performer, writer, dancer, etc.

Today’s birthday belongs to Stefi Geyer, a Hungarian violinist who was the dedicatee of several concerti written in the early- to mid-century. Most notable is Bartok’s first concerto, written when he was in the throes of an unrequited love for her.

In reading the biographies of Geyer, it struck me yet again, as it has with so many other biographies of women, how overshadowed Geyer is in her own story by the men with whom she is associated. Despite being a phenomenal player, despite a career that took her all over the world, she is relegated to a supporting role; a secondary presence that is only looked at, and must not speak. And thus, much of her story is lost to us; it is the story of Bartok and the compositions that arose from his infatuation that we are offered.

There is a whole plethora of reasons for this, from the composer-performer hierarchy that informs most of Western classical music history, to the idea that ‘woman’ cannot be creative in her own right, but must rely on the creativity of men for her expression. George Upton spent a large proportion of his 1890 book Women in Music explaining why this was the case; women are too emotional, they become discouraged too easily, they prefer supporting roles anyway. He concludes:

For these and many other reasons growing out of the peculiar organization of woman, the sphere in which she moves, the training which she receives, and the duties she has to fulfil, it does not seem that woman will ever originate music in its fullest and grandest harmonic forms. She will always be the recipient and interpreter but there is little hope she will be the creator.

However this may be, there is a field in which she has accomplished great results, namely, her influence upon the production of music. She has done so much for music that it is no exaggeration to claim that without her influence many of the masterpieces which we now so much admire might not have been accomplished at all; that the great composers have often written through her inspiration; and that she has, in numerus notable instances, been their impulse, support, and consolation.

Women themselves have quite a different view on this role, as well as their own contributions to the creative outpourings across the centuries. Margaret Steele Anderson’s poignant poem sums up the inner turmoil involved:

Song

The bride, she wears a white, white rose — the plucking it was mine;
The poet wears a laurel wreath — and I the laurel twine;
And oh, the child, your little child, that's clinging close to you,
It laughs to wear my violets — they are so sweet and blue!

And I, I have a wreath to wear — ah, never rue nor thorn!
I sometimes think that bitter wreath could be more sweetly worn!
For mine is made of ghostly bloom, of what I can't forget —
The fallen leaves of other crowns — rose, laurel, violet!


Elizabeth Akers Allen’s longer poem points to the cost of the silence imposed on these women:

Left Behind

It was the autumn of the year;
The strawberry-leaves were red and sere;
October's airs were fresh and chill,
When, pausing on the windy hill,
The hill that overlooks the sea,
You talked confidingly to me, -
Me whom your keen, artistic sight
Has not yet learned to read aright,
Since I have veiled my heart from you,
And loved you better than you knew.

You told me of your toilsome past;
The tardy honors won at last,
The trials borne, the conquests gained,
The longed-for boon of Fame attained;
I knew that every victory
But lifted you away from me,
That every step of high emprise
But left me lowlier in your eyes;
I watched the distance as it grew,
And loved you better than you knew.

You did not see the bitter trace
Of anguish sweep across my face;
You did not hear my proud heart beat,
Heavy and slow, beneath your feet;
You thought of triumphs still unwon,
Of glorious deeds as yet undone;
And I, the while you talked to me,
I watched the gulls float lonesomely,
Till lost amid the hungry blue,
And loved you better than you knew.

You walk the sunny side of fate;
The wise world smiles, and calls you great;
The golden fruitage of success
Drops at your feet in plenteousness;
And you have blessings manifold: -
Renown and power and friends and gold, -
They build a wall between us twain,
Which may not be thrown down again,
Alas! for I, the long years through,
Have loved you better than you knew.

Your life's proud aim, your art's high truth,
Have kept the promise of your youth;
And while you won the crown, which now
Breaks into bloom upon your brow,
My soul cried strongly out to you
Across the ocean's yearning blue,
While, unremembered and afar,
I watched you, as I watch a star
Through darkness struggling into view,
And loved you better than you knew.

I used to dream in all these years
Of patient faith and silent tears,
That Love's strong hand would put aside
The barriers of place and pride,
Would reach the pathless darkness through,
And draw me softly up to you;
But that is past. If you should stray
Beside my grave, some future day,
Perchance the violets o'er my dust
Will half betray their buried trust,
And say, their blue eyes full of dew,
"She loved you better than you knew."

 

Fanny Hensel, who knew quite literally what it meant to be left behind, when her brother Felix was taken to meet Goethe and she was required to stay at home, was known as the Cantor in her family – the musical support and critic of Felix (his corresponding critique of her works did not earn him the same title). How fascinating, then, that in her piano trio, she chose to quote from the first work to see public light of day without any input from her, Felix’s oratorio Elijah.

It is an ongoing story, and will be revisited again and again. Today, let the last word belong to Stefi Geyer and her violin. Here she plays Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin and Andantino. The pianist, remains anonymous.