Mothers in Music

Perhaps for many, the mother-child bond is simply too close for the add-on of piano lessons to be effective over a long-term basis? Of course, there are exceptions to this. 

As Mothering Sunday approaches many of us will be looking forward to spending time on a special day with an exceptional person in our lives. As we prepare to thank, celebrate, and treat our mothers, it is inspiring and fascinating to remember with gratitude some of the remarkable l people who have contributed so much to music. The history of our art is filled with extraordinary woman who have contributed so much- though sadly the contribution of many individuals has until very recently been overlooked.

Happily, neglected figures of significance and interest are now beginning to re-emerge and gain the performances that they deserve. There are so many works that warrant our attention, and it is wonderful to see programmes, broadcasts, publications, and festivals structured around unknown pieces that are musically rich and significant.

In the concerto genre alone, there is an extraordinary range of music, including the remarkable A minor Concerto of Clara Schumann (written when she was only sixteen) and the intensely nostalgic G minor Concerto of Ruth Gipps, a work I was privileged to record with the RLPO in 2019: tap to listen on Spotify 

 

Her Story

For a fascinating, contrasted celebration of mothers in music across the centuries it is inspiring to delve into Karen Marshall’s new piano anthology for Faber Her Story, a collection of some twenty-nine female composers from Hildegard von Bingen up to modern times.

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Though directly appropriate for intermediate players upwards, the significance and variety of the chosen repertoire will be fascinating to everyone who loves music, and is intrigued by history. Background information on composers is unusually extensive for an anthology of this nature.

I was deeply moved to read about so many remarkable women, many of them mothers who had a tremendous amount to endure. Unhappy marriages, death after childbirth (Elisabetta de Gambarini), single parenthood, (Florence Price) hostility from society, (Barbara Stozzi) family pressure to stop composing (Maria Szymanowska) ….

It is all here alongside wonderfully rich music. Indeed, much of the oeuvre is unquestionably worthy of performance without the historical background… but the contexts provided make the compositions all the more extraordinary to play.

Clara Schumann

Perhaps the most famous musical multi-tasker of them all was Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of all time…but also a composer of significance. Like Alma Mahler who followed a few generations later, Clara’s development as a writer of music unquestionably suffered because of her marriage status and the expectations of society.

Despite this there still remains a substantial oeuvre of beautiful music, much of which is now being performed today more than ever before. Clara was also a wonderful teacher, editor of her husband’s music, mentor, extraordinary wife…. And an equally remarkable mother of eight children!

Marie was her teaching assistant in Frankfurt, as was Elise. Julie, dedicatee of Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody died tragically during childbirth, and Ludwig also had a tragic demise, dying at twenty after suffering from mental illness. Emil lived for only twelve months.

Sadness continued with Felix, who showed exceptional ability as a composer and author, but passed away at 25, and Ferdinand, who was addicted to drugs and died at 42. But the last Schumann daughter Eugenie lived to a ripe old age and, like her elder sisters Marie and Elise, worked for most of her life as a piano teacher.

Through the generations many mothers have worked quietly in the background, gently encouraging their children, guiding them in their daily practising and development. In modern times it had been particularly touching to see so many talented musicians from the far East lovingly supported by devoted parents, who take time to encourage their children with the requisite daily practising. Mothers are nearly always present at concerts, competitions, and examinations.

They should never be taken for granted by their offspring. This deeply moving miniature masterpiece, once described by the Times critic as ‘the saddest piece of music ever written’ was completed in 1909 by Ferruccio Busoni after the death of his mother, concert pianist Anna Weiss.

Subtitled The man’s lullaby at his mother’s coffin, it speaks volumes for the gratitude and debt that the great composer-pianist felt after being taught by Anna from the beginning. By all accounts Busoni never recovered from her passing:

 

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Of course, because loving concern and care for children is such an intensely dedicated vocation, it can sometimes become difficult for a healthy balance and perspective to remain intact. Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin 2011) makes for harrowing reading.

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If parents become too obsessive about a child’s potential, if they appear to live their own lives through the achievements of their son or daughter rather than maintaining at least an element of healthy detachment, then there is an increased risk of negativity, resentment and even tragedy.

There is a complete difference between loving concern on the one hand and manic desire on the other: Surely it goes without saying that a child should never have to endure the sort of strict parenting that includes any emotional manipulation or physical/emotional abuse?

 

Teresa Carreňo

When thinking of extraordinary musicians who were also mothers, Teresa Carreňo cannot be forgotten! I have always had the deepest admiration for Carreňo, (1853-1917), born in Venezuela and known at the height of her career as the ‘Valkyrie of the piano’.

As well as being one of the greatest performers of all time, Carreňo unquestionably took multi-tasking to unprecedented transcendental levels of super-human endurance: In addition to her extraordinarily virtuoso programmes, she was a prolific composer, leaving over seventy-five works for posterity, (including orchestral, choir, chamber, and solo piano opuses).

As though that was not enough, Carreňo was also an international soprano, singing as prima donna in major houses. She even turned her hand to conducting Wagner and was invited back to Caracas in 1885 with the intention of forming a conservatory and opera house in her native country.

‘Colourful’ is far too moderate a word to use for her personal life, which was blazingly luminous and extraordinary by any standards: she had six children from four husbands, one of whom was the great pianist Eugen D’Albert.

Rumour had it that during their marriage ‘D’Albert and Carreňo rented a German castle so that they could practise independently at different wings of the building whilst their extended family played and amused themselves in the middle. Evidently on one occasion D’Albert ran to his wife in alarm after trouble had erupted: ‘Teresa, YOUR children and MY children are fighting with OUR children!’

ABRSM examiner and highly experienced and successful piano teacher Alison Havard is a remarkable working mother with two vibrantly successful daughters. Lucy her youngest child won the percussion section of BBC Young Musicians in 2004 and Gemma the eldest is an extremely busy performing and teaching pianist, working at Chetham’s, the RNCM and with the Hallé as well as extensively elsewhere:

‘I did teach the children for the first few years but, there was no boundary between lessons and practice or being a parent and a teacher. It is a much more special occasion to build a relationship with someone else – more memorable and children took more notice of what someone else was saying. I think it’s rather like teaching someone close to you to drive. It opens out too many opportunities for arguments. In finding excellent teachers for the children, I was then able to gently encourage and support their practice and music making in a very positive way.’

Perhaps for many, the mother-child bond is simply too close for the add-on of piano lessons to be effective over a long-term basis? Of course, there are exceptions to this. In particular I can think of many Eastern European piano teachers who taught their daughters from the beginning successfully over a large number of years…

But in the UK, this is not so common. Is it a little easier for fathers? It is never good to make assumptions and generalisations, but in my own case the fact that I was absent from the house for longer periods than my wife Kathryn when our children were growing up gave me a strong motivation to want to teach them piano.

Family lessons with Kathryn and our kids didn’t really have time to work – life was simply too hectic for things to be scheduled away from all the thousands of other activities and necessities that had to be undertaken. Lots of singing took place, but without formalised ‘lessons.

My own efforts at teaching all four of our children were more extensive: I can certainly vouch for the ‘opportunities for arguments’ that can result when you teach your own kids piano! Despite many challenges, I persevered, taking three of our kids from their first lessons through to passing grade 8…. after which they were transferred to much better tutors.

I am not being overly modest here – the pedagogy my offspring received from me was far from consistent, with long periods when absolutely no ‘lessons’ whatsoever were scheduled (due to work pressures) contrasting with intense ‘cramming’ weeks (when repertoire for forthcoming exams and concerts was prepared ridiculously quickly). 

I am certain that the only reason Callum, Matthew, and Rose remain pianists today is because the early teaching they received from me was inconsistent. But equally, I am glad that I was so lacking in systematic persistency as their piano teacher.’

But back to Mother’s Day!

 

House of Music: Raising the Kanneh-Masons

Essential reading at this time is the remarkable House of Music: Raising the Kanneh-Masons by Kadiatu Mason, mother of no less than seven exceptionally talented musicians, including of course BBC Young Musician winning‘ cellist Sheku and outstanding pianist Isata. Isata is the eldest and is followed by Braimah, Sheku, then Konya, Jeneba, Aminata and Mariatu.

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They play either cello, violin, piano, or a combination of each. The remarkable energy, vision, care, fortitude, discipline, humour, and above all love of super-Mum Kadiatu shines through every page of her book, which tells the remarkable story of how her children all became successful, dynamic musicians. I am very touched that Kadiatu took time last week to write briefly especially for this blog on the role of being a mother to musicians:

‘Being a ‘Music Mum’ is both a privilege and a responsibility. Your role is to enable, encourage, engage, and celebrate the efforts and achievements of your child, no matter the moments of frustration and difficulty that learning music brings. Ultimately, you are there to catch them when they fall and to applaud them when they communicate something beautiful. And to always be there.’

What an extraordinary family the Kanneh-Masons truly are… and Kadiatu is a huge inspiration for mothers the world over! Their story may be of a modern family in 21st century England… but its message is timeless and resonates for all generations.

The phenomenal passion for music that each of the Kanneh-Mason family shows as they play was nurtured via huge parental support and love. It was touching to hear from Isata earlier this week, who is in no doubt whatsoever about the crucial role her own mother played in her musical development:

‘Without the support of my mother I know for a fact I would not be a pianist today. The many years of sacrifice that she gave to me and my siblings in the form of driving us to all of our lessons, paying for all of the many expenses studying music brings, and patiently listening to us practice cannot be underestimated. The role of a mother in the life of a musical child is so important, and I was incredibly lucky.’

Happy Mother’s Day and huge thanks to all the wonderful mothers who have helped and loved so much.

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