I was thrilled when Illuminate Women’s Music agreed to present my recital of Parlour Songs by women. Despite recent initiatives to increase the representation of non-male composers in festivals, concerts and music publishing, the one genre with a historically large proportion of women composers remains a hard sell.
A few years ago I discussed the issue with Nicola Beauman, author, and founder and publisher of Persephone Books. “Parlour Songs are domestic,” she said. Beauman’s book, “A Very Great Profession” is a wonderful examination and celebration of the so-called Woman’s Novel in the interwar years, and leads with my favourite Virginia Woolf quote: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.” As a voice major in College, I tried to introduce the songs of May Brahe, Amy Woodforde-Finden, Carrie Jacobs-Bond into my lessons, but the repertoire teacher said witheringly, “These are only for domestic settings.” This confused me; I was a strong feminist, and I loved old songs. I wanted to perform old songs written by women but was more or less told that I was letting down the cause by championing something intimate, sentimental.And the domestic argument didn’t hold up even by the standards of the College: what were madrigals if not domestic? And madrigals were often performed by the College Singers, its top-tier, exclusive chamber choir.
By ignoring Parlour Song, music festivals and programmes miss out on many fascinating stories of women’s triumph. Before the 20thcentury, women were barred from positions at Cathedrals, Universities and orchestras and were thus prevented from experimenting with larger, non-domestic forms. But within their permitted world of domestic song, they thrived. Women wrote some of the best-selling popular songs of their day.
Until the advent of recordings, any music in the home had to be performed live. The mass production of parlour pianos, and advances in lithographical printing processes in the Victorian era led to an explosion in demand for sheet music and musically accessible songs. Women were there to meet that demand. Publishers like Booseys were quick to put several women on retainers, to be sure of the rights to anything they composed. The success of the ballads of Charlotte Alington Barnard (“Claribel”) in the 1860s was so astonishing that rival publishers vied with each other to insult her in print, claiming that the ease with which her works could be played and sung at home, as well as their catchiness, caused a degradation of public taste. In 1901 Carrie Jacobs-Bond published her own songs and became the first woman composer to earn over a million dollars from her music. Her 1910 hit “A Perfect Day” sold more than three million copies in ten years. She even designed the covers.
Amanda Aldridge (nom de plume Montague Ring)
Cover of "A Perfect Day" by Carrie Jacobs Bond
If Parlour Song is approached with respect and sincerity, these songs can be as fun, honest and fresh as folk song, or indeed, Schubert, who wasn’t above a bit of domestic singing himself. In the case of Amanda Aldridge, Parlour Songs could also be empowering to an oppressed minority. Amanda, the daughter of the legendary African-American actor Ira Aldridge, wrote a series of songs in the 1910s featuring admired, elegant black women – in the respectful parlance of the day, “coloured” – including the jaunty “Little Missie Cakewalk.” This song is a clear reference to the first all-black music show in London, “In Dahomey” which ran seven solid months in 1903, also giving a performance at Buckingham Palace.
In my book “She Wrote the Songs” (Valley Press) I tell a number of the stories behind this marginalised and neglected genre of music in the hopes that more singers and teachers discover its joys, and illuminate the women’s voices behind them. Many thanks to Illuminate for having us on board!
Queen of the Cakewalk Aida Overton Walker, and George Walker, from "In Dahomey" in London