A conversation with violinist Ruth Palmer
By Margie MacKinnon
Ruth Palmer in 'Scoring Suffrage at Florence's Lyceum, ph. by Marco Berni
Let’s begin at the end. The last work in the programme for ‘Scoring Suffrage’, a recital of music by women composers held at the Lyceum in Florence in September, was ‘Piece for Ruth’, by Venezuelan pianist and composer Gabriela Montero. The ‘Ruth’ in question is Ruth Palmer, the acclaimed violinist, and one half of ‘Scoring Suffrage’s’ creative team, with whom I was now having a coffee at the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank. I asked her if any one of the pieces in the recital was more challenging than the others. “They all have their own challenges in different ways,” she said. For example, “the Montero has one tricky bit, but it was written for me, so I can do what I want with it.” Had she known that Montero was going to write it for her? “I asked her to write it for me,” she replied, and proceeded to recount the improbable story of their initial meeting.
“I used to live not far from here on Fleet Street,” Ruth recalled. “One day, as I was crossing the road to go to the stationer’s, I was hit by a scooter that sent me literally flying horizontally over the bus lane.” The scooter driver, Richard, had been in a terrible hurry to get somewhere and had filtered down the wrong side of the road. Luckily, Ruth was fine but for a few scratches. As it happened, a police officer had witnessed the accident and asked if she wanted to press charges. Ruth declined, saying she wouldn’t press charges so long as Richard agreed to come to her next Wigmore Hall recital. And even though he didn’t attend the recital, the two stayed in touch.
Some two years later, Richard’s brother Sam wrote to Ruth, hoping to speak to her about a film he wanted to make. He had seen In Search of the Messiah, a film in which Ruth starred as a violinist seeking out the world’s most prestigious violins, which had aired on arts networks throughout the world. “He was quite excited about it,” explained Ruth, “and wanted to do a fictional treatment set in the highly competitive world of classical music.” Ruth told Sam the conversation would have to wait, as she was on her way to visit her cousin in Lexington, Massachusetts. No problem, Sam replied. As it happens, I am going to Lexington myself. “And it turned out that he was living with Gabriela Montero around the corner from my cousin. So, I met her in her kitchen eating pumpkin pie. We got talking and eventually I said, ‘Will you write me a piece?’ She agreed, and we played it together a year later, in New York.”
Earlier that morning, Ruth and I met to check out a venue for a reprise of ‘Scoring Suffrage’ in London. Our destination was the 1901 Arts Club, a rehearsal and performance space created by philanthropist, conductor and violinist Joji Hattori. (As a young violinist Ruth won a Hattori Foundation prize which, in a further coincidence, was presented to her by the person who had recommended the 1901 Arts Club to me – a friend I met while we were both walking our dogs on Hampstead Heath.) The club occupies a lovingly restored schoolmaster’s residence in a street of small Victorian terraced houses and is decorated in the style of a European Salon. Its intimate size and salon-like atmosphere seem ideal for the nineteenth and early twentieth-century repertoire of ‘Scoring Suffrage’. Ruth had brought her violin with her and set about testing the space’s acoustics. We were soon rolling up two rugs on the original wooden floor and pulling back a heavy curtain behind the grand piano. After another sound check, Ruth seemed satisfied with the result, although the improvement in resonance was lost on my untrained ears.
‘Scoring Suffrage’ was conceived not solely as a musical event, rather, it is a weaving together of the music, literature and personal stories of women whose lives and careers overlapped with women’s suffrage movements in Europe. Through the narration of letters, poetry and other writings, Ruth’s partner in this project, curator and academic Dr Claudia Tobin, provides the context in which woman composers were working and creating the soundtrack that accompanied women’s growing political and expressive freedom. The third member of the team was London-based pianist Alessio Enea, who accompanied Ruth in the performance.
Ruth Palmer and pianist Alessio Enea in 'Scoring Suffrage' at Florence's Lyceum, ph. Marco Berni
On this day in the Hayward’s cafe, we would talk about the works of the six female composers featured in ‘Scoring Suffrage’: Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847), Clara Schumann (1819-1896), Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), Florence Price (1887-1953) and Gabriela Montero (b. 1970). A single male composer, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), made it on to the programme by virtue of the significance of two women to his work.
The first piece in the programme was Fanny Mendelssohn’s ‘Adagio’, composed when she was just 18. Fanny is said to have excelled as a composer of short musical forms. This is not surprising given that, unlike her brother, the composer Felix Mendelssohn who travelled throughout Europe with his orchestral compositions, Fanny was expected to stay home playing salon concerts. “Fanny was allowed to play the piano, as long as it supported her brother and made her more attractive as a marriage prospect. Teaching the piano was also an acceptable occupation for women, at a time when most professions were closed to women,” notes Ruth. Fanny’s ‘Adagio’ “is tricky to get right. It’s a delicate balance of a slightly naïve, sweet and pleasant [melody] with a [calming] meditation, and to try and find exactly the right tempo to let it be a dream, and to open with it, is difficult.”
Fanny Mendelssohn’s near contemporary, Clara Schumann, had much greater freedom to travel, performing in concerts throughout Europe as a highly celebrated pianist. From childhood to middle age, she produced a good body of work but, following the early death in 1856 of her husband, the composer Robert Schumann, Clara largely gave up composing, leaving a legacy of just 23 published works. In preparing to perform Clara Schumann’s ‘Three Romances’ Ruth found that “it took a lot of personal energy to discover the depth in it. But I had played the same piece for another recital in France in May, and I worked quite a lot on it then,” adding, “it has been a year where I’ve begun to play more women’s repertoire.”
Although she is now recognised as an important composer of the Romantic era, Schumann herself seemed to have absorbed the prevailing view that women did not have the ‘genius’ to create great music. “I once believed that I possessed creative talent,” she claimed, “but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose – there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?”
No doubt Clara would have been able to put more energy into her composing if she did not have eight children to provide for and a husband whose health was precarious. As Ruth comments, “When it comes to women, the perception of competence is always the issue. Not just in music, but everywhere. And it’s not just men, women can be just as sexist without realising it.”
The work of English composer Ethel Smyth was new to Ruth. “Her ‘Violin Sonata’ required the most preparation because it is thirty minutes long. It also has a significant emotional content because there is a discussion in it – it is more like an essay than a short soliloquy. And there’s a lot to get together with the piano as well, the score is complicated.” Ruth continues, “As a musician, what I am always looking for is a musical challenge, regardless of who wrote it. I was really glad to get to know Smyth’s sonata, because it is an interesting piece of music that I can include in any programme or any situation.”
Ethel Smyth and her Dog Marco, 1891, Wikimedia Commons
Lili Boulanger’s ‘D’un matin de printemps’ was a piece that Ruth learned during the pandemic but had not performed. “It is the one that surprised me. The difficulty arises from the fact that it is so short – it’s there and then suddenly … it’s gone!” Sadly, this could also describe its composer’s life. A child prodigy, Lili Boulanger was the first female winner of the Prix de Rome composition prize in 1913. Between 1911 and 1918 she composed some two dozen works but, having suffered with chronic ill health throughout her life, she died at just 24 years of age.
Henri Manuel's Portrait of Lili Boulanger, originally published in Comcedia illustré, 1913, ph. Wikimedia Commons
For Florence Price’s ‘Fantasie in G minor’, Ruth referred to a recording of Price’s concertos by the young American violinist Randall Goosby. “He plays it beautifully,” she says. “When I came to play it, I couldn’t make sense of it at first. But when you put it together with the poetry of Georgia Douglas Johnson, it suddenly comes alive. When you contextualise it, it sort of pops.”
French composer Maurice Ravel snuck on to the programme in part because his career owes a huge debt to Winnaretta Singer, the sewing machine heiress, who was one of the most passionate supporters of his work. From 1905 until 1931, Ravel performed and sometimes premiered his works in her salon. For ‘Scoring Suffrage’ Ruth performed Ravel’s ‘Tzigane’, which she describes as “an amazing piece.” It was both inspired by and dedicated to British-Hungarian violinist Jelly D’Aranyi who was one of the few celebrated women in the male-dominated world of classical violinists of the time. ‘Tzigane’ was just one of many pieces written especially for her.
In 1922, and at the height of his career, Maurice Ravel met d’Aranyi in London at a private concert where she and Hans Kindler performed Ravel’s ‘Duo sonate’. Ravel persuaded d’Aranyi to stay on and play what were then popular Romani melodies for him, which she did well into the early hours of the morning. He was so taken with her performance that he promised to compose a concert piece for her and wrote “you have inspired me to write a short piece of diabolical difficulty, conjuring up the Hungary of my dreams. Since it will be for violin, why don’t I call it Tzigane?” The piece is indeed a challenge for the violinist and demands to be played by throwing caution to the wind. Ruth was certainly up to the task, showing off the range of her instrument as well as her own virtuosity.
Winnaretta Singer enjoyed introducing her friends to each other and starting cultural collaborations across the arts. For Ruth, “the opportunity to collaborate with Claudia was probably the biggest draw on this project. Claudia is so knowledgeable, and she has an artistic character that allows her to connect the dots in a way that is instinctual. When I suggested pieces from the repertoire, she was able to find the connections among the various writers and poets and activists at the time. There was an organic process to the way we found the links together. I learned that I could discover things as well. So that was fun.” The enjoyment that Claudia and Ruth experienced working in partnership on ‘Scoring Suffrage’ recalls the final words of ‘The March of Women’, the suffrage anthem written by Cicely Hamilton and composed by Ethel Smyth:
March, march, many as one Shoulder to Shoulder and friend to friend.
This article was originally published in Restoration Conversations magazine, Issue 4, WINTER, 2023. Read full issue here.