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The Siren ‘Greatness’ : In encouraging women into music, Alice Mary Smith thought promises of ‘greatness’ counterproductive.
The Siren ‘Greatness’

With acknowledgements to Ian Graham-Jones in ‘Signature’, Volume II, Number 3 (Autumn 2008).

‘Why are there no great female composers?’ asked the Victorians. But Alice Meadows White, née Smith (1839-1884), never afraid to voice a challenging opinion, believed that the excited demand for a ‘great’ female composer was actually discouraging a potential host of good ones.

‘YOU have the privilege’ the chairman of the Royal Musical Association told Frederick Meadows White at a meeting in May 1883, ‘of being married to a very clever woman.’

Frederick, an eminent QC, knew that quite well. Alice, a pupil of William Sterndale Bennett and George Macfarren, had composed her first symphony at twenty-four.

Chamber music and songs had followed, with another symphony, overtures, choral works and a clarinet concerto. Sir George Grove praised her music as ‘full of tune and poetry’; Stephen Stratton of the Birmingham Post hinted excitedly at ‘greatness’.*

Yet Frederick also knew that Alice blamed the musical establishment’s preoccupation with finding a ‘great’ female composer for discouraging the merely good ones.

It was embarrassing, too, to be singled out in front of Ann Mounsey, and Macfarren’s student Oliveria Prescott.** So Frederick assured the meeting that Alice was no Mozart or Handel, simply a good mother to their two daughters, and a loving wife.

Alice could not have briefed more tactful Counsel.

* Sir George Grove was the founder of the famous multi-volume ‘Grove’s Dictionary of Music’.

** Ann Mounsey (1811-1891) was the wife of William Bartholomew (who wrote the words for Mendelssohn’s ‘Hear my Prayer’) and a composer in her own right; Oliveria Prescott (1843-1919) was a lecturer in Music at Newnham College, Cambridge, and Sir George Macfarren’s amanuensis, as Macfarren had become blind in 1860.

Andante for Clarinet

This beautiful slow movement is all that remains of a concerto for clarinet and orchestra composed for virtuoso soloist Henry Lazarus. Here it is performed by Angela Malsbury, with Howard Shelley and the London Mozart Players.

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Picture: From Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. View original
Alice Smith’s overture ‘Jason, or The Argonauts and the Sirens,’ was premiered by the New Philharmonic Orchestra in 1879, and two years later presented at the Crystal Palace; it was this piece that Sir George Grove described as ‘full of tune and poetry’. In 1888, Edward Armitage (1817-1896) painted this scene of a Siren luring unwary sailors to grief upon the rocks with her songs, and Jason’s Argo in the distance.
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