Tag: women composers

Changing names, changing fortunes

On this date in 1803 was born the composer Lady Augusta Kennedy-Erskine.

Lady Augusta Kennedy-Erskine is depicted leaning towards a sleeping child. She is wearing a bonnet and a dark dress with a white collar.

Millicent Ann Mary Kennedy-Erskine; Lady Augusta Kennedy-Erskine. Stipple and line engraving by Thomas Anthony Dean, published 1833. National Portrait Gallery. NPG D36555.

She was christened Augusta FitzClarence, however her names and titles developed over time. Several of these are brought together in her entry in VIAF, the Virtual International Authority File.

A screenshot listing many names by which Lady Augusta Kennedy-Erskine was known, including Augusta FitzClarence and Augusta Gordon-Hallyburton.

Lady Augusta Kennedy-Erskine in the Virtual International Authority File (VIAF).

The Loeb Music Library recently digitized a volume containing four sets of printed scores by English women composers, the first of which is a set of songs by Augusta Kennedy-Erskine. The volume belonged to John Fane, 11th Earl of Westmorland (1784-1859), who also adopted a new name: until 1841 he went by Lord Burghersh. He had a long career as a diplomat, soldier and politican, co-founded the Royal Academy of Music in 1822 and owned many music books. His collection is now scattered among music libraries worldwide (browse WorldCat for Fane, John to see some of their new homes). 

The front cover of a volume of music. Gilt letters on a red morocco label say Lord Burghersh.

Mus 505.5. Loeb Music Library, Harvard University.

Earlier this year, we added this important book to RISM, the International Inventory of Musical Sources. An astute RISM colleague immediately got in touch to let us know that another item bound into the volume, a set of songs by the composer Mary Radcliff Chambers, is actually cited in an auction house’s description of a collection of materials belonging to Chambers, to which the dealer has given the title The Banker’s Daughter: family archive illustrating the consequences of bankruptcy. Following a family tragedy, Chambers took to the stage to support her family. She also published her compositions. The collection Simple Ballads was apparently produced in both an unadorned version (“just a single copy in institutions worldwide, at Harvard’s Loeb Music Library”) as well as in a luxe edition prepared specially for Queen Victoria.

La Belle, La Perfectly Swell Romance

The generosity of the Women’s Task Force Fund has enabled the Loeb Music Library to acquire a wide variety of rare works by women composers: some, like Carrie Jacobs Bond or Liza Lehmann, top of the charts in their lifetimes but less known today, some, like Miss Mellish, composer of My Phillida, adieu love, hauntingly obscure: we don’t even know her first name. None of them pique this writer’s curiosity more than the one-woman hit machine known as Loïsa Puget.

Cover engraving from "À la grâce de Dieu" (1836) Even then, the old "let's make her look as if she's smoking" routine was irresistible, apparently.

Puget (1810-1889) was one of the most popular and playable French songwriters of the 1830’s.  Her romances, or simple, pretty, easy-to-sing ballads of peasant and bourgeois life, were as much a part of life as the poke bonnet.  Her mother had been an singer, and made music a large part of her daughter’s education, which included some time at the same boarding school as the young George Sand (then known as Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin.)  Quick to spot the one other pupil interested in the arts, Sand remarked on the younger girl’s talent, vivacity, roguery and beauty.  These served Puget well as she began to make a name for herself as a songwriter, singing and accompanying her own ballads in the salons of the well-to-do. Her facility and charm won over such diverse people as Hector Berlioz, who ruefully remarked that to the people of Paris all the symphonies in the world are not worth a romance by Loïsa Puget sung by their favorite prima donna, and the dialect poet Jacques Jasmin, who wrote a poem praising her melodies, at which “la terro tout s’amayzo, tout se tayzo.”  Together, Puget and Gustave Lemoine, her lyricist, dominated family music racks, school songbooks, popular concerts and after-dinner piano singalongs from 1830 to 1845, when composer and lyricist married, fashions in song began to change, and Puget’s prolific production rate slowed down.

Puget enjoyed herself thoroughly giving her public exactly what they wanted, even, in 1836, an opera, Le mauvais œil, but her greatest hit was “À la grâce de Dieu.”  If cell phones had been available in 1836, Puget’s ballad would have been the most popular ringtone in France.  A mother’s song of farewell as she watches her daughter leave her village to seek her fortune in Paris, this romance was the “Single Ladies” of its day: church organs played it, dance bands played it, accomplished young women beguiled the long evenings with it.  It was so successful that in 1841 Lemoine and Adolphe Philippe D’Ennery elaborated the basic idea into a melodrama, La Grâce de Dieu, which in turn became the basis for Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix.

Loeb Music Library owns seventy-two pamphlet scores of Puget’s romances. The earliest dates to 1830.  In addition, a score of Le mauvais œil is available for study in the Merritt Room.

– Sarah Barton

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