BLOG Demi Roberts

NWR Issue r34

Now I Become Myself: A Woman's Voice in Music and Poetry, a Lecture by Rhian Samuel

This year’s annual Richard Burton lecture was delivered by Rhian Samuel in the Great Hall of Swansea University’s Bay Campus. Rhian, a widely successful classical composer with over one-hundred-and-twenty published bodies of work, gave this engaging lecture as part of the city’s Being Human Festival. This event also featured performances of Rhian’s music such as ‘Before Dawn’, a number from The White Amaryllis, and Cerddi Hynafol, performed by soprano Siân Dicker and pianist Krystal Tunnicliffe.

The main talking points of the lecture were focused on Rhian’s life story and achievements, following her journey from a young girl in a small Welsh-speaking village near Aberdare to her becoming a successful transatlantic classical composer. With over one-hundred-and-twenty pieces of work published with strong critical reception, Rhian’s success is evident; already she has immortalised herself in music. As I listened to her story, that she should achieve such a level of success seemed inevitable. As a student, she sang in the White House for President Johnson as part of a choir, and went on to obtain an MA and PhD from Washington University, St Louis. She later tutored composition undergraduates at Oxford University and co-edited the New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers. What fascinated me about this lecture was Rhian’s tone of humility. She was careful to give credit to the factors which shaped her success, such as support from her family and teachers, and the musicality of the south Wales Valleys. With that being said, she was also careful to speak of the factors which made success arguably harder than it needed to be.

The classical arena has historically been – and still is – a heavily male-dominated genre of music. In this lecture, Rhian made it clear that all was not rosy for young, ambitious women attempting to break free of traditional boundaries and embark on a career as a composer. She conveyed this point most effectively through a series of anecdotes. One which particularly struck me was an experience Rhian had had as an undergraduate at Reading University, as one of the first women formally studying composition. Her professor – a person there to teach and guide her – told her that he would always choose a male composer over an equally good female. That such a bias existed didn’t surprise me, but that it be expressed so brazenly, did. With a cheeky grin, Rhian asked the audience, Who decides they’re equally as good? The crowd responded in laughter. It was a good point.

Another incident also stuck with me. A few years later, when Rhian dared to write a symphony, one male critic published a review disregarding her as ‘neurotic’. Not because the music was below standard, but because she had dedicated the work to her deceased parents. Such an anecdote might well seem like just a harmless, unfair review to some, but for me it spoke volumes, capturing the voice of a society keen to pathologise a woman’s every move. It is no wonder that Rhian lacked the confidence to call herself a composer early on in her career, instead calling herself a ‘music writer’.

After musing upon these sad but illuminating stories, Rhian raised a good question: Do women compose differently? Her answer was: it’s impossible to say, until that point when the body of women’s music is scrutinised and critiqued in the same way that men’s music has been. Yet, despite these discouraging stories, the overall tone of the lecture was one of optimism rather than lament or complaint. Rhian’s success was most evident in the performances of her work by Siân Dicker and Krystal Tunnicliffe.

The most touching piece performed in the lecture was ‘Before Dawn’, which is number three of The White Amaryllis. It’s a dramatic piece, sung using the words from May Sarton’s poem, ‘Before Dawn’. As I listened, I couldn’t liken Rhian’s sound to any one composer in particular. She echoes the masters, writing with the quick chromatic precision of Bach and the expressive boldness of Debussy – yet she sounds like neither. Her sound is her own, distinguished and confident. The most engaging piece, and by far the most entertaining, was ‘Hwiangerdd Dinogat’, the first section of Cerddi Hynafol. With lyrics such as ‘giff, gaff, daly, daly, dwc, dwc’, accompanied by a lively, staccato piano melody – I couldn’t help but smile.

Throughout the performances, Rhian sat on a small chair at the side of the stage, out of the spotlight, watching the performance closely. I observed her for a few moments, wondering how it must feel to sit back like that and listen to your own music, after a lifetime of work and diligence, of struggle and setback. I thought of the professor who would have always chosen an equally good male over a female, and of that misogynistic critic, and let my mind address them – did you even listen?

Rhian’s newest set of songs, ‘The Moon and I’, will be performed at Ludlow English Song Weekend in April 2020. Rhian will also be composing a piece for a project commissioned by BBC Radio 3 for International Women’s Day 2020.

Demi Roberts is Swansea Digital Correspondent for New Welsh Review, in the first season of our new partnership with Swansea University’s College of Arts and Humanities.


previous blog: Dear Christine: A Tribute to Christine Keeler, at Swansea’s Elysium Gallery
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