A walk on a cold morning. Sunrays dissolving the fog. Nature covered with frost. Delicate, fragile ice crystals reflecting the light. Moments of magic. A morning walk to discover once more natural beauty. A morning walk to help collect my thoughts. A new year has begun less than a fortnight ago, a new year with new, or rather renewed resolutions. A morning walk to start all over again trying to lead a meaningful life.
In 1871, the French composer Marie Jaëll wrote a set of piano pieces: 6 Petits Morceaux pour Piano. It is an early work. At the time Jaëll wrote it, she was 25 years old and had studied with César Franck and Camille de Saint-Saëns at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris. The pieces are, as the title says, six little, unpretentious compositions. They are neither brilliant nor very creative, no, but I like them for a different reason. Jaëll musical language testifies already of her confidence as a composer. Jaëll had given a meaning to her life – to compose – and though she knew that the way to excellence and public recognition would be long and arduous, she did not hesitate.
In a letter written a few years later, she explains to her friend Anna Sandherr: “To learn to compose [is] a passion, that never leaves me. I wake up with it in the morning, I fall asleep with it in the evening. I have such a high esteem for my art that I joyfully will dedicate my life to it without hoping for anything else but to live by it and for it.” What a brutal contrast to the self-diminishing attitude Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Wieck adopted towards their works! What made the difference?
Fanny and Clara always felt that they stood in the shadow of their celebrated family members, Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. However Marie Jaëll’s husband Alfred was an acclaimed pianist and her personal environment was no less competitive than the world around Fanny and Clara.
The key to her self-confidence might have been the multiple encouragements she got from her male teachers: Ignaz Moscheles, Saint-Saëns, Franck and later Franz Liszt. They saw talent and passion, and their wish to promote art, be it male or female, was more important than moral considerations about what may have suited a young woman in the 19th century. Perhaps society had evolved too. Jaëll was born more than a generation after Wieck and Mendelssohn, and in France customs may have been more liberal than in Prussian dominated Germany.
And today? How far has mankind progressed in promoting gender equality? Are our society models better designed to reconcile family and working life? Are men being sufficiently encouraged and educated to share the burden of raising children and allowing their partners to give their life a meaning in the professional world? Progress has been made, but it’s not enough, and I dread the next economic or financial crisis that will throw society back. Since men on the average earn more than women in similar positions, guess who is going to scale his ambitions back?
Marie Jaëll’s “Six Petits Morceaux pour Piano” have been recorded by Cora Irsen.
© Charles Thibo