“bold and attractive... freshness and integrity of personality” (London Independent)
Western Hemisphere Premiere Performances:
Piano Concerto in E-flat, Op. 6
Violin Sonatas, Op. 1 and Op. 13
This concert brings together rare symphonic and instrumental chamber works by two women composers from 18th century England - Mrs. Philarmonica (known only by her nom de plume) and Maria Hester Park. As readers of Jane Austen’s fiction well know, bourgeois and noble women of late-18th and early-19th century England were encouraged to take up the piano as a domestic “accomplishment” – a portion of their education that was meant to make them more eligible in the marriage market. But these activities were for the private drawing room only, and women were not encouraged to pursue public musical careers.
Yet at the same time, a burgeoning music publishing market and an expanded concert scene offered opportunities to enterprising and talented women. Indeed, music was one of the few professions open to women. Most music by women in England during this period were vocal and keyboard works, with chamber and symphonic music by women being quite unusual. Particularly in England, playing strings like the violin or cello was not considered appropriate for upper-class women, as the posture for playing them was thought not genteel, although two female violinists from the period did concertize.
Both Park and Philarmonica, despite their successes in the new music economy of the 18th century, have posed musicological mysteries to the scholarly community. This is an outgrowth of the elisions and suppressions that both women faced in their lifetime and the historiographical confusions of more recent times.
Decades of scholarship have pieced together the identity of Maria Hester Park (1760-1813) from among the many Parks active in England in the 18th century. One of these Parks was Maria Frances Parke, who was also a noted pianist and composer, as well as being a singer.
Maria Hester Park’s career as a composer and performer was emblematic of the changes music itself was undergoing as the industrial revolution was shifting power and money from the palaces of the nobility to the concert halls of the rising bourgeoisie. Early in her career, she was engaged for a time as the piano teacher for the Duchess of Devonshire (Lady Georgiana Spencer) and her daughters. But she also performed publicly as a concert pianist before and after her marriage, in important concert venues like Hanover Square in London, that also hosted the likes of Haydn and Mendelssohn. She published a keyboard concerto, eight violin sonatas, a divertimento for violin and keyboard, and chamber music for keyboard alone. Her early works were available by subscription (a common crowd-sourcing publication method in the 18th century). Indeed, the six Violin Sonatas of Park's Op. 1 were subscribed to by over 300 people, including many members of the nobility, as well as private citizens interested in music. Park's music would have been played in drawing rooms around the country by a growing class of young bourgeois women who were learning the fortepiano.
Born Maria Reynolds, in 1787 she married Thomas Park, an engraver and poet, with whom she had five daughters and a son. In 1794, Haydn wrote to Mr. Park promising to visit them during his stay in London and he sent along a sonata dedicated to Mrs. Park (Hob XVI: 51). Her husband was sometimes out of work and it fell on Mrs. Park to support the family. A few years before her death, she was still working to capitalize on her musical talents: she wrote to her former employer, the Duchess of Devonshire, that she planned to open a school for young ladies and asked for patronage. After many years of ill health due to “rheumatism of the nerves,” she died at the age of 52 and was buried in Acton (on the outskirts of London) in 1813. Her obituary, written in her husband’s flowery prose, lauded her for being “exemplary in all the relative duties of filial, connubial, maternal, social and Christian character;” but said nothing of her exemplary musical talents and achievements, suggesting that Mr. Park was reticent to draw attention to the fact that his wife had had a successful musical career.
The identity of Mrs. Philarmonica remains a mystery. Known only in her published scores by her nom de plume, the name is on six string sonatas and six divertimenti. These works were published in London in 1715 by the viol maker and music publisher Richard Meares, who had a workshop across from St. Paul’s Cathedral. The notable cello obbligato in Philarmonica’s work suggests that the composer knew the cello well and that she was interested in the trio sonatas of Corelli. The similarities between Meares and Philarmonica suggest that Mrs. Philarmonica could have been the wife or daughter of Meares, and in working with him might have developed similar tastes. Although it is possible that Mrs. Philarmonica was either the wife of daughter of Meares, in the absence of more clues scholars can only speculate.