Maude Valerie White (1855-1937) was certainly rated very highly by her contemporaries. Grove's Dictionary described her song 'My soul is an enchanted boat' as 'one of the best in our language'. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Roger Quilter both admired her work and her songs were sung all over Europe by the leading singers of the day. But who now has heard of her or her music? Like the many other women songwriters of her age, she is at best relegated to the footnotes of music history as a composer of 'drawing-room ballads'.
So who was White and why is her music worth searching out? Born into the upper middle- class at a time when it was generally regarded as unseemly for middle-class women to pursue any kind of career, she nevertheless studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music and had her first songs published while still a student. Thereafter she worked as a professional musician, augmenting a small private income by putting on concerts, coaching singers, teaching the piano, performing at private parties and, above all, through sales of her songs. Her two volumes of memoirs, Friends and Memories and My Indian Summer (both long out of print), present a vivid picture of a fascinating woman full of impulsive excitement and an overwhelming love of life. It is this unashamed passion that she communicates so perfectly in her beautifully judged settings of a wide range of poetry. Fluent in English, French, German, Italian and Swedish, she set lyrics in all these languages. Her musical style ranges from early lieder-like songs to the impressionistic qualities of her later French settings, while always retaining an immediately recognisable voice.
White's decision to concentrate on vocal music is doubtless one of the reasons she is so little known today. Without a long list of symphonies and string quartets, she simply does not fit into the accepted idea of a 'great composer'. But unless we broaden our narrow vision of the musical canon to include composers like White, we will never experience such compelling songs as her ebullient Tennyson setting 'The Throstle', the haunting 'So We'll Go No More A'Roving' (to a poem by Byron), her four striking songs from Tennyson's In Memoriam and countless others. White's powerful music has been silent for too long.
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