Nicely timed for International Women’s Day, I have become completely obsessed by a single work by a composer I had never heard of until the other day: Poldowski (1879-1932), the assumed name of Régine Wieniawski, the daughter of the violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski. I found her through an album recorded by the French counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky Green: Mélodies Françaises. I loved the songs by her that Jaroussky had recorded and thus started the journey down the rabbit-hole of the piece Bloomsbury Waltz.
“Bloomsbury Waltz” is the third piece in a suite of miniatures for piano published in 1923 called Caledonian Market. I thought it was going to be some faux Scottish thing, but thanks to the Pathé archive, I discovered it was a market in North London that finally closed in 1939. All that remains of it now is the clock tower silhouetted on the cover of the sheet music. There’s a great short history of the market here, but the first thing I found was this 1933 film:
Why a Bloomsbury Waltz?
The other pieces in the set—Street Hawkers, Mouth Organs, Humming Tops, Child Talking to the Cat, Musical Box, The Bouncing Ball, Picture of Clowns—sound like the kinds of things you mind encounter in a market, but Bloomsbury Waltz is a bit of an enigma, in every sense including the musical. Why a Bloomsbury Waltz in the middle of this? The beginning is marked Slow and Even, “as though in the distance,” with a pianissimo in every bar, as if the composer knows that you might be tempted to make the music come too near. So is this a portrait of an area of London just about visible from Caledonian Market, but light-years away culturally?
After a few bars, you are instructed to play a melody fragment “mincingly.” I checked the OED to see whether mincing had a subtly different meaning in the 1920s than it does now, but it doesn’t, so it’s difficult not to think that this might be a portrait of “Bloomsbury” in an extended sense. When I considered that possibility, it was easier to think what to do with the slightly out of place 10th leaps in the right hand. I’d just finished watching the brilliant It’s a Sin, where a group of friends have a signature in-joke greeting “La!” with a high-pitched voice and accompanying gesture. In a lightbulb moment, began to think of those tenths in Bloomsbury Waltz as the musical equivalent of that “La!” or whatever they said in 1923. All the other pieces in Caledonian Market have evocations of everyday sounds, so why not here, too?
There are more quirky directions—”wooden” in one bar, and “genteel” in another. Are the imaginary party-goers drunk, and trying to collect themselves and get back to waltzing without pulling each other over? Or should you keep in mind that the “setting” of the piece is Caledonian Market, so that it’s a form of social and geographical commentary, rather than a naïve character portrait? Does this wooden, genteel, mincing, ethereally heard-in-the-distance waltz act as the necessary backdrop against which to hear the raucous or intimate sounds of the market? It’s only a small piece, but it is open to so many interpretations and questions about “subject position.”
[Update on 17th March 2021] It was some days after I’d already published this post that I read Sophie Fuller’s excellent article about Poldowski , where she says that the Bloomsbury Waltz “paints a gently mocking picture of British refinement.” In a review of Poldowski’s performance of Caledonian Market in The Chesterian (a magazine produced by Chester, Poldowski’s publisher), Leigh Henry wrote that “irony glints throughout . . . but there is also a sensitively tender humanity” .
There’s something very dark about this piece to my ears, like a dysphoric ballroom sequence in a ballet. It reminds me also of bits of John Ireland’s Soho Forenoons that has a melancholy undertone, despite the attempts to be jolly. London has always had that quality to me. You can look at Prague from the top of a hill, and think “Isn’t that gorgeous” in a way that you can’t with London. I’ve recorded several versions of this, and I still can’t decide how slow “slow” should be. Playing for ballet, you get used to the idea that there are almost no limits to how slow a dance could be, particularly a dream-sequence, but in a piano recital in the 1920s? I wonder if anyone would have had the patience.
I wish I could trace all the connections that make me think that these triads conjure up a kind of nostalgic whiff of 1920s London. It can only be by association. A piece came on the radio the other day that sounded like Shostakovich, but then suddenly it sounded—with its ethereal slow cascades of triads—very much like Poldowski. When was it written? Because of those chords, which to me feel very 1920s, I guessed 1923 like the Bloomsbury Waltz, but as the piece progressed to the end, it sounded less like Shostakovich, and much earlier than 1923. But in fact, it was Shostakovich: his piano trio No. 1, written in 1923. The bit I mean is around 10:45:
In Poldowski’s piece, the feeling of darkness extends (to my mind at least) in the way the music ends hanging in the air on an F# minor triad, which also happens to be the key Poldowski chose for Berceuse Armorique, a hauntingly sad lullaby that may have been written in response to her first son’s tragic death aged 2 in 1904. Her life didn’t seem to get much better—her other children, Brenda Dean Paul and “Napper” were “bright young things” bedevilled by drug and alcohol addiction. Poldowski’s marriage ended in 1921, she struggled to make ends meet, and she died in 1932, aged 52, of complications resulting from pneumonia. All in all, not a great advertisement for marrying into the minor British aristocracy, though I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.
On biography, deliberate forgetting, and the web
According to David Mooney, Poldowski’s biography was only restored to the New Grove Dictionary II in 2001 “(which, like those about so many other female composers, had been omitted from the previous edition.” The shocking part of this is that Poldowski wasn’t someone who needed to be fished out of obscurity to satisfy a late 20th century interest in women composers: in her own lifetime, she had been a significant contributor to musical life in London and elsewhere. I can think of a few other composers of her time that I’d happily put in Room 101instead of Poldowski, if New Grove are pressed for space.
One of the most detailed accounts of Poldowski’s musical career available online is here. But the best stuff, I suspect, maybe offline. I can’t find an e-copy of Mooney’s thesis on Poldowski (though others are available that deal with the songs). I was lucky I happened to have a copy of Sophie Fuller’s book at home. Without it, my picture of Poldowski would be so much poorer. Things like that demonstrate to me just what dangers lie behind the assumption that “everything’s available on the internet now.” It isn’t.