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The Word Girl

1 hour, 15 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 09 October 2011

From Mary to Matilda, Lydia to Laura, and Oriana all the way to a boy named Sue, the weekly sequence of music and verse makes play with the words we use to name the female sex. Readings include verse by Petrarch, Lorca, DH Lawrence, John Clare and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning - plus the odd limerick.

First broadcast in October 2011.

Music Played

29 items
Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes
  • Henry Austin Dobson

    A Ballad of Names, reader John Shrapnel

  • Image for Gerald Finzi

    Gerald Finzi Who is Sylvia?

    Performer: Roderick Williams (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano)

    Naxos, 8.557644, 8

  • Dinah Craik

    My Christian Name, reader Romola Garai

  • Image for Gabriel Fauré

    Gabriel Fauré Lydia, from 2 Songs Op.4

    Performer: Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto), Catherine Collard (piano)

    RCA, 09026 -61439-2, 4

  • D. H. Lawrence

    Henriette, reader John Shrapnel

  • Image for Cole Porter

    Cole Porter Where is the Life that Late I Led

    Performer: Howard Keel (baritone)

    CBS, AK-46196, 13

  • Federico García Lorca, trans. Robert Nasatir

    Balcony (La Lola), reader John Shrapnel

  • Image for The Kinks

    The Kinks Lola

    Sanctuary, SANDD109

  • Hilaire Belloc

    Matilda, reader Romola Garai

  • Image for Kurt Weill

    Kurt Weill The Saga of Jenny

    Performer: Lotte Lenya (voice), Maurice Levine (conductor)

    Sony Classical, MHK-60647

  • Nora Perry

    Jenny, reader Romola Garai

  • Image for Robert Schumann

    Robert Schumann Abegg Variations Op.1

    Performer: Imogen Cooper (piano)

    Ottavo, OTR C-39027

  • John Clare

    Her maiden name was Eleanor, reader John Shrapnel

  • Image for Giulio Caccini

    Giulio Caccini Amarilli mia bella

    Performer: Johanette Zomer (soprano), Fred Jacobs (lute)

    Channel Classics, CCS-SEL-5810, 1

  • Francesco Petrarch, trans. Mark Musa

    Sonnet No. 5, reader John Shrapnel

  • Image for Thomas Weelkes

    Thomas Weelkes As Vesta was from Latmos hill

    Performer: King’s Singers

    EM Records, 0299-001, 18

  • William Thompson

    On writing Laura’s name in the snow, readers Romola Garai and John Shrapnel

  • Image for Edward Elgar

    Edward Elgar 'Dorabella', from 'Enigma' Variations

    Performer: Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (conductor)

    Decca, 430-241-2, 11

  • Mary Lamb

    Choosing a Name, reader Romola Garai

  • Image for Johnny Cash

    Johnny Cash A Boy Named Sue

    Composer: Shel Silverstein

    Columbia, 4681162, 11

  • William Pattison

    Written with a penknife on a tree , reader John Shrapnel

  • William Pattison

    On a drunkard’s writing his mistress’s name on a drinking-glass, reader Romola Garai

  • Image for Ludwig van Beethoven

    Ludwig van Beethoven Adelaide Op.46 For Voice And Piano

    Performer: Dietrich Henschel (baritone), Michael Schafer (piano)

    Harmonia Mundi, HMC-901801

  • Elizabeth Barrett-Browning

    The Pet-name, reader Romola Garai

  • Image for [anonymous]

    [anonymous] O Maria Magdelena

    Performer: Jennie Cassidy (contralto)

    Avie, AV-0026, 13

  • Maurice Francis Egan

    Ave, Maria, reader John Shrapnel

  • Image for Claudio Monteverdi

    Claudio Monteverdi Vespro della Beata Vergine [1610]

    Performer: Tessa Bonner (soprano), Taverner Players, Andrew Parrott (conductor)

    Virgin Classics, 561 347 2

  • Anonymous

    A limerick, reader Romola Garai

  • Image for Scritti Politti

    Scritti Politti The Word Girl

    Composer: Green Gartside & David Gamson

    Virgin, CDV-2350

  • Romola Garai

    Romola Garai

  • John Shrapnel

    John Shrapnel

  • Producer's Note

    It was a chance re-encounter with Scritti Politti’s meticulously crafted piece of synth-pop from the 1980s that gave me the idea for this programme. ‘The Word Girl’ addresses the ubiquitous presence of the word ‘girl’ in song, and from the moment that it first had me thinking ‘what if I were to make a programme based on actual girls’ names?’, within minutes a host of ideas for songs and poems had come streaming into my mind. For a while it was bewildering. I had hardly started, and already so many contenders were clamouring for inclusion that I was floundering. How to keep things under control? The answer turned out to have been in the song-title all along: focus on material that makes girls’ names the subject as much as it does the girls (or women) themselves, which holds them up for examination, plays with them, enjoys the very sound of them, loses itself in them.

    Some of the items I ended up selecting do this through sheer repetition: Nora Perry treasures the charms of a baby called Jenny, Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin recount the life-story of a rather different and less innocent Jenny, Beethoven cannot leave the word ‘Adelaide’ alone in his song of the same name, and John Clare practically wraps himself in the name Eleanor. In ‘Ave Maria', the American poet and diplomat Maurice F. Egan savours the phrase as a sort of talisman of muscular Catholicism, and in Monteverdi’s extraordinary 'Sonata sopra Sancta Maria' a five-word invocation ‘Sancta maria, ora pro nobis’ (‘Holy Mary, pray for us’) is superimposed on one of the most delicious instrumental compositions of the early 17th century.

    A song can achieve a similar effect by opposite means, however, for instance by choosing a poem in which a name appears only once but then setting that word so perfectly that afterwards it is what you remember most. Fauré’s typically elegant 'Lydia' is one, as are Caccini’s ardent 'Amarilli mia bella' and Finzi’s suave 'Who is Sylvia?'.

    Other songs or poems take the less subtle form of catalogues: Henry Austin Dobson runs playfully through a list of Romantic literary heroines (rejecting them all in favour of ‘Rose’), Mary Lamb imagines a young girl wrestling with the responsibility of finding a suitable name for her new-born sister, and Cole Porter devises a witty string of rhymes in a newly-married man’s list of former loves in ‘Where is the Life that Late I Led?’ from 'Kiss me Kate'. Elsewhere the approach is more cryptic, as when, in one of his sonnets, Petrarch embeds the name of his unattainable Laura (appearing here as ‘Laureta’), or when D. H. Lawrence teases Henriette with knowing references to a few other things girls’ names have stood duty for. Schumann’s ‘Abegg’ Variations meanwhile find a more purely musical solution by creating and manipulating a theme based on the notes contained in the name of a lover.

    A more elegiac note is struck by two Victorian poems in which the loss of a name is the subject, and indeed in which the name fails even to appear: Mrs Dinah Craik’s ‘My Christian name’ seems to be a lament for her unmarried identity, while Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s ‘The Pet-name’ is a wistful remembrance of childhood.

    Given the sentimental weight a name can carry, especially relating to family, perhaps it was unavoidable that Victorian poets would feature strongly in this programme. No less inevitable was it that humour would play a big part. In addition to some of the items already mentioned we have Matilda, Hilaire Belloc’s famously ill-fated liar, and I was pleased to come across two 17th-century writers who found fun in the dubiously meaningful act of writing a girl’s name on, variously, a tree, a drinking-glass and snow.

    Finally, it amused me to include two songs in which gender boundaries are clouded. Ray Davies’s 'Lola' describes a confusing encounter in a Soho bar, and Johnny Cash gives the inmates of San Quentin prison an almighty cheer-up with his story of a man toughened up for the hard life armed only with the name ‘Sue’. This last song in particular has always tickled me, owner as I am of an epicene name. Come to think of it, that has to be the only reason no-one has written a poem or a song about me yet...

    Lindsay Kemp (producer)


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