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The Seven Ages of Woman

A special edition to mark International Women's Day, exploring the lives of women from birth to death in poetry, prose and music. The readers are Fiona Shaw and Ellie Kendrick.

To mark International Women's Day a special edition exploring the lives of women from birth to death in poetry, prose and music. The readers are Fiona Shaw and Ellie Kendrick. With words by Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Carol Ann Duffy, Kate Chopin, Muriel Spark, Kathleen Jamie, Emily Dickinson and Mrs Gaskell and music by Sofia Gubaidulina, Sally Beamish, Joan Baez, Judith Weir, Elisabeth Maconchy, Tineke Postma and Louise Farrenc.

Producer: Fiona McLean.

1 hour, 15 minutes

Last on

Sun 5 Mar 2017 17:30

Music Played

Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes

  • 00:00

    Amy Beach

    Sketches - Fireflies

    Performer: Kirsten Johnson.
    • GUILD GMCD7317.
    • 4.
  • Sylvia Plath

    Morning Song read by Fiona Shaw

  • 00:03

    Teresa Carreño

    Le Sommeil de l’enfant

    Performer: Clara Rodriguez.
    • NIMBUS NI6103.
    • 12.
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning

    Sonnet 14 read by Ellie Kendrick

  • 00:07

    Joan Baez

    Diamonds and Rust

    Performer: Joan Baez.
    • A&M CDA3234.
    • 1.
  • 00:12

    Sally Beamish

    The River –- March Watercolour

    Performer: Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Performer: Robert Cohen.
    • BIS CD971.
    • 2.
  • Kate Chopin

    from The Awakening read by Ellie Kendrick

  • 00:16

    Sofia Gubaidulina

    Quintet for Piano, Two Violins, Viola and Violoncello

    Performer: Rieko Aizawa. Performer: Kai Vogler. Performer: Mira Wang. Performer: Mira Wang. Performer: Ulrich Eichenauer. Performer: Peter Bruns.
    • BIS CD898.
    • 4.
  • Emily Dickinson

    I’'m Wife read by Fiona Shaw

  • 00:23

    Carole King

    Like a Natural Woman

    • EPIC CD32110.
    • 12.
  • Mary Gaskell

    from Cranford read by Fiona Shaw

  • 00:27

    Louise Farrenc

    Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano

    Performer: Ambache Chamber Ensemble.
    • CARLTON 3036600302.
    • 9.
  • Carol Ann Duffy

    Anon read by Ellie Kendrick

  • 00:33

    Cécile Louise Chaminade

    Chanson Bretonne

    Performer: Kimberly Schmidt.
    • KOCH 372402.
    • 9.
  • Carol Ann Duffy

    Demeter read by Fiona Shaw

  • 00:37

    Judith Weir

    Songs from the Exotic – The song of the girl ravished away by the fairies in South Uist

    Performer: Susan Bickley. Performer: Ailish Tynan. Performer: Iain Burnside.
    • SIGNUM SIGCD087.
    • 6.
  • 00:39

    Lydia Kakabadse

    Russian Tableaux – Mother Volga

    Performer: Ensemble, George Vass, conductor.
    • NAXOS 8572524.
    • 4.
  • Kathleen Jamie

    Flower Sellers, Budapest read by Fiona Shaw

  • 00:45

    Chen Yi

    Making the Hand-pulled Noodles

    Performer: The Ying Quartet.
    • QUARTZ QTZ2055.
    • 10.
  • Sara Teasdale

    There will come soft rains read by Ellie Kendrick

  • 00:50

    Jennifer Higdon

    Southern Harmony – Soft Summers

    Performer: Ying Quartet.
    • QUARTZ QTZ2055.
    • 12.
  • Muriel Spark

    from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie read by Fiona Shaw

  • 00:55

    Karen Tanaka

    At the Grave of Beethoven – First Movement

    Performer: Brodsky Quartet.
    • CHALLENGE CC72009.
    • 5.
  • Elizabeth Bishop

    One Art read by Fiona Shaw

  • 01:01

    Tineke Postma

    Before Snow

    Performer: Tineke Postma. Performer: Marc van Roon. Performer: Frans van der Hoeven.
    • CHALLENGE CR73313.
    • 3.
  • Mary Oliver

    When Death Comes read by Ellie Kendrick

  • 01:06

    Grażyna Bacewicz

    Partita - Toccata

    Performer: Joanna Kurkowicz, violin, and Gloria Chien, piano. Performer: Gloria Chien.
    • CHANDOS CHAN10250.
    • 13.
  • Edna St Vincent Millay

    First Fig read by Fiona Shaw and Ellie Kendrick

  • 01:10

    Elizabeth Maconchy

    Music for Strings - Finale

    Performer: London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Barry Unsworth.
    • LYRITA SRCD288.
    • 13.

Producer Note

This week’s programme is a special edition to celebrate International Women’s Day. The theme is ‘Seven Ages of Woman’, a take on Jacques’ description of the life of a man in ‘As You Like It’. You’ll hear poems and prose portraying the life of a woman as child, mother, worker, artist, wife and friend. And with music all composed by women. 

The programme begins with Amy Beach’s ‘Fireflies’. Born in 1867 Beach was the first female composer to achieve wide recognition in the United States, a child prodigy who began giving public recitals at the age of seven.

Like Amy Beach the poet Elizabeth Browning showed talent at a very early age. Educated at home she was reading Milton and Shakespeare by the age of ten and, by 12, had written her first ‘epic’ poem. Here you’ll hear ‘Sonnet 14’ in which she expresses her views of what constitutes genuine love and her expectation of her husband to be, Robert Browning.

The great singer-songwriter Joan Baez’s ‘Diamonds and Rust’ also describes a relationship between two writers – Baez herself and her lover Bob Dylan.

Kate Chopin’s novel, ‘The Awakening’, published in 1899, was a landmark of early feminism, telling the story of a woman’s awakening to sexual passion and the difficulties she faces reconciling her role as wife and mother to her new desires. Published 20 years after Ibsen’s ‘The Doll’s House’ it shares many of the same themes. One reviewer wrote: "We are well-satisfied when Mrs. Pontellier deliberately swims out to her death in the waters of the gulf." After the censoring of the book which followed its publication Chopin never wrote another novel. The reading is heard alongside Sofia Gubaidulina’s early ‘Piano Quintet’. In mid-twentieth century Russia Gubaidulina faced very different problems. As a composer whose work expressed her religious convictions she found herself in opposition to the Soviet authors and was denounced, along with six other composers for writing ‘noisy mud instead of real musical innovation’. Gubaidulina’s response was to say that being blacklisted gave her the artistic freedom to write what she wanted without compromise.

A passage from Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford shows the capacity of women to form a community through friendship and is heard with Louise Farrenc’s exuberant Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano in E Minor.

‘Demeter’ by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy tells the myth of Demeter and her lost daughter Persephone, a beautifully moving exploration of loss, reconciliation and a mother’s love. Judith Weir’s ‘The Song of the girl ravished away by the fairies in South Uist’ is a setting of a Scottish Gaelic folk song in which a child cries out to be reunited with her mother.

Woman’s work is heard in Chen Yi’s ‘Making the hand-pulled noodles’ from her ‘At the Kansas City Chinese New Year Concert’ and Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Flower Sellers, Budapest’.

Responses to war come in the American poet Sara Teasdale’s ‘There will come soft rains’, a work about the senseless destruction caused by war and the fascism espoused by Muriel Spark’s character Miss Jean Brodie. The Japanese composer Karen Tanaka’s ‘At the Grave of Beethoven’ is in part a response to her shock on hearing the news of the civil war in Kosovo which was being reported in 1999 as she wrote her String Quartet.

‘Seven Ages of Woman’ ends with Elizabeth Maconchy’s Finale from her ‘Music for Strings’, which she has called ‘an extrovert happy-go-lucky movement’ and Fiona Shaw and Ellie Kendrick reading Edna St Vincent’s First Fig, her glorious four line poem extolling the virtue of women living their lives  to the full. 

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