A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, November 28, 2003

Music to my ears - Philip in PC mode!

Now folks, this is a Friday self-indulgence and Philip in PC mode (nice unintentional pun there!). If the great Norman Geras et al. can rabbit on in their blogs about jazz and novels, etc., I think I can witter on about my love of classical music just once in a while, despite the focus of this blog being on the environment. So, while our American cousins are offline enjoying their Thanksgiving turkeys and cranberry sauce, here is my cri de coeur for women composers.....

"The song is actually by my sister, Fanny, Your Majesty!"

Fanny Mendelssohn as a young woman.DURING A visit to England in 1846-7, Felix Mendelssohn had an audience with Queen Victoria. She asked if he would listen to her sing her favourite Mendelssohn song, ‘Italien’, no. 3 from his Opus 8. As the Queen finished, Mendelssohn shamefacedly admitted that the song was not his own, but that it had been composed by his sister, Fanny. Indeed, three songs in the collection were by Fanny, as were three more in his Opus 9. Printed versions today still maintain the conceit.

The treatment of women composers, although historically understandable, remains a scandal. It is also a tragedy, because beautiful and distinctive voices are excluded from the classical canon. Of course, misogyny in music has an unworthy tradition, especially among the world’s orchestras. On January 1st, 2003, Ursula Plaichinger, who plays the viola, was the first woman, not a harpist, to perform, still only as a substitute I might add, in the Vienna Philharmonic’s legendary New Year’s Day Concert. But for women composers, the position is worse. They remain unsung shadows, mere adjuncts of their brother or husband.

Yet Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel was a genius of equal standing with her brother. Indeed, some commentators have argued that we owe much of the tradition of the ‘Lied’ to her, and not to Felix. She was also prolific. Between the ages of 15 and 16, Fanny wrote no fewer than 38 songs, 4 choral arrangements, and 11 piano works. And if you doubt her genius, try this trick. When you have musical visitors, play a rare CD of her String Quartet in E flat major, the ‘Romanze’ of which is truly spine-tingling. Then watch their faces. They recognise it is outstanding, but they can’t quite place it. At last, someone will reluctantly confess, “I should know that, but what is it?” “Oh, it’s Mendelssohn,” you respond, nonchalantly. Relief all round, until you add, “Fanny, of course.” You then witness the old Johnsonian aphorism being reformed: “Sir, a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

And what of Clara Wieck Schumann, Emilie Mayer, and Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen? We know virtually nothing of Mayer, who lived between1812 and 1883, and yet she wrote numerous sonatas for piano and violin, piano trios, and string quartets, not to mention overtures and symphonies. While musicologists spend years digging out the imitative works of minor male composers and the marginalia of the famous, she remains largely ignored, although her String Quartet Op. 14 in G minor, the only one published in her lifetime, is sheer delight.

Why then have women composers been so badly treated? In the 19th century, a woman, born into the class that supported music, was encouraged to perform, and often internationally, as with Clara Schumann, but on marriage, she was strongly discouraged from 'composition' - it was, after all, a trade. In 1820, Fanny received the following warning from her father: “Perhaps music will be his [Felix’s] profession, whereas for you it can and must be but an ornament and never the fundamental base-line of your existence and activity.” Women were meant to be 'salonières'. In addition, their compositions were deemed to be 'of the parlour', and, as with Fanny, if they were published, it was often under the name of a male relative.

Why are they still neglected? Sadly, much of their material remains unpublished, songs and symphonies languishing alike in lost archives. Their available oeuvre is thus perceived as restrictive - not enough for 'Composer of the Week' or for a full, marketable CD. Lastly, people listen to them with a pre-conceived ear, as mere curiosities.

What a joy it would be if musicologists, Radio 3 and Classic FM were to begin to redress the balance. And for my own Desert Island Disks, I would choose Fanny’s String Quartet in E flat major, along, of course, with her brother’s resurgent Octet in the same key.

Philip recommends the Erato Quartet of Basel’s CD of string quartets by women composers, which includes Fanny Mendelssohn’s masterpiece (CPO 999 679-2). Here is a critical review of the CD (Classical Music Review). Time for a Morning Coffee Concert?

Thursday, November 27, 2003

Did you know that we now have more birds in the UK than in 1800.....?

Congratulations on this excellent piece from Tony Gilland in Sp!ked: 'Bird-brained theories' (Sp!ked, November 27). The idea that all our birds are under threat has always been somewhat feather-brained. This is what Tony says:

"The population levels of different bird species within the UK have always been subject to change in response to changes in human activity. Changing bird populations are neither new, surprising or worrying. There is a danger that for cultural and political reasons we are becoming overly sensitive to having any impact on other species. Consider the following points:

# An authoritative review of historical ornithological literature conducted in 1944 found that '132 out of 189 breeding species, or 70 per cent, have changed markedly in status during the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries'. The authors noted that widespread species 'could probably double or halve its numbers without the fact being noticed'. Today a 25 per cent recorded decline in a bird species prompts a Biodiversity Action Plan being put into place; it seems that today's government is unwilling to allow bird populations to fall as well as increase, though this has always been the way of things.

#The number of species breeding in the UK is thought to be around 20 per cent greater today than in 1800, despite the intensification of agriculture on the 75 per cent of the UK's land surface that is farmed. 'The number of breeding species in the UK is increasing, with nearly 40 more species breeding at the end of the twentieth century than at the beginning of the nineteenth.... In the last 30 years there has been a net increase of four species per decade.'"

What is more, I add, the new nesting bird species are not just the ring-necked parakeet and the infamous ruddy duck (oversexed and over here [and on sex tours to Spain]!), but the goosander, the pochard, the tufted duck, the collared dove, the little ringed plover, the golden oriole, and the little egret. And, with some benign 'global warming', we might yet see the penduline tit, the bee-eater, and the cattle egret (that would be nice on the North Kent Marshes - granted no stupid airport at Cliffe).

I suspect Tony's rationality will cause Much Twittering in the Marsh.

Philip. Now what 'tweet' do we have for dinner tonight?

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

GM! I'm bored out of my mind in Britain!

For once, I rather empathise with The Guardian's somewhat 'tongue-in-cheek' report on the Acre discussions about (not again!) GM crops: 'Debate ends, all passion spent' (The Guardian, November 26). I know the feeling well! To be honest, I'm bored out of my mind by the whole caboodle - a tiny circle of professional worryworts and professional scientists doing a perpetual 'Dance to the Music of Time' that has become even more etiolated than Anthony Powell's rather preferable roman fleuve!

Particularly pertinent is the following reported comment: "It doesn't really matter what Britain decides now. GM crops are a global success." Quite! With a world commercial acreage last year over 2.5 times the size of the whole of the British Isles (and growing at about 10% per year), this is undoubtedly true. From Argentina to China, the real world bats on quite oblivious of our tiny little Larry-the-Lamb Toy Town over here in the UK ("Baaaaaa! Mrrrr. Maaayor, Siir! Weeee dooon't waaaant theeese fuuunny fooooreign croooops! Baaaaa!"). I suspect that, in 20 years time, we will wonder what the fuss was all about!

Britain's position on GM crops reminds me of a wonderful South-East Asian folk tale which goes somewhat as follows:

"Uncle Prem trusted nobody, especially when he had just planted out his nursery bed of rice. Uncle Prem thought that his greedy neighbours would try to steal some of his best-quality rice seedlings and that badly-managed water buffalo would trample them into the soft mud if he didn't keep watch over the precious plants by night and day. Thus, before the transplanting season, Uncle Prem would sit, huddled in his ramshackled rice-field hut, watching the little plots of watery land turn slowly bright green as the new rice shoots sprouted. Uncle Prem stared and stared, perpetual smoke curling from his lips, never ever looking back to his village for a second. Uncle Prem just watched and guarded the plots. The rest of the world could go hang.

At last, the time came to transplant the rice into the big fields. Uncle Prem relaxed a little for the first time in 30 days. He stretched and eyed eagerly his emerald-green shoots, before turning triumphantly to face the village.

Then, Uncle Prem rubbed hard his weary eyes! He couldn't believe what he saw. To his total shock and horror, a large bulldozer was lifting up his old stilt house as the whole village was given over to new development....."

So, as the Pantomime season approaches - "It's behind you!"

Philip, a benign Widmerpool! Coffee time, hurrah!

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Lord May foxes 'em with the 'Middle Way' on GM.....

As ever, sane and sensible stuff from Lord May, President of the Royal Society: 'GM warriors have killed the debate' (Comment, The Guardian, November 25):

"The results of the research, published after peer review in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, showed that the impact of GM herbicide-resistant crops needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. They demonstrate that the cultivation of these crops can help farmers to use weedkillers more effectively. But if this more effective use of weedkillers results in changes, good or bad, in the supply of food for farmland wildlife, it can significantly affect biodiversity.

Sadly, these important conclusions have been obscured by the kneejerk responses of the GM warriors issued immediately after, and in some cases before, the publication of the eight detailed scientific papers describing the farm trials results."

Quite. Absolutely what was said on this very blog! Nice to have it in the jolly old 'Grauniad' too. I wish we had more Lord Mays around - and Bob wrote this after England had drop kicked Oz into gloom and despair (wasn't the Australian Prime Minister a curmudgeonly disgrace? Talk about a poor loser - perhaps Bob should go back and take over!).

Nice to see the lads return safe and sound this morning.

The Royal Society's submission to Acre is published today here. And our old pal, Alex Kirby, is also clearly enjoying Lord May's foxy 'Middle Way': 'GM friends and foes "both wrong"' (BBC News Online, November 25).

Philip. That coffee smells really good.....

European hypocrisy continues over Kyoto Protocol targets for 'greenhouse gas' emissions.....

Whilst lecturing, often in the most self-righteous of tones, the rest of the world about their failures to reduce so-called anthropogenic 'greenhouse gas' emissions, Europe has just had to admit in 'Europe's environment: the third assessment - Environmental assessment report No 10' that both the EU and EFTA are now way behind their own targets and burden-sharing as set under the Kyoto Protocol.

The hard facts are buried in the very long chapter 3. 'Climate change' (.pdf), which is well worth a bit of clinical deconstruction. Even all little green smileys that litter the merry text can't hide the blunt truth. Here are two of the most telling passages:-


According to the latest EU projections, total greenhouse gas emissions in the EU are expected to fall by 4.7 % from the 1990 level by 2010 assuming adoption and implementation of current, but no additional, policies and measures (EEA, 2002a). This leaves a shortfall of 3.3 % to the target of an 8 % reduction. Only the United Kingdom, Germany and Sweden are projected to achieve their Kyoto burdensharing targets without additional policies or measures or the use of the flexible mechanisms. The transport sector is of particular concern with emissions projected to increase by more than 25% - 30 % between 1990 and 2010 (EEA, 2002a). Substantial further action is therefore needed if the EU is to reach its Kyoto target.

EFTA countries

Greenhouse gas emissions in Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland fell slightly during the first half of the 1990s. During the second half, emissions increased significantly in Iceland and Norway, but hardly changed in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. In total, between 1990 and 2000, greenhouse gas emissions increased in Iceland (by 6.7 %) and Norway (by 6.3 %) and decreased in Switzerland (by 0.9 %) and Liechtenstein (by 1.7 %). All these countries are some percentage points above their linear Kyoto target (Figure 3.6)."

Frankly, this is a disgrace. One doesn't mind being lectured by countries that 'walk-the-walk', even if it is all economic and scientific nonsense (something that is increasingly being recognized from Russia to Canada, e.g. 'Bye-Bye Kyoto' and 'Research debunks greenhouse theory: proof exists (that greenhouse does not), but believers would rather denounce than debate' [Edmonton Journal, November 12 - apologies for the music!), but Europe is just hot air and 'talk-the-talk'! Why should anyone listen to their bleating?

European arrogance and duplicity is sometimes breathtaking - and the 'global warming' rhetoric too often parallels that on European defence policy!

Philip, not a happy European lapin!

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