Minerva Scientifica

IF your dog has the misfortune to be allergic to fleas, it is hard to have any interest in the little beasts. But no-one could fail to be seduced by the charms of Karen Wimhurst’s musical flea and Frances Lynch’s interpretation of the scientist and entomologist Miriam Rothschild, who made a special study of the insects.

Karen, a Shaftesbury-based composer and musician, is one of the women composers commissioned by Electric Voice theatre company to write a work inspired by and celebrating the work of a prominent women scientist.

Karen’s choice was Miriam Rothschild, and the work was performed in an open rehearsal at the Campion Music School at St Mary’s School, Shaftesbury, for a small audience of friends. Karen was dressed and made up as a flea, while singer-performer Frances Lynch was the exuberant and eccentric Rothschild, with microscope and butterfly net.

The music and vocal passages trace Rothschild’s interest in the natural world – particularly insects – from earliest childhood, through the tragic death (by suicide) of her beloved father, to her growing awareness of the value of all living things. There is a dark passage, after her father’s death, when she rages against the rising tide of anti-semitism. Otherwise the music is as joyful and energetic as its subject, who worked at Bletchley Park during the war and founded the Schizophrenia Foundation, among many other varied achievements during a long life (1908-2005).

The other work of the evening was Judith Bingham’s Mary Anning, a solo piece for voice, stones and gravel. The gritty, clattering sounds of Anning (Frances Lynch) as she stomped along the beach at Lyme Regis (long trays of gravel and stones) and clattered together the stones and fossils she found provided a percussive counterpoint to the songs, which have a melodic and at times hymnal quality (Bingham is a noted choral composer).

The very different musical styles and performances provided just the right contrast between the characters of these two pioneering women scientists – the poor, uneducated “mother of paleontology,” stubborn and obstinate but with a natural instinct for the location and identification of the fossils she found on the beaches below Black Ven and Church Cliffs, the other born into an immensely wealthy and well-connected European Jewish family, who ignored the conventions of the time to become a leading entomologist and social campaigner.

Yet they had one thing in common – both were amateurs. Anning was uneducated and for many years her finds were claimed by the leading (male) scientists of the day, while Rothschild, although she was loaded with honorary doctorates, similarly had little formal education.

Minerva Scientifica is an ongoing programme and Electric Voice is currently working on the third project, focusing on Rosalind Franklin (1920-58) whose work on DNA and the double helix was critical to the discoveries for which Crick and Watson subsequently received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

If the success and interest of these first two works by women composers celebrating women scientists sets the standard for future projects, I can’t wait!



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