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Marion Scott

and the

Society of Women Musicians

Writing in 1909, Marion Scott issued a blunt warning to girls and young women dreaming of careers in classical music.

‘Professional life is a really hard struggle...with orchestral work it must be remembered that all the best engagements are filled by men, with the exception of harpists in some of the orchestras,’ she wrote in the Daily Express.(1) In her front page article entitled ‘Music as a Profession’, Marion observed that women organists could also expect to find the doors to churches closed to them because ‘all the important posts are held by men.’(2)

In her opinion singers stood the best chance for professional success in opera - where women were always needed - on the concert stage, in musical comedy and as teachers. Pianists might fare well as accompanists and teachers while other instrumentalists might teach privately or in schools where they were expected to teach several instruments in addition to their own.

Solo careers for women instrumentalists were rare. A few managed to enjoy success and serve as role models for younger women: violinists Lady Hallé, Marie Hall and May Harrison; cellists Beatrice Harrison and May Mukle, and pianist Fanny Davies among them.(3) No one had ever heard of a woman music critic or a woman musicologist.

With a few exceptions, most notably Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) and Alice Mary Smith (1839-1884), women composers could expect to find their work consigned to a silent destiny.(4) If a woman wanted to conduct an orchestra, she had to form her own. Less talented women managed only to apply their musical skills as either ‘lady-helps’ or governesses while some gave up entirely and retreated into the seemingly safer and more secure world of marriage.(5)

Marion Scott had written from her own experiences and from those of her gifted women friends and associates. Like many women of her generation, she had dreamed of a career in music but found the path toward her dream strewn with obstacles. Marion was a gifted violinist who began performing as a soloist when she was 15 years old. She held the distinction of being one of Charles Villiers Stanford’s first female pupils at the Royal College of Music and one of the most promising, earning from him a grade four in composition, the second highest mark.(6) Her songs, arrangements and chamber music were performed in public and won critical acclaim but none of her music was published.

Although she worked occasionally in orchestras under men like Stanford, Walter Parratt, Gustav Holst and Samuel Coleridge Taylor, sometimes serving as leader, she was not able to secure a serious paying position in any professional orchestra. Marion did not have the physical stamina for a full-time solo career, due in part to the lingering effects of injuries suffered in an accident when she was young. Instead she formed her own string quartet with the goal of championing contemporary British music by both men and women.

From childhood, Marion was a self-assured, assertive risk-taker, someone who always dared to cross boundaries, to challenge convention and, in the process, work to bring about change, create opportunity, and improve life for herself and for others. As she contemplated the future of women in music, she began to formulate a strategy. She envisioned a society to provide women composers, performers and writers on music with the opportunity to come together to learn, discuss and share in musical matters.

By 1911, the year she met Ivor Gurney, Marion had drawn her friends Gertrude Eaton (1863-?) and Katharine Eggar (1874-1961) into her plans to establish the Society of Women Musicians. She and Eaton had discussed their strategy and drafted their agenda earlier that year while on a spring holiday in The New Forest.

In Eaton and Eggar, Scott found compatible partners who were willing to work with unflagging commitment to match her own. Eaton had trained as a singer in Italy and from 1894 to 1897 studied at the Royal College of Music where she met Scott. Eaton was the editor of the Royal Society of Music Magazine and a voice teacher who was also an active worker in prison reform and in other movements that benefited women and children. Eggar had studied piano in Berlin and Brussels, and composition with Frederick Corder at the Royal Academy of Music. She had composed a number of chamber works, including a piano quintet and string quartet as well as songs.

As the women envisioned the society, it would promote a sense of cooperation among women in different fields of music, provide performance opportunities and advice and would even help women with the practical business aspects of their work. Professional women – performers, teachers, conductors, composers – paid 15s. 6d. for a subscription fee while non-professional women paid one pound, £1 6s. to join. Marion’s solicitor father Sydney Scott drew up a constitution and rules for governing the organization.(7) Marion produced a full-sized book for keeping minutes and an equally large account book and ledger to record the SWM’s financial transactions. The organization would be professional in every way.

Before the society was even launched, the women had their critics who were quick to accuse them of exclusivity, aggression and politics, but they were ready for them. The founding women and their Provisional Council made it clear that the society would have no political agenda and that it would be open to men. Although she was well aware of the inequities suffered by women in male-dominated society, Marion Scott was never antagonistic toward men. ‘She always expected and received their support, and had a completely natural attitude … no one had more devoted men friends,’ Katharine Eggar later recalled.(8) During her teenage years Marion had regularly accompanied her parents to suffrage, temperance and other social reform meetings where she experienced men and women working together cooperatively to achieve common goals, an approach she would apply throughout her life.

As dues-paying associate members at five shillings a year, men were invited to attend debates, performances and meetings, and, as the organization broadened even more, to have their music performed at SWM concerts. Chamber music promoter Walter W. Cobbett (1847-1937), a successful businessman, amateur musician and founder of the Cobbett Prize, was the first benefactor of the organisation. Composer-teacher Thomas Dunhill (1877-1946) was the first associate member.(9) Cobbett and Dunhill were among twenty male associates to join in the first year. Ivor Gurney also became a member. Thus the SWM operated on an agenda of equality, its leaders believing that their purpose was best served by including, rather than excluding men. Scott, the force behind this open philosophy, achieved her goals through a combination of ‘the ladylikeness of a Liza Lehmann and the fighting nerve of an Ethel Smyth’ who had become a militant Suffragette.(10)

‘We were then in the thick of the Women’s Suffrage battle and anything determinedly feminine was suspect,’ Eggar explained. ‘Facetiousness about "the ladies" had to be endured, and nice men hardly liked to hear their [female] relations refer to themselves and their friends as Women.’(11) Even women, conditioned to a subservient role, were fearful and reluctant to take charge of their own lives when opportunity presented itself.

‘The attitude of women musicians to each other was on the whole selfish,’ Eggar acknowledged. ‘Musicians were not as awakened as women in other professions, and badly needed a jolt in their egotistical outlook.’ Marion Scott provided the jolt while bearing the brunt of dissent from within the ranks. ‘She took the long view of the Society’s role in musical life and never wavered in her belief in its necessity.’ Said Eggar. (12)

The women held their first meeting on 11 July 1911, at the Women’s Institute, 92 Victoria Street. More than 150 crowded into the room and immediately joined the new organisation. Others including Lady Elgar, violinist May Harrison and singer Agnes Nicholls (Mrs. Hamilton Harty) were among those sending regrets that they were unable to attend owing to previous commitments. News of the event had spread rapidly when Scott’s promotional skills resulted in the publication of more than a dozen articles in newspapers and magazines including The Evening Standard and St. James Gazette (a two-part feature), The Daily Telegraph, The Musical Times, The Musical Courier, The Music Student, The Musical Standard, and Musical News.

Scott and Eggar collaborated on the speech that Eggar, who served as temporary chairman of the SWM and as its designated public voice, delivered at the inaugural event.(13) ‘We want women with brains, but with hearts behind their brains,’ Eggar declared in her rallying call to the assembled women. ‘To some this idea of sex exclusiveness is distasteful. There is a suggestion that it has a political significance. We wish the society to have none whatever. We intend it to be a great factor in the development of Art, and we feel that that is a basis broad enough to admit of all variety of political opinion.’ (14)

With women all around them challenging convention, it was time for musicians to do the same. Eggar urged the women not to be content with an ‘unquestioning acceptance of convention or submission to abuses in music and musical doings’, which often denied them equality in ‘the monster of commercialism that rules the musical world.’ The days when women in music were doomed to a silent destiny were over.

‘Here writers and performers will be able to meet and measure their art in co-operation,’ Eggar declared. ‘New lights will flash...the joy of first hearing of her composition will infuse courage and vitality into the toil of the musical author. Work done in the study will be no dumb phantom, but a living vital creation.’

The audience cheered. The women were triumphant. At the heart of this visionary new enterprise stood Marion Scott. The popular and highly visible composer-singer Liza Lehmann (1862-1918) served as the first SWM president to be followed by Dr. Emily Daymond, French pianist-composer Cécile Chaminade and then Eggar (1914-1915), Scott (1915-1916) and Eaton (1916-1917).(15)

Women in music could finally believe in themselves and in a future. They had found strength, courage and hope in their unity. Their energy was electric. In the first year, the SWM membership explored a number of topics: piano technique, French lyric diction, Indian music, Polish folk songs, brass instruments and the Music Copyright Bill. They launched the annual Composer’s Conference, formed a choir and closed out their first year with a comfortable bank balance.

The next year and subsequent years were even more productive. The women formed an orchestra and added an Advisory Section to help young or inexperienced musicians with their professional careers. They began their popular private and public concerts and a series of Bach chamber concerts and inaugurated Composers’ Trial Meetings, which offered women an opportunity to submit their compositions for criticism. They started a library and formed an educational committee. In 1916, the women recommended that the Carnegie Trust publish works by British composers rather than institute the new school of music then under consideration by the trustees. The Trust saw the wisdom of the recommendation and inaugurated the Carnegie Collection of British Music which eventually included Ivor Gurney’s Ludlow and Teme and Western Playland (and of Sorrow).

During the war, the women gave benefit concerts and raised considerable amounts of money to aid organizations from the Star and Garter Fund to the YMCA. On 24 April 1918, they held a fund-raising concert at Wigmore Hall devoted entirely to compositions by men who had joined the army. The programme included Gurney’s ‘Severn Meadows’, ‘All Night Under the Moon’ and ‘On Wenlock Edge’.

In an effort to cultivate international cooperation, the SWM reached out to women in other nations inviting them to participate in programmes and events in England. This outreach led to an invitation to SWM members to exhibit examples their compositions and writings in the Women’s Section of the 1914 Leipzig Exhibition. They participated in international conferences. Members elected French composer-pianist Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944) to serve as SWM president for the 1913-1914 term.

By 1918, the SWM had earned such an enviable reputation that music critic, editor and teacher Percy A. Scholes regarded the organization as ‘a model for men’.

‘Ask any mere man who is struggling to engineer a progressive movement in music where he gets his most dependable support and he will answer – the women,’ Scholes wrote. ‘It is the women who form the bulk of the audience at a lecture of the Incorporated Society of Musicians or the Music Teachers’ Association. It is the women who flock to the Vacation Conferences on Musical Education, and various Training Courses for teachers.’ Scholes further observed that men ‘quite unfairly’ reserved most accommodations for themselves at other venues because otherwise they ‘would at once have been taken over by eager women, all booking early in their anxiety to meet our lecturers, sit at their feet and learn some new thing.’(16)

Women in music had made such important gains as professionals since the inception of the SWM in 1911, that The Music Student devoted the entire May 1918 issue to ‘Women’s Work in Music’. Scholes, founder and editor of the publication, observed that he had to limit the scope of the issue to the work of British women because women’s activities in music in Europe and elsewhere were ‘too wide for treatment in a single issue.’

The SWM had held its first public concert in the ‘small’ Queen’s Hall on 25 January 1912, prompting one anonymous critic to observe that ‘creative talent among women musicians is becoming a power in the land’.(17) The programme featured Eggar’s trio Autumn Leaves for soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto; two movements from Ethel Smyth’s E minor quartet; Ethel Barns’ Fantasy Trio and songs by Marion Scott, Liza Lehmann, Maud Valerie White, Lucie Johnstone and Mabel Saumares Smith. These concerts became regular events at Aeolian, Wigmore and Queen’s halls and soon began to feature compositions by male associate members including Ivor Gurney, Arthur Bliss, Gustav Holst, Thomas Dunhill and music by men outside the Society like W. Denis Browne (1888-1915), who had died at Gallipoli.

Marion had known of Browne before the war and possibly had met him in May 1914 when he lectured on ‘Modern Harmonic Tendencies’ at the Royal Musical Association of which she and her father were members. During the war, she carried on a correspondence with Browne’s mother who was eager to have her son’s music performed. However, Marion ran into an obstacle when she approached Browne’s musical executor Edward J. Dent who made it clear that he was ‘unwilling to let the Society of Women Musicians have the songs’.(18) Scott, a very persuasive woman, managed to convince Dent to meet her. Fully aware of his reticence she expected him to send her on her way in ten minutes but she stayed for two hours as Dent ‘turned out thing after thing of Denis Browne’. She was amazed by ‘their individuality and latent power’. Scott included the song ‘Dream-tryst’ in the April 1918 SWM concert devoted to music by soldier-composers at Wigmore Hall.

The music programmes featured many premieres of works by women composers, providing them the opportunity denied to so many of their predecessors – that of actually hearing their music performed. Among them were Liza Lehmann, Ethel Smyth, Dorothy Howell, Rebecca Clarke, Katharine Eggar, Marion Scott, Ethel Barns, Fiona McCleary, and later Elizabeth Poston, Elisabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy and Ruth Gipps.

Education remained a core function of the SWM. In addition to the society’s own library, the women added a free library of British chamber music when W. W. Cobbett entrusted them with his own comprehensive collection of scores dating from as early as the 16th century.(19) The annual Composers’ Conference featured two days of papers, the first day reserved for members and the second day open to guests. As always these gatherings included men and featured comments and debate. For example, in 1920, Gustav Holst presented his paper on ‘The Education of Composers’, after which members Arthur Bliss, Jane Joseph and Adine O’Neill (wife of Norman O’Neill) led a discussion. The following year, 1921, in a session focussed on contemporary music, Hester Stansfeld Prior considered ‘Some Characteristics of Scriabin’ while Marion Scott discussed ‘The Revival of Modes in Modern Music’ and Arthur Bliss explored ‘What Contemporary Composition is Aiming At’.

After the death of Liza Lehmann in 1918, the SWM established the Liza Lehmann Memorial Fund to provide grants to members in need of financial assistance. In later years the society established prizes with cash awards to help women further their careers, particularly as composers.

By 1920, the SWM had outgrown 92 Victoria Street and had moved to larger quarters at 74 Grosvenor Street. In less than a decade, interrupted by a long war that nearly derailed the organisation, the women had made enormous strides. Marion Scott had opened the fields of music criticism and musicology to women through her own pioneering work.(20) Women were finding venues for their compositions, enjoying success as instrumentalists, educators and writers while others were launching solo careers.

Despite these advances, women still found it difficult to secure paying positions in orchestras. When the BBC announced the formation of it symphony orchestra in the late 1920s, the women were determined to be included in it. A delegation led by Marion Scott approached BBC Music Director Percy Pitt in his office. Using calm reason and diplomacy they convinced him that the conductor Adrian Boult should hear all applicants from behind a screen and judge them on the merits of their performance, not dismiss them because of their gender. As a result an increasing number of contracts went to women. (21) The women had cracked another barrier but it would still be many years before men accepted women as equal partners in an orchestra.

By the time the Society of Women Musicians disbanded in 1972, women had come a long way since the spring of 1911 when Marion Scott and Gertrude Eaton spent their holiday quietly working on a plan that would change the course of music history. As Kathleen Eggar later observed: ‘It is difficult for the young woman musician of today to realize what imagination, courage and enterprise were needed to carry out such a plan in 1911’. (22) Marion Scott led the way. Through her vision, her willingness to take risks and her tenacity, she opened new paths for others to explore and follow. She showed women that they could compete with any man, that their work had value and that their dreams could become reality. She gave them hope and courage of their own to challenge convention and fight injustice.

Marion continued her association with the Society of Women Musicians until her death from cancer in December 1953. In the summer of 1954, the SWM arranged a special Composers Conference to pay tribute to Marion Scott and to honour her work as a critic and musicologist and as a champion of women and British music.

Katharine Eggar who had known Marion more than forty years offered her assessment of her friend’s influence.

‘First there was the remarkable clarity and wisdom of her judgment, which was simply invaluable,’ Eggar said. ‘Secondly, her loyalty as a colleague and friend. Thirdly, the example of her perfect integrity. Fourthly, her fine manners. In short,’ Eggar concluded, ‘we may think of her as our tuning-fork, and test our pitch by hers.’(23)

A note about Katharine Eggar

Although Marion Scott and Katharine Eggar were close friends who had collaborated as writers and worked together to champion women in music, they were not always in agreement, particularly in regard to the identity of Shakespeare. In addition to her writings on music, Eggar also became a literary critic and spent more than thirty years researching the life and times of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Eggar believed that de Vere was the real author of Shakespeare's works, that ‘Shakespeare’ was his nom de plume. She planned to publish her findings but died before she completed her book. In an interview shortly before her death, Eggar described herself as a ‘heretic on Shakespeare’. Marion Scott disagreed with Eggar and others seeking to attribute Shakespeare’s work to different writers. ‘Why in the name of wonder any one should think that only the highest social position can produce genius – in short that Bacon [or anyone else] wrote Shakespeare -- is incomprehensible. The evidence, if any, is in the other direction,’ Scott declared in her 1934 biography of Beethoven. Eggar’s work on de Vere is housed at the University of London Library.

© Pamela Blevins 2007

Notes

  1. Marion Scott, "Music as a Profession", The Daily Express, 1909 (no date), p. 1. Scott either wrote or contributed to a book entitled Work for Women, which sold for one penny and was available from all bookstalls and newsagents.
  2. Ibid.
  3. The Harrisons were sisters. May Mukle’s sister Florence played the double bass and bassoon. Their mother was a pianist who also played the double bass while Lilian Mukle defied convention when she took up the trumpet.
  4. In 1910, Ethel Smyth decided to take two years off from her own work to devote time to the suffrage cause. She became involved in Mrs. Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union. In 1911, Smyth composed The March for Women, which became the battle hymn of the suffragettes. In 1912, Smyth was arrested for throwing a rock or brick through a window in the home of Colonial Secretary, Lord Harcourt. She was sentenced to two months in prison but served only three weeks. Alice Mary Smith (1839-1884) was the first British woman to compose symphonies. Knowing that her chances of ever hearing her large-scale works were virtually nil, she wisely joined the Musical Society of London as a lady associate. Performances were one benefit of membership, even for a woman.
  5. One such governess cared for the young Ethel Smyth who recalled sitting under the piano entranced as her governess played a Beethoven piano sonata. From that ‘glorious moment’ on, music became Smyth’s all-consuming passion.
  6. Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) is often cited as Stanford’s first female pupil but this is erroneous. Marion Scott, Mary Wurm (1860-1938) and Katherine Ramsay, later the Duchess of Athol, all preceding Clarke as Stanford’s pupils by many years. Clarke began her studies with Stanford in 1907, some 11 years after Scott had begun hers.
  7. Sydney Scott donated his services to the SWM until his death in 1936.
  8. Katharine Eggar, ‘Marion Scott as Founder of the Society of Women Musicians’, Society of Women Musicians’ Commemoration of Marion Scott programme book, June 1954, p. 4.
  9. Walter Willson Cobbett (1847-1937) was the founder and chairman of the successful Scandinavia Belting, Ltd. A fine violinist who had his own quartet, he championed chamber music and commissioned chamber works by British composers. He established the Cobbett Medal for services to chamber music in 1924. He was the editor of the Cyclopaedic Survey of Chamber Music first published in 1929. Thomas Dunhill (1877-1946), composer, writer and teacher, who like Marion Scott, was a student of Sir Charles Stanford at the RCM where they met.
  10. Eggar, op. cit., p. 5.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Scott and Eggar formed a writing partnership and published a series of articles on women in chamber music for the chamber music supplement of The Music Student.
  14. Subsequent quotes from Eggar’s inaugural speech are taken from the Society of Women Musicians promotional material appearing in a number of publications in July and August 1911.
  15. Among the first women associated with the SWM were May Mukle, Lucie Johnstone (whose songs composed under the pseudonym ‘Lewis Carey’ were popular), Florence MacNaughton, Mabel Saumarez Smith, Ethel Smyth, Maud Valerie White and Ethel Barns. Emily Daymond was the first woman to earn a doctorate in music (Oxford 1901).
  16. Percy A. Scholes, ‘The Society of Women Musicians – A Model for Men’, The Music Student, May 1918, p. 335.
  17. Anonymous, ‘Women’s Genius in Music’, Daily Express, 26 January 1912.
  18. Draft of a Marion Scott letter to Ivor Gurney, Gurney Archive.
  19. Cobbett bequeathed the collection to them.
  20. Marion Scott had begun her work in musicology via a series of lectures on the history of British music that she developed before she founded the SWM. Her lectures included folk music from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, medieval and church music, early composers, Elizabethan and Tudor music and the ‘Renaissance of English Music and its leaders in the latter half of the 19th century’. Although she was not able to publish her brilliant early scholarship, she did keep typed copies of her texts that I plan to include in a future volume of her writings. Marion began her career as a critic in 1919 as the London correspondent for the highly respected Boston-based, international daily The Christian Science Monitor. Once she broke down the barriers against women in both these fields, other women followed her lead.
  21. The male myth would have us believe that the women had not won a victory at all with the BBC. "They could always tell it was a woman by the click of her high heels" is the oft-repeated slight even today when the subject of this victory is brought up. The fact is that the women were not stupid. They knew what they were up against and most made certain that tell-tale signs that she was a woman were not present, including noisy shoes and perfume. Scott knew Adrian Boult and had written about him. Even today some orchestras still refuse to admit women to their ranks except as harpists. Women conductors have only recently begun to earn recognition and serve as principal conductors of orchestras. The American Marin Alsop has made more advances than her contemporaries and recently, after much controversy, became the principal conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
  22. Eggar, op. cit., SWM Commemoration, p. 4.
  23. Ibid., p. 6.

Sources

Marion Scott and Society of Women Musicians archives at the Royal College of Music

The Library of Congress

The Christian Science Monitor

The Music Student

The Musical Times

 



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