The women's movement

October 4, 2002

Pianist Diana Ambache has resurrected the work of forgotten female composers. Christopher Wood spoke to her on the eve of a historic concert.

It started with an old photograph of a group of well-heeled, middle-aged women in a drawing room 70 years ago, attired in the rather quaint fashions of the time. When she came across the photo, pianist Diana Ambache could identify the American composer Amy Beach, widely regarded as the foremost female composer of her time (and by many as the foremost of either gender). But to Ambache's surprise, the rest of the women in the photo were also US composers, although most are now almost forgotten here and in the US.

"I suddenly realised there were loads of other American women composers," she says. "So I started looking up some of these women in the British Library - there was very little there - and then the Grove Dictionary to see what repertoire there was. But two years ago, I knew none of these people."

The result of Ambache's research can be heard soon in the first concert of a two-year-long project that will present works by Beach and seven of her less celebrated contemporaries, including many pieces never before played in Europe. Music by figures that until now have been mere shadows in musical history - Helen Hopekirk, Marion Bauer, Louise Talma, Eleanor Alberga, Mabel Daniels, Ruth Crawford and Mary Howe - will at long last get a hearing in the UK. "Obscurity doesn't only happen to women," Ambache notes. "When composers are alive to champion their work, to talk to conductors and performers, there's somebody to keep it going. People have to come along later and revive it. I'm here to do that."

Obscurity may be no respecter of gender, but it is women who have been the chief beneficiaries of Ambache's efforts to gain recognition for neglected composers and arrange performances of their works by her own Ambache Chamber Orchestra (a fact recognised this year by Ambache's shortlisting for a European Women of Achievement award). For many years, the prevailing attitude to female composers was typified by Abraham Mendelssohn's famous letter to his daughter Fanny, in which he counselled: "Perhaps for Felix music will become a profession, while for you it will always remain but an ornament; never can and should it become the foundation of your existence" - which, Ambache says, is "a classic expression of society's long-held view that it was not acceptable for a woman to compose".

A great deal that Ambache has discovered about the composers in the past 15 years owes as much to serendipity as to informed and painstaking research. For instance, she asked a US academic for his dissertation on the composer Helen Hopekirk and it arrived with a copy of her Concertstück for piano and orchestra. Hopekirk lived most of her life in the US, but Ambache says her Scottish roots are evident in the "gorgeous romantic piano concerto". "It's got a very strong Celtic tone to it. It's a bit like playing Tchaikovsky with a Scots accent."

Ambache is equally enthusiastic about Louise Talma, whom she describes as "a major figure in her day". She won two Guggenheim scholarships to study in Europe and was the first American woman to have an opera done at a major European opera house. She adds that the Amy Beach string quartet piece, never before played in this country, is "a fascinating piece" that "mixes this wonderful Straussian sensuality with her interest in indigenous Indian music, including real Inuit melodies".

And, as always, there are the ones that got away. The limitations imposed by the Ambache Chamber Orchestra - comprising at most about 30 players - meant some pieces were just not practical to take on. "One of the composers I pursued was an African-American called Florence Price," Ambache says, "but everything she wrote was for huge symphony orchestra."

The pieces that did make it into Ambache's concert series were often composed in the face of opposition from a society that had clear expectations of what a woman of the period should and should not be doing. In 1885, Beach (1867-1944), for instance, married an eminent Boston physician and amateur singer who thought it unseemly for his wife to appear on the concert stage - thus at a stroke curtailing Beach's flourishing career as a concert pianist. Instead, she pursued the more socially acceptable role of composer, staying at home to write her rather passionate music (anything but the product of a quiet housewife), which was published during her husband's lifetime under the name of Mrs H. H. A. Beach.

What it all boils down to, says Ambache, is the perennial question of confidence. "I think it's very challenging to have the confidence in your work so that you get up and go out and say to people, 'You must hear this,'" she says. "And it is a recurring issue with women composers that they don't have that confidence. Clara Schumann is a classic case. In her diary she wrote, 'Nobody's been able to do this before me, why should I think I can?' It's really sad, given what a major talent she was. Many of these American composers also suffered from that lack of confidence. They were having to make the ground. It's very hard when you're doing something new and haven't got company."

Ambache, however, is reluctant to "bunch (the women) together just because of their gender. These are very different pieces," she says, "and I think it's the character of the individual that matters, not the gender. If there is a thread that runs through all these people, it is that quality of saying, 'This is what means most to me in life, so I will do it whatever the rest of society says.' And it's a love of music that will have got them through whatever difficult circumstances they found themselves in."

The Ambache Chamber Orchestra plays works by Mozart and Helen Hopekirk on October 9 at St John's, Smith Square, London. For more details: www.ambache.co.uk and www.womenofnote.co.uk

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