Academics make the case for forgotten female composers

Neglected works set to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3

March 8, 2017
Source: istock
Many female composers have never received the public recognition they deserve

Editors at BBC Radio 3 have long been keen to broadcast more music by women. Yet the UK’s public service classical station has been hampered by the lack of high-quality recordings.

The Composer of the Week slot, for example, requires five hours of music. Last year, therefore, the BBC decided to ask the academic community to put forward names of female composers who have been undeservedly neglected.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council was asked to send out a call to researchers at all stages of their careers, announcing that they were “interested in uncovering the works of historical female composers that, crucially, have composed both orchestral and choral music”. The goal was to use the in-house BBC orchestras and choruses to play and record some of their work as well as to produce “radio programmes detailing the life and times of the composers themselves”.  

Sixteen initial submissions came in, which a panel from the BBC and AHRC whittled down to five. Five academics then took part in a workshop in late January, where they were each given 15 minutes to describe the life of “their” composer and make the case for her work, including a short performance or recording.

Graham Griffiths, an honorary research fellow at City, University of London, presented Leokadiya Kashperova (1872-1940) as “the earliest-known female Russian composer of international stature”. She was the piano teacher of Igor Stravinsky, who – in an autobiography that is rude about everyone in his early Russian days – described her as “antiquated” and “a blockhead”. In reality, she produced a wide range of acclaimed music over the course of three decades until she fell from favour after marrying a Bolshevik revolutionary. On a recent trip to Russia, Dr Griffiths discovered 25 manuscript volumes of her piano music and songs.

Very different was the career of Florence Price (1887-1953), acclaimed by composer Shirley Thompson, reader in composition and performance at the University of Westminster, as “the first African-American symphonist”. Although she experienced extreme racism in the southern US, she ultimately produced 300 works, which were performed both nationally and internationally. She was also a pioneer in incorporating syncopation, African dance and instruments such as the marimba into the Western symphonic tradition.

Others scholars described the life and work of Marianna Martines (1744-1812), who formed part of the circle of Haydn and Mozart in late 18th-century Vienna; the later Viennese composer Johanna Müller-Hermann (1868-1941); and a French composer of Irish descent, Augusta Holmès (1847-1903).

The panel was then asked to choose between the five “entries” on the basis of “musical excellence”. In the event, it was announced on International Women’s Day, 8 March, that all five composers would be taken forward to the next stage.

Their academic champions are now required to propose a single large-scale but unrecorded work to be performed by the BBC orchestras and choirs. If all goes well, they will be broadcast on 8 March 2018, thereby rescuing at least a tiny sample of the great music produced by neglected or forgotten women composers.

matthew.reisz@tesglobal.com

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