In March 2021, I embarked on making my own small contribution to celebrating Women’s History Month by starting to write Her Story, the Piano Collection (Faber Music). During lockdown, having lost some of my other work, I spent months discovering a treasure trove of music from lost female composers, as well as their inspiring life stories.
Women’s History Month played its part in helping motivate me to write the book. As music social media channels became flooded with female composers’ musical works, I felt embarrassed at how little I knew about them. The more I researched, the more I became inspired, humbled and brought to tears. Many of these women were forces of nature.
So, I share here just a few of these women’s stories, their music and their inspiration.
Quite a favourite of mine is Florence Price (USA, 1887-1953). A stunning musician, teacher, and composer, she is the first known Black woman to have her music performed by a symphony orchestra.
Life was tough for Florence who ended up being a single mum after two failed marriages. However, she powered through and left a rich treasure trove of music from symphonies to concertos, a vast number of songs and some wonderful pedagogical music. I was so lucky to bring back to print her “Levee Dance” in my book. If you are a piano teacher, check out her wonderful piece in ABRSM’s Grade 1 piano syllabus, “A Morning Sunbeam”.
I must mention Louise Farrenc (France, 1804-1875), especially due to the fact she was the second woman at the Paris Conservatoire to achieve a professorship, fighting for equal pay for the women working there.
Recognised by Robert Schumann as “accomplished”, Louise is especially celebrated for her many piano etudes but also for wonderful full orchestral works along with chamber music. Do check out her third symphony which is claimed to have been influenced by Beethoven, who taught her teacher in composition, Anton Reicha.
Ethel Smyth (England, 1858-1944) can only be described as formidable. Born in Kent, she attempted conservatoire study but left, disappointed by the experience.
Travelling through Europe afterwards she met great composers like Clara Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. Also a brilliant memoirist, Ethel was openly gay and is quoted to have said: “Even if I were to fall desperately in love with Brahms and he were to propose to me, I should say no.” A member of the Suffragette movement, fighting for the vote, she ended up in prison for her efforts where she led fellow prisoners in song. Eventually becoming a Dame, she leaves a large volume of work from songs to chamber music, symphonic works, operas, a mass and piano music.
I must confess to having a real soft spot for Dora Pejačević (Croatia, 1885-1923). Like many of the women in the book, she died shortly after the birth of her only child. She rejected the wealth of her family and was a volunteer nurse in World War One, insisting that any donations for flowers at her funeral be given to the poor.
With limited instruction in composition and the violin, Dora wasn’t formally trained, but still wrote 106 compositions from songs to music for piano, chamber ensembles and orchestral. Her Symphony in F Sharp Minor is quite dramatic!
Other fascinating female composers
Other fascinating female composers I’ve discovered include Clara Schumann, Cécile Chaminade, Amy Beach, Marianna Martines, Germaine Tailleferre and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.
Lesser-known female composers include Marguerite Balutet, Elisabetta de Gambarini, Barbara Strozzi, Maria Szymanowska, Inga Lærum Liebich, Josephine Lang, Marie Jaëll and Francisca Gonzaga, to name just a few.
In addition, a competition was launched to give two new female composers the opportunity to have their work published for the first time in the book. The winners are Emily Pederson (a student at the Royal Northern College of Music) and Margarida Gonçalves (Royal Academy of Music). They are such inspirational new talents.
The book was launched on International Women’s Day in March 2022, after a concert of Yorkshire Young Musicians performing the entire book. The concert can be found on YouTube.