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Finding Forgotten Voices

Every year, International Women’s Day gives the programming of women composers a boost, but I’m not the first to point out that the aim should be year-round balance. This year, Hera is delighted to have worked with SWAP’ra to programme Forgotten Voices for IWD. For a start, the festival is a week long. But more than that, the creation of a bank of recordings of previously unrecorded music will have a long-term impact, helping artists and organisations hear and connect with repertoire they may never have considered, before – we hope - programming it themselves. It is also a privilege to work with young artists from UK conservatoires and the National Opera Studio on the project, because current students simply don’t accept an all male, all White canon and are impatient for change. In many cases, we’ve helped introduce them to composers who are new to them, but several of them have returned the favour. Their voices will carry this music into the future.

The inauguaral Forgotten Voices festival has been planned in lockdown, with no access to library collections (with the exception of RWCMD, who’ve been able to programme a concert of Welsh women composers and perform it together for their live-streamed concert). With no funding or budget, we’ve also mostly been limited to music which is out of copyright. With these restrictions in place, a lot of the music in the festival is freely available on IMSLP (the International Music Score Library Project), with a few pieces from Hera’s files. I just wanted to reflect a little on what that has meant…

Jane Hatto, a White woman with scarlet hair and lips stares at the viewer. She is dressed in a flowing white, red and green patterned robe with a single heavy gold bangle; and is sat forward, leaning elbow on knee and chin cupped in hand. She sits in a lush room with wood panelling, a bust and painting in the background. This photo is the cover image of the magazine Comoedia Illustre - the title sits at the top of the image in bold red and yellow.
Jane Hatto in 'Le Cobzar'; cover of the 15 April 1912 Issue of Comoedia Illustre

Firstly, I don’t want to talk us down, but it wasn’t difficult to find great music by women. I’m sure other people would have made different choices. The point is there is a lot to choose from, even at home in a pandemic.

The restrictions have led us to a programme which is centred in a particular period, the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This isn’t a bad thing. ‘Vocal music by women’ isn’t a genre or a theme, and one festival could never hope to be comprehensive. As a result there’s plenty of variety, but also a lot of intriguing points of connection across the week.

Kitty Whately of SWAP’ra secured the rights to four early, unpublished songs by Rebecca Clarke, one of the better known composers in the festival, from about 1910, for performance by students from the Royal College of Music. We’ve put them alongside a contemporaneous song cycle by Hedwige Chrétien. Both feature spare, enigmatic poems about water, qualities that connect them to Lili Boulanger’s ‘Reflets’ (1911) elsewhere in the week. The recordings from Trinity Laban share a nocturnal feel, in songs that inhabit the freedom and elasticity of moonlight hours, including two settings by the composer Johanna Müller-Hermann (1878-1941) of early poems by Ricarda Huch. This pair of frank love poems full of wit and desire feel like close kin of the work of Edna St.Vincent Millay, whose poem, ‘I Know My Mind’ appears in a setting by Margaret Bonds in Guildhall’s programme.

I hope you find lots of echoes of your own. Nevertheless, it’s good to be open about how it came together, as a reminder that programming is always a mixture of the aesthetic, the political and the practical, and not a dispassionate assessment of greatness. Of course we didn’t suggest any repertoire we weren’t enthusiastic about, but there’s plenty that’s missing because we couldn’t get hold of a copy, or didn’t have permission, or because it’s not available in a piano reduction or an easily legible modern score.

We are no longer at the bottom of this mountain. In many cases much of the work has already been done for us, by feminist scholars and publishers, by other musicians and helpful internet users, and we should pick it up and carry it on gratefully. We do not need to start again: the time has passed for noticing that women composers exist.

Less positive is that these factors made it harder to put together a programme that isn’t disproportionately White. The barriers to institutional classical music education, to mainstream careers, and to publication faced by women of colour mean that there is much less likely to be repertoire that has fallen out of copyright: in the UK, 70 years since the death of its creators. Their compositions are also less likely to survive. Works by Maud Cuney Hare and Francisca (Chiquinha) Gonzaga are available online, and we’re excited to include them. Elsewhere, we’ve been able to secure permission for some songs by Black women composers that aren’t yet in the public domain, because of the goodwill of their publishers. Even so, we’re aware that next time we need to begin earlier, work harder and find some money to make sure that some women’s voices aren’t more remembered than others. The absence of non-European and non-American voices is a failing. For now, we’d like to recommend this brilliant blog by Elizabeth de Brito of the Daffodil Perspective on facing up to racial bias in the women’s music movement.

Inevitably, the rediscovery of forgotten repertoire sometimes means a bit of extra work for performers. We’re excited to include work in Swedish, Portuguese and Louisiana Creole, and a willingness to perform in a wider range of languages (with coaching where needed) opens up all sorts of possibilities. The same is true of different musical styles, influences and traditions, and that’s definitely something it would be good to focus on in future years. A more inclusive programme would not only feature more women of colour, but take a less Eurocentric approach. That’s our work for the next festival and beyond.

This year, both Hera and SWAP’ra were keen to include music from opera in the project: for both organisations it’s our first and greatest love. At Hera we’ve been working for several years to educate ourselves about the range of opera by women composers that exists, from 1600 onwards. Despite all of the obstacles women have faced, it’s hundreds not handfuls, and we’re looking forward to sharing what we’ve learnt more widely very soon. I admit that it’s frustrating to only be able to choose from scores we already have copied and saved. At least ten of the composers represented in the programme by songs also wrote operas. I won’t quickly get over knowing that Franz Liszt’s piano reduction of Louise Bertin’s ‘Esmerelda’ is just sitting, temporarily unobtainable, in the British Library. But the dramatic programme from the National Opera Studio does include arias from a number of French operas by women, from Clémence de Grandval’s comic opera ‘Piccolino’ (1869) to Gabrielle Ferrari’s verismo drama ‘Le Cobzar’ (1912), the story of a woman’s tragic love for a musician called Stan. There are also examples of ‘scènes-mélodies’ – dramatic solo pieces, perhaps envisioned for home performance - including Grandval’s ‘Regrets’ (1865).

It’s important to say, a lot of operas of this period feature racist exoticism and orientalism, not as an incidental detail but as a defining characteristic. This is just as true of work by women as by men. Marguerite Olagnier’s ‘Le Saïs’ (1881) is super interesting as an unusually frank expression of female sexual desire, but as a complete work it is rightly unperformable. ‘Atala’ (1892) by Eugénie-Emilie Juliette Folville is one of three operas by women composers, written within a decade of each other, based on François-René de Chateaubriand's Romantic novella about Indigenous Americans, drawn entirely from the racist, Western imagination. (The others are by Grandval and Gisella delle Grazie). We’ve included a de-contextualised aria, but we won’t be advocating for a staged revival. Women composers should be remembered, but not uncritically. It is not ‘their turn’ to be celebrated for work that is racist, ableist, or indeed misogynist.

We are no longer at the bottom of this mountain. In many cases much of the work has already been done for us, by feminist scholars and publishers, by other musicians and helpful internet users, and we should pick it up and carry it on gratefully. We do not need to start again: the time has passed for noticing that women composers exist. We should be wary of the language of ‘discovery’ and definitely shouldn’t be looking for virgin territory to stick our flags in. Someone else was always there first. Besides, though it might be romantic to find a manuscript score of a masterpiece in your attic, it’s also OK to find things online, because it is amazing and good that someone put it there.

Undine Smith Moore, a Black woman casually leans her left elbow on a table and looks off camera, to the left. She has a broad, warm smile and short black hair, and wears a flowing, high-necked blouse. The image is sepia toned.
Undine Smith Moore

A lot of the women in our programme were very successful in their lifetimes and, if they have been forgotten, we should consider more how that happens and who does the forgetting. Some, like Margaret Bonds and Undine Smith Moore are rightly revered within some circles, and we have to ask: who is still not paying attention, and why? None of this music is unknown in an absolute sense, it is simply under-known and under-programmed in the UK mainstream. If the mainstream wants to be relevant then it needs to do better. For Hera, it is exciting to share music, some of it new to us, with audiences who haven’t been given the chance to hear it before. In the future, I’d love to get to listen to some of these pieces over and over, repeatedly re-discovering them, hearing them re-interpreted by different artists and at different moments in my life. Sometimes, encountering a song, I feel it is discovering me. I really hope that the festival brings a bit of that feeling into lockdown for as many people as possible.


A few resources you might want to check out

Daffodil Perspective: the first gender balanced, racially equitable and inclusive classical radio show in the world, celebrating female composers every week.

Hildegard Publishing: seeks out and publishes compositions by women composers from all centuries including the present day.

Classical Vocal Reprints: includes ClarNan editions, music by historic women composers.

Videmus: arts organisation committed to projects on the repertoire of African American, women and underrepresented composers.

IAWM (The International Alliance for Women in Music): ‘the world’s leading organisation devoted to the equity, promotion and advocacy of women in music across time, cultures and genres.’

Donne Women in Music: UK charity ‘driving equality, diversity and inclusion across the music industry’. Website includes the #BigList of women composers.


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