While the majority of the classical music world is losing their s**t over Beethoven’s upcoming 250th birthday, let’s remember there are 5 other very important birthdays we should be celebrating this year.
- Barbara Strozzi’s 400th birthday
Barbara Strozzi, baptised 6th August 1619, was one of the first women to publish under her own name. Strozzi was said to be the most prolific composer of secular vocal music in Venice at the time, she was also an accomplished singer. Her music is simply stunning, full of poise and precisely written.
2. Clara Schumann’s 200th birthday
The infinitely cooler member of the Schumann family turns 200 on 13th September 2019. Clara Schumann was a brilliant composer and one of the first virtuoso pianists in the world. She toured all over Europe, was at the very epicentre of the European music scene, knew anyone who was anyone and was hugely influential, Brahms was said to be madly in love with her. For much of her life she was the chief breadwinner in the Schumann family. She maintained a busy concert tour schedule all while being pregnant most of the time and caring for an increasingly ill husband. Her compositions, while comparatively few, are masterpieces of the Romantic era, full of drama and passion. Her output includes a piano concerto, piano sonata, tons of songs, trios and romances.
3. Galina Ustvolskaya’s 100th birthday
Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya (17th June 1919 – 22nd December 2006) would be 100 this year. Dubbed ‘The Lady with the Hammer’ her music was said to have “the concentrated light of a laser beam that is capable of piercing metal.” Ustvolskaya wrote immensely heartfelt pieces which initially seem brutal and harsh but are deeply moving. Her teacher Shostakovich said of her: “It is not you who are under my influence, it is I who am under yours.” She publicly acknowledged 21 pieces she wrote from 1944 to 1988, disregarding the Soviet patriotic pieces she was grudgingly forced to write. These 21 pieces include 6 piano sonatas, 5 symphonies and chamber music with various unusual but effective instrument combinations. This Composition No. 1 was written for piccolo, tuba and piano.
4. Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata turns 100!
The poor viola is the middle child of the string family, stuck between the ever popular, (overused?) violin and the low, mellow cello, somewhat the hipster instrument of the orchestra. Rebecca Clarke was a violist though so it was only fitting for her that she write a true masterpiece for her instrument. I give you her Viola Sonata, premiered at the Berkshire Music Festival in 1919.
5. Dorothy Howell’s Lamia turns 100!
Dorothy Howell’s symphonic poem Lamia was premiered by Sir Henry Wood at the Proms on 10th September 1919, he liked it so much he conducted it at the Proms 4 times in the next 8 years. In this centenary year get down to the Proms on 22nd August to hear it performed live by CBSO and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.
So there you have it – 5 other important birthdays we should be celebrating this year.
And that’s just the historical composers. Groundbreaking film score and electronic composer Wendy Carlos turns 80 this year and Eleanor Alberga celebrates her 70th birthday.
One final note – celebrating means a special occasion, doing something out of the ordinary. Beethoven is the most performed composer every year, along with Mozart and Bach. Most concert seasons feature around 10% Beethoven. In 2017 out of 17,741 performances, 3,000 of those were Beethoven (according to Bachtrack, full stats here.) That’s 16%! Hundreds of incredible composers across the world and Beethoven makes up 16% of all performances! 2019 is the same boring percentage of Beethoven they trot out every year, hardly extraordinary.
It’s like when your parents take you to McDonalds for your birthday as a child. It’s such a rare treat and it tastes so good. Then when you leave home you get Maccy D’s every Friday night at 1 o’clock on the way back from the pub. Suddenly it doesn’t taste that good. It does the trick alright, I mean it fills you up but that lovely taste, that memorable connection just isn’t there anymore.
Let’s bring back that loving feeling. 8 months into The Daffodil Perspective radio show and I’ve played Beethoven once. There’s so much other awesome music out there. let’s celebrate it all.
Elizabeth de Brito
The Daffodil Perspective Producer
Say you’re a world famous violinist. There’s a great violin piece you’ve heard by a historical woman composer. You think it’s brilliant and want to record it, it’ll be a world premiere recording or at least only once or twice so it’s totally groundbreaking. You spend hours convincing a pianist to accompany you and spend even longer convincing the hopelessly conservative record label you’re signed with to release it.
It finally gets the go-ahead, you tell all your friends and get it released on all the major sites – Amazon, iTunes, PrestoClassical, everything. You put out videos on YouTube, record the album, you’re really pleased with it and blag about it all over social media.
It gets released and you’re so pleased but then it comes to the gatekeepers, those people on the music websites with their hot-or-not lists of the “coolest” new releases. Yours has to be a sure thing right? It’s so new, so unique and interesting plus it’s on a major label and you’re super famous so everything you do should be noticed and adored right?
Wrong, the new release list doesn’t mention your recording, or anybody else’s recordings featuring women composers. They talk about yet more recordings of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Bach and your brilliant, innovative labour of love is forgotten about quickly.
You think maybe I should have played it safe? Why bother playing the work of these amazing people at all if no-one will take notice, next time I’ll stick to the same, boring crap everybody’s heard a hundred times before. I’ll get the money and it won’t hurt if no-one picks it up.
You carry on with your career and the music of these women fades back into oblivion.
Sound familiar? We’re in the middle of this story right now. World famous violinist Tasmin Little OBE has just released a stunning new album of music by Clara Schumann, Dame Ethel Smyth and Amy Beach – 3 astonishing powerhouse badasses of the Romantic era. All three women venerated in their time. All three composers since obliterated from the white male dominated version of music history. All three composers hardly ever recorded or performed.
Little’s album was released last week on 1st February 2019 on major label Chandos records. Amongst the platforms it was released on was PrestoClassical. PrestoClassical’s new release round up didn’t even mention it. I’ll tell you what it did mention though – another recording of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, plus Schubert, Debussy, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky and recordings of a lot of other white male composers that are really well known.
Don’t take my word for it, see the link here.
So why is it that not even a world famous OBE musician on a major label playing women composers can make a dent on the stuffy, regressive release lists of these companies.
And why does it matter?
Well if a customer’s looking at the website and wondering what’s cool they’re not going to search through the whole 150 or so new releases this week. Part of the reason is just 150 is an overwhelming amount to scroll through, part of it is trust. The editorial teams behind PrestoClassical know more than the average listener about what’s coming out and what’s cool. If PrestoClassical give a nice short bite-sized list of 8 releases it’s much easier to digest.
This means if it’s not getting noticed by PrestoClassical editorial team it’s not get noticed by consumers, and if it’s not getting noticed by consumers it’s not getting bought.
If it doesn’t get bought the message clearly gets through to record labels and musicians that taking a chance doesn’t pay off, even if these composers are from the 19th century and playing music really similar to Brahms and Schumann et al, no-one wants to hear it so don’t spend money putting a release like this out there.
All this leads to women composers like Amy Beach not getting recorded again and we’ll go back to square one on the gender equality front in classical music.
This is why it’s so important for this not to happen. I grew up not knowing the names of these 3 women and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let another generation grow up without knowing the names of Clara Schumann, Amy Beach and Dame Ethel Smyth.
I love the album and I’m really excited to be playing the album on my show this week on Tuesday 12th February. 5pm on planetofsound.world plus it’ll be going out on Mixcloud later, more info to follow.
In the meantime here’s a sneak peek of this breathtaking album.
Please buy the album online from Presto, iTunes or Amazon or listen on Spotify. Mostly please tweet about it, Facebook link it and get people talking about this so the music doesn’t fade back into obscurity.
PrestoClassical are one of the worst culprits. This particular instance saw Tamsin Little’s album having major airtime on BBC and ClassicFM plus it featured on Spotify Classical New Releases Playlist.
Last week on Twitter I highlighted PrestoClassical’s failure to mention more releases of women composers on their January editor’s choice list. Out of 8 releases the only release of women composers was Florence Price’s new release by Naxos.
The CDs below were ones released in January that featured women composers.
At the end of 2018 PrestoClassical published their list of 100 best releases of 2018. There was 1 woman composer release on the list.
This is a big music retailer. We need to hold them accountable for their influence on consumers and offer alternatives, there is a lot of music being created and while there are fewer releases of women composers there are actually quite a few releases coming out on a regular basis, both by major labels and smaller outfits too.
In the next few weeks there are several releases of women composers coming out. The ones below are available on PrestoClassical.
The Daffodil Perspective believes in positivity, there’s no point in just complaining, we like to show that there are positive alternatives that already exist to the white male dominated industry.
Change is possible and gender balance is not difficult to achieve.
Chief t**t, I’m sorry chief classical music critic at the New York Times Anthony Tommasini just published a book of the 17 greatest composers ever. The entire list is comprised of the usual suspects of long dead white male composers: Monteverdi, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Verdi, Wagner, Brahms, Puccini, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Bartok.
With a few minor variations this is the same list you see in most music books and most websites all over the world. The New York Times article says this represents a
“rounded understanding of classical music at its peak.”
- Rounded? Omitting every female composer and composer of colour? Hmm.
- Also “at its peak”, really? The most recent composer on there died nearly 50 years ago, so what? Classical music has been declining ever since? Such a terrible way to sell classical music, a genre which like every other is living, breathing and evolving constantly to create new and exciting music.
I’m sick of the utter white patriarchy of the classical music industry so here is my own list of 17 indispensably great composers to counter Tommasini’s and they all happen to be women, each with an amazing composition to check out. (Disclaimer: This is just 17 amazing composers, there are so many which I couldn’t include, so it’s just a starting point, not a definitive list with specific rankings).
- Florence Price – American – 1887-1953
Florence Price mixes African American spiritual and American folk idioms with Western classical music. The first African American to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra in 1932 with Symphony in E minor. She also wrote over 300 pieces including orchestral suites, string quartets, solo piano and choral music.
2. Dame Ethel Smyth – English – 1858-1944
Composer and suffragette, she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1922, one of the highest honours in the UK, and the 1st female composer to be awarded the honour, I think that makes her pretty great. Wrote 6 operas, a ballet, orchestral suites, string quartets, and violin concertante. The Mass in D was written in 1893.
3. Vitezslava Kapralova – Czech – 1915-1940
Inter war composer, child prodigy and conductor. 1st woman composer inducted to the Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts. (Posthumous appt in 1946, she was 1 of only 10 woman inducted up to that point). Contemporary of Martinu, she guest conducted Czech Philharmonic and BBC Symphony Orchestra playing her own Military Sinfonietta, written in 1937. Also wrote songs, string quartets, orchestral Suite Rustica, April Preludes for piano.
4. Marianna von Martines – Austrian – 1744-1812
Grew up downstairs from her piano teacher Haydn and became good friends with Mozart. 1st woman to be admitted to the Accademia Filharmonica of Bologna, society to which Mozart also belonged She was at the centre of the classical music scene in Vienna. Ran an influential salon which everybody who was anyone attended. Wrote tons of amazing music including Dixit Dominus, oratorios, keyboard sonatas and an orchestral Sinfonia. The aria Berenice ah che fai is set to a text of Metastasio, famous librettist back in the 1700s.
5. Maria Szymanowska – Polish – 1789-1831
One of the first professional virtuoso pianists of the 19th century. Also ran an influential salon and toured all over Europe. Wrote mostly piano pieces, lots of cool nocturnes and etudes long before Chopin turned up later in the century.
6. Barbara Strozzi – Italian – 1619? – 1677
Prolific Baroque composer of secular vocal music.
7. Ina Boyle – Irish – 1889-1967
Ina led a sheltered life in Ireland but took lessons from Vaughan Williams. She composed 2 symphonies, orchestral rhapsodies, an opera, ballets and choral music.
8. Germain Tailleferre – French – 1892-1983
Only female member of Les Six, the Parisian group of composers that included Poulenc and Milhaud, plus she was good friends with Ravel. She wrote masses of music including music for radio, film and TV when they came along. Played about with different instruments including oboe, clarinet and violin. Lots of dreamy modernist chamber music including this Concertino for harp and piano.
9. Amy Beach – American – 1867-1944
1st American woman to compose and publish a symphony. Beach’s Gaelic Symphony premiered in 1896 with Boston Symphony Orchestra. Child prodigy pianist, she also wrote a piano concerto and over 100 songs. Member of the Boston Six with Edward Macdowell.
10. Emilie Mayer – German – 1812-1883
Romantic composer – Associate Director of the Berlin Opera Academy. Wrote 8 symphonies, cello sonatas, piano trios and Faust Overture, written in 1880.
11. Nina Makarova – Russian – 1908-1976
Russian composer influenced by Russian and Mari folksongs.
12. Dora Pejacevic – Croatian – 1885-1923
Prolific composer, wrote 1st modern symphony in Croatian music with Symphony in F sharp minor in 1917. Other works include a piano concerto, songs and chamber music.
13. Alice Mary Smith – English – 1839-1884
Classical music history makes it look like there were no English composers in the 200 years or so between Thomas Tallis and Edward Elgar. Alice Mary Smith falls into that supposed void with 2 symphonies, vocal music, concert overtures and clarinet music.
Her Andante for Clarinet is the only piece by a historical woman composer being played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra this season.
14. Judith Weir CBE – English – born 1954
First woman appointed as Master of the Queen’s Music in 2014. Known for choral music and operas.
15. Michiru Oshima – Japanese – Born 1961
Composer of film, video games, TV and straight up classical music.
16. Chen Yi – Chinese – Born 1953
1st Chinese woman to receive an MA in composition from Beijing Central Conservatory of Music, Pulitzer Prize finalist. Written for a variety of mediums including concert band.
17. Odaline de la Martinez – Cuban – Born 1949
1st woman ever to conduct the Proms in 1984. Founded Lontano Records to champion music of living composers, women composers and Latin American composers. Fellow of Royal Academy of Music.
There we are, just a tiny fraction of amazing composers who deserve greater recognition. Hopefully this will be a good jumping off point to discover a broader range of music beyond the dead white males that currently fill the concert halls and airwaves. Again this was not a ranking, just a list of 17 like Tommasini’s for conceptual symmetry, in no particular order.
Listen to my weekly radio show The Daffodil Perspective to hear more brilliant composers, over 50% of which are women. I discuss their lives, music and context in standard classical music history.