New record label raises profile of forgotten female composers

Historically, women have been unsung in the classical canon. But now a recently founded label is aiming to remedy that

Liza Lehmann, Alice Mary Smith and Adela Maddison were British composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but few today will know their names, let alone their music. Now they have been singled out by a new classical record label dedicated to raising the profile of female composers, many of whom have never been recorded and whose works have been “lost over time”.

The label, which is called La Boîte à Pépites (the jewel box), will discover and record compositions that have rarely, if ever, been heard before, yet deserve “a good position in the standard musical repertoire”.

Recent research by Donne, a charitable foundation focused on gender inequality within the music industry, found that only 747 out of almost 15,000 works performed by 100 orchestras from 27 countries in 2020-2021 were composed by women – a total of 5%.

Asked why female composersare overlooked, Gabriella Di Laccio, a soprano and founder of the Donne Foundation, told the Observer: “There are several reasons. One very important one is ignorance of the repertoire. People in positions to include this music either don’t have time or their focus is not directed to learning what is available.

“Also, there is a fear of audiences not coming and, I’m sorry to say, prejudice. Unfortunately, we’ve been raised to believe that only men were genius composers. The unconscious bias is still present, which is very surprising.”

The new label has been founded by French cellist Héloïse Luzzati, who says that unearthing and studying original manuscripts has enabled researchers to “exhume” some extraordinary compositions. “Too few of them are published and therefore even fewer recorded,” she said.

The label’s first release, to be launched in the UK on 30 September, is devoted to French composer Charlotte Sohy, who died in 1955. Luzzati described her music as “amazing … impressionist … with the colours of Ravel, Debussy or Chausson”.

Asked why it has been ignored, she said: “If she had been a man, her music would have been known.”

A 3CD boxset features world premiere recordings of piano, chamber and orchestral works, performed by the National Orchestra of Avignon-Provence, among others.

In the sleeve notes, Alexis Labat, the orchestra’s executive director, writes: “The classical repertoire for symphonic formations covers over four centuries, and almost all of it is devoted to men … How can we explain this incredible deficit of women composers in our concert seasons and our recordings?”

Luzzati said: “A few years ago, the question of the role of women in the history of music began to gain a certain importance in my life as a musician. How could I have spent so many years without ever having played a piece composed by a woman?”

It inspired her to establish the project “Elles – Women Composers”, promoting female composers through a festival and a video channel.

The new record label is “expanding this mission” with a series of albums, each devoted to a single female composer. Its initial release in France in April proved “huge for someone who is unknown”, Luzzati said.

Extensive research is yet to be done into various British composers, including Lehmann, who wrote hundreds of solo and ensemble songs, many of which were well-received in their day.

Scholar Derek Hyde has described her as one of the three “most outstanding women songwriters” of the 19th century.

Luzzati said that Lehmann has been unjustly forgotten. She praised the emotion of her music, noting that “the quality of the writing is extraordinary”.

Next year, she plans to launch a music publishing-house: “Today, for example, we can hear Sohy’s music but, if a musician wants to play it, they must first write to us. You cannot find sheet music on a website or in a sheet music store. Editing works that are not yet published is essential to rehabilitate the works of female composers.”

She believes that, through such “positive discrimination”, forgotten female composers will finally be appreciated – eventually doing away with the need for their own record label. “Today this is not yet the case and there is still so much music of female composers to discover.”

Katherine Cooper, classical editor of Presto Music, which will be selling the recording, said: “I can’t think of another label solely devoted to female composers. It’s a great idea that someone is amplifying that and dedicating themselves to it. They are shining light on a lot of composers that are really poorly represented, if they’re represented at all.”


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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