Women Composers

Fri 5 May - 19.30
Concert Chamber Music Venice

A time for ambitions

Thu 11 May - 19.30
Concert Chamber Music Venice


Were there any women composers in the nineteenth century? Music history textbooks may lead us to doubt it. Yet…

The history of the art of music has long preferred to focus only on a few great creative figures: geniuses ahead of their time or those masters who defined its very essence. Biased and sometimes very unjust, that approach has consigned a vast number of musicians to obscurity, arbitrarily labelled as minor or second-rate, and condemned to silence for not belonging to the chosen few. At a time when we are reconsidering that approach, calling into question the aesthetic judgements of the twentieth century and embarking on the rediscovery of fine works that have been consigned to oblivion, we must also note that, during the period preceding our own, not one woman was included among the composers singled out as being indispensable. No female face appears on the well-known timeline that is found in most music classrooms. How can a girl of today envisage a career as a composer if she has never been introduced to a tutelary figure, a guide from the past, proving to her not only that it is possible to become a composer, but that it has been so for several centuries? Without minimising the difficulties encountered by such artists in their time, the moment now seems ripe for a closer examination of their careers and the revival of their works, through stage productions, concerts and recordings. In presenting these new models from the past, we hope to play a part in building a more just and varied future.
The work of a woman artist who is as admirably gifted and remarkably hard-working as Mme Cécile Chaminade does more for the true emancipation of women and poses more of a threat to man’s long sovereignty than any speeches.

Armand Silvestre, 1909

While women were not forbidden to compose in the nineteenth century, the general context appears nevertheless to have been not very conducive to their advancement. At school, they did not receive the same encouragement as boys. The Paris Conservatoire had been open to both sexes since it was founded in 1795, but the theory classes (harmony, counterpoint and fugue, composition) remained the preserve of male students until the 1840s. Women were encouraged to learn to play the organ or the piano, but for a long time the idea of guiding them towards composition seemed incongruous. And although the Third Republic placed all students on an equal footing, girls still had to wait until 1903 to be allowed to compete for the Prix de Rome. What they could not find in official institutions had to be sought privately. Antoine Reicha tutored Hélène de Montgeroult, Louise Bertin, Louise Farrenc and Pauline Viardot; Camille Saint-Saëns counselled Clémence de Grandval; Benjamin Godard trained Cécile Chaminade, and César Franck took Augusta Holmès under his wing. This assignation to the private sphere was not limited to the field of teaching. Typically belonging to the social elite, women composers came up against the patriarchal attitudes of their contemporaries: they were expected to be mothers and housewives, with no other occupation. A departure from that rule was exceptional.

'Femmes compositeurs'
After training, it was time to embark on a career. And there again, women’s careers differed from those of men. Practising one’s compositional skills as a profession seemed incompatible with a woman’s place in society, especially among the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. A sign that it was not considered normal for women to become composers during the Romantic period in France: they were usually referred to as 'femmes compositeurs', rather than 'compositrices' (exceedingly rare at that time), indicating that this purely male activity could only concern the other sex as a minor pursuit. Many nineteenth-century women composers thus felt the need to assume a disguise or remain anonymous when publishing their works. They would use male pseudonyms – Marie-Foscarina Damaschino, for instance, became Mario Foscarina – or they would adopt neutral or ambiguous forms of their names – such as Ch. Sohy and Mel Bonis – or even hide behind a single letter, as Sophie Gail did for the score of Les Deux Jaloux, which she signed as 'Mme Sophie G...'. Furthermore, for those who started a family, motherhood and child-rearing set their career prospects back by fifteen or twenty years compared to their male colleagues.
La Sérénade
Sophie Gail
Louise Bertin
Le Dernier Sorcier
Pauline Viardot
La Nuit et l'Amour
Augusta Holmès
Clémence de Grandval
In the salon
The fact that women composers were confined to their homes and prevented from turning professional naturally led them to stay away from the most prestigious music venues – the opera houses and concert halls – and to settle for more intimate contexts. The catalogues of these artists consist mainly of songs (romances and mélodies), piano pieces, small-scale salon operas, chamber music, and also teaching material. It would be wrong, however, to consider that secondary genres yield only works of limited scope. Hélène de Montgeroult’s scores laid the foundations for Romantic piano virtuosity. Pauline Viardot’s mélodies and Marie Jaëll’s lieder created bridges between the different European vocal schools. The instrumental works – sonatas, trios, quartets and quintets – of Louise Farrenc, Cécile Chaminade, Clémence de Grandval, Mel Bonis and Rita Strohl also deserve to be rediscovered, in the same way as those – also largely forgotten – of some of their male contemporaries. Most of these scores are capable of moving and impressing today’s audiences by virtue of their intrinsic qualities, without any need to justify their presence in the name of parity. These works are not uniform in their aesthetics; on the contrary, they show great diversity, as well as a perfect integration into the artistic landscape of their time.

Every rule has its exceptions. Women were denied access to the opera stage? Louise Bertin presented three operas in quick succession: Le Loup-Garou (Opéra-Comique, 1827), Fausto (Théâtre-Italien, 1831) and La Esmeralda (Paris Opéra,1836). Their works received only limited popular acclaim? Sophie Gail’s Les Deux Jaloux was performed 250 times in Paris between 1813 and 1830, and was presented on theatre stages all over France. They kept to small forms? Augusta Holmès’s catalogue includes symphonic poems and symphonies dramatiques, and an Ode triomphale en l’honneur du centenaire de 1789 that requires no fewer than 1,200 performers! They were constantly looked down upon by their contemporaries and were forgotten soon after their demise? Louise Farrenc (1869) and Clémence de Grandval (1890) both won the Chartier Prize for chamber music awarded by the Institut de France, and Farrenc was chosen a few years after her death to represent France at the 1878 Paris World Fair (Exposition universelle). Any attempt to pigeonhole women composers meets with such exceptions. As their archives are made available to us, as their careers are clarified and their scores are once again performed, these artists – whether rebellious or submissive – cast off the unfavourable image they may have had and reveal their singularities and the diversity of their destinies.


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Digital resources for French Romantic music