Finally, the French composer Louise Farrenc (1804-75). ‘Nearly forgotten today, she enjoyed some recognition in her own time. Schumann and Berlioz had positive things to say about her music. It is sometimes assumed that the failure of that music to enter the repertoire stems from prejudice against women. This is a vexed question. From 1842-72, she was professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire. That she was the only woman to hold so lofty a position at the institution confirms both the existence of prejudice and the capacity of individuals to transcend it. She wrote three symphonies, the first was performed in Montreal in 2016‘  (Clemency Burton-Hill). If there is a common thread running through the lives of these women composers it is that mostly they led long lives; mostly they were successful during their lifetime; but mostly they were then completely forgotten. It is as if society was prepared to praise them while they were alive but  no one wanted to tend their reputation after their death. This riff must sound wearily familiar to every Persephone reader.



No one can say Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) has been ignored and her professional and private life was too full of incident to be compressed into a short Post, details here. She is best-known for the 1911 The March of the Women (excellent photographs accompanying the recording) and ‘the enduring mental picture of her  was evoked by the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. Visiting her in Holloway Prison in 1912, he found the inmates marching and singing it in the courtyard while Ethel “beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush”‘ (Telegraph, at the time when her Concerto for Violin and Horn was played at the Proms).


Cecile Cheminade (1857-1944) was a French composer and pianist. Bizet called her ‘my little Mozart’ (when she was eight) but her father believed women should be wives and mothers. Cecile thought they had been handicapped and only a few could get the better of that handicap. She did her best and wrote about 350 works, including opera, ballet, chamber music and songs. In the United States hundreds of ‘Cheminade clubs’ were formed after her debut with the Philharmonic Orchestra in 1908. ‘And yet her music was largely neglected after her death. It’s only recently that her reputation has begun to be revived’ (Year of Wonder). Cecile Cheminade’s ‘Autumn’ is the piece of music Clemency Burton-Hill has chosen for October 1st but this stunning piece of music can be heard here played by Valerie Tryon.. And here is the Flute Concertino, recorded by Sir James Galway as an International Women’s Day tribute in 2016.


Another composer of songs, but this one had a tragic life, or rather a tragic end to her life: Alma Clarke, more generally known as Alma Rattenbury. She was accused of murdering her husband but was unable to recover from the knowledge that his death was partly her fault (Francis Rattenbury was murdered by Alma’s young lover) and after the trial, at which she was acquitted, she took her own life. Her songs have been reprinted and are available from SJ music. Here is a short film with her playing the piano and one of her songs being performed. Alma had been incredibly brave in the First World War as a transport driver and nurse but during the 1920s turned her attention to her music. The photograph usually used (eg. in the programme notes for Terence Rattigan’s play or that will be used in the forthcoming book about her) shows her much more conventionally beautiful and with overtones of the fallen woman; this is the real Alma.



Muriel Herbert (1897-1984) composed about a hundred songs, some of which have been recorded by James Gilchrist, Ailish Tynan and David Owen Norris. She started composing in the 1920s and her songs were so highly regarded that poets such as James Joyce and WB Yeats allowed her to set their work to music. It was not until years after her death that her daughter Claire Tomalin opened the fragile manuscripts and discovered what an extraordinary talent her mother possessed. Here she is talking about her mother Muriel Herbert on Woman’s Hour in 2009 and here is an article in the Guardian. The record of some of the songs is available from Linn.


Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) studied music in London, ‘became one of the first female professional orchestral musicians when she was selected by Sir Henry Wood to play in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra in 1912′ and then went to live in New York. Wikipedia says: ‘Although Clarke wrote little, due in part to her ideas about the role of a female composer, her work was recognised for its compositional skill.’ These ‘ideas’ seem to have been engendered by the depression that originated with her father’s abuse: she was a complex and interesting person and there is a Rebecca Clarke Society, also she was the subject of Composer of the Week in June this year. And here is her Sonata for Viola and Piano on YouTube.

teresa-carreno-3Teresa Carreno (1853-1917) was a Venezuelan pianist, singer, composer and conductor. Here is a website about her. ‘In rapid succession she conquered the concert halls of Havana, London and Paris. A considerable number of her compositions date from the 1860s and were published, even before her twentieth birthday. It does not come as a surprise that these early compositions all require a highly skilled performer, given Teresa Carreño’s own considerable technical skills. The emotional depth of her compositions, however, manages to surprise time and again: It almost appears as if the life experiences of the following, turbulent years already resonate in these piano compositions; as if her music already foreshadows the tragic loss of her father, the premature death of her children and her failed marriage’ (Naxos). Selected music for piano may be heard on the Naxos site and here is her Ballade Op. 15 played by Alexandra Oehler.


Maria Malibran (1808-36) was the stuff of legend, there are films about her, even one about her death, in fact in her day she ‘was one of the most celebrated divas of the time –  a singing sensation.’ She was also a composer – here is ‘Rataplan’ sung by Cecilia Bartoli – and more about her short and rather tragic life.


Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-47) was the famous Mendelssohn’s sister. She was married, had one child and composed over 450 pieces of music. Alas, she died young. Recently a lost piece of music by her was re-discovered, her Easter Sonata. Here is an article by her great-great-great-granddaughter, here is the sonata being played and here is more about it. Clemency Burton-Hill writes (in Year of Wonder for 2 February): ‘What’s so infuriating is that Fanny was in a supposedly supportive environment. Her brother was well aware of his sister’s genius. Yet even he prevented her from publishing her work.’


Visitors to the shop will know that we always have classical music in the background. This is to provide a kind of ‘barrier’ between the office part of the shop and people browsing: if there is no music the visitor is rather conscious of us and vice versa. It used to be Radio 3 (when the music wasn’t too modern) or Classic FM (though we were always turning it off and on because of the ads), but for the last couple of years we have subscribed to Spotify. And this year we are going through Clemency Burton-Hill’s book – a piece of classical music for every day – and playing ‘her’ composer. And this brings us to women composers. There were/are so many of them! However, it’s the same old story: we hear about them less than we hear about the men. Of course there wasn’t a woman Schubert or Beethoven or Brahms. But over the centuries there have been some very fine composers, so many indeed that it proved impossible to choose just five for one week of the Post, so in fact they are going to be spread over a glorious two weeks. First up: Clara Schumann (1819-96). Here are the (rather well written-up) details of her life, which one is tempted to call sad, but she had eight children, composed music when she was young, became a well-known and revered piano teacher, had many close friends including, for example, Brahms, lived until she was 77 and during her lifetime was far more famous than her husband: wonderful as Robert Schumann’s work is, it’s a great pity that now this has reversed. Here is Clara Schumann’s absolutely beautiful Nocturne in F Major (played by someone unknown); there are lots of her other pieces on You Tube, all stunning.

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