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Forgotten Female Composers: One Year On

A year ago the Arts & Humanities Research Council, BBC Radio 3 and leading academics worked together to broadcast concerts featuring lost work by female composers that had been hidden in archives, libraries or private collections for centuries - some unheard since their first performance.

We caught up with some of those involved to hear what happened next.

Carola Darwin
Dr Carola Darwin, operatic and concert soprano, and lecturer in music history at the Royal College of Music

Dr Carola Darwin

Johanna Müller-Hermann’s orchestral songs Drei Gesänge op.32/33 were performed at the Five Women Composers concert on 8 March 2018. Since then, there has been considerable interest in Johanna Müller-Hermann’s music, with a number of performances of other works, and a further performance of the Drei Gesänge.

“After the concert, I was contacted by two different conductors who had heard the Drei Gesänge and were interested in performing them,” says Dr Carola Darwin, operatic and concert soprano, and lecturer in music history at the Royal College of Music.

So far, there has been one performance (in September) at the Roman River Festival with Orlando Jopling conducting and Ilona Domnich once again singing the soprano part.

“The BBC asked me to organise a number of further scores, and I was delighted that the BBC Singers performed All die wachsende Schatten (for unaccompanied choir) for broadcast on 8 March 2018,” says Dr Darwin.

Since then, Simon Lepper and Soraya Mafi have performed the Songs op. 2 at the Hay Festival (broadcast in May). Müller-Hermann’s two orchestral tone poems (the Heroic Overture and Symphonic Fantasy: Brand) were recorded by BBC NOW, though only the former has so far been broadcast. I also sang some of Müller-Hermann’s songs at an evening of Lieder by Women (with Anna Beer, author of Sounds and Sweet Airs).

Performances are planned of the piano works op. 8 and op. 23 and probably of the Symphonie op 27 - a major work for orchestra, chorus and soloists.

“I am in the process of organising an edition of Müller-Hermann’s major oratorio Lied der Erinnerung, which I hope will be performed in the next few years,” says Dr Darwin.

“This involves raising funding to pay for a transcription of the score in Sibelius, so that parts can also be generated.

“I have been in touch with the German publisher Furore Verlag, who specialise in music by women, and are interested in publishing some of the Müller-Hermann’s scores. We have been lucky that the composer’s heir, Erich Hermann, has been extremely generous about performing rights.”

Graham Griffiths
Dr Graham Griffiths, Honorary Research Fellow (Musicology) at City, University of London

Dr Graham Griffiths

One year on from the historic performance of Kashperova’s Symphony in B minor, op.4 by the BBC Concert Orchestra, there have been a number of encouraging developments, according to Dr Graham C T Griffiths, Research Fellow, University of London.

These are in three principal areas: broadcasting, publishing and academic cooperation:

An Evening and Night for SSAA choir (BBC Singers, Hilary Campbell, cond.) was broadcast on Radio 3 – April 2018.

‘Autumn Leaves, no.2’ from In the Midst of Nature, suite for piano – performed by Menjie Han (Pf) – was broadcast on Radio 3 in July. And the Cello Sonata no.1 in G op.1, no.1 by Andrei Ionita (Vlc) and Lilit Gregorian (Pf) was broadcast on Radio 3 in December.

“BBC Radio 3, principally through its New Generation Artists scheme, is committed to supporting my research and to promoting Kashperova’s music as and when more of her music becomes available,” says Dr Griffiths.

“I am enormously grateful to everyone involved, particularly Luke Whitlock and Peter Thresh (at BBC Radio 3).

“During 2018, Boosey & Hawkes confirmed its commitment to a Kashperova Edition and to my appointment as editor of this series. At the time of writing, I am eagerly awaiting the news that several Kashperova scores are now ready to be published - for the first time in over a century. Several musicians and ensembles have been in touch with me asking for materials.

Also, Dr Griffith's academic research in Russia continues apace. “I made several research-trips during 2018 with more to follow in 2019,” he says. “Last April I had the honour of being invited to inaugurate the new Open Lecture series which will now regularly close the annual International ‘Readings’ Conference hosted by the Manuscripts Department of the St Petersburg Conservatoire.

“At the end of my half-hour presentation, delivered in my best Russian, I accompanied the truly wonderful soprano Maria Lyudko, Singing Professor at the Conservatoire, in the first of Kashperova’s 12 Romances. You can imagine my emotions at hearing, for the first time, Kashperova’s lyrics and music sung in her own Russian language at the first rehearsal.

The 12 Romances will be published later this year, in Russian, German and English versions.

“I always feel encouraged when I remember those incredible days last year, especially as I trudge through the blizzards and snow, criss-crossing Russia in search of the next Kashperova manuscript,” says Dr Griffiths. “Or fighting my way out of the newly-confusing London Bridge terminal in the rush-hour…”

Anastasia Belina
Dr Anastasia Belina, librettist, opera director, music historian and Acting Head of Undergraduate Programmes at the Royal College of Music

Dr Anastasia Belina

Since the BBC 3 concerts a year ago, Dr Anastasia Belina has continued her research exploring the life and works of Augusta Holmès, who was born in Paris in 1847, highly regarded among fellow composers, and the first woman to have an opera premiered at the Théâtre de lOpéra (Palais Garnier) in Paris.

“Since last March I have been to the Bibliothèque nationale for a good few days of work on her material, this included material I wasn't able to see before, such as her wonderful, beautiful scores of operas, and some of her letters,” says the Assistant Head of Undergraduate Programmes at the Royal College of Music.

“I then went around Paris tracing some of the addresses where she lived. And what was really emotional and touching for me is that there are no plaques to mark where she lived, and yet she was the biggest female composer of her time. Yet there is nothing there!”

Dr Belina has also been asked to do a talk on female composers in this century and what has changed for them at the Stoller Hall at The Cheatham School of Music in Manchester, a day before International Women’s Day.

“But the big thing that has happened for me over the last year was a truly remarkable discovery,” she says.

“I had always felt that the first publication we did of Augusta Holmès' work was part of a bigger piece. I had always believed that there was more, but I had not been able to find it.

“But last year I came across a score that turned out to be this lost work. It is now in the process of being published. It turns out the first piece was actually the finale of the symphony, which means that we need to rethink some of the things we thought we knew about her.

“In fact, there are many mistakes in biographies of Holmès making it very hard to find out exactly what happened to her. But I am gradually piecing together more and more.

“There are plans for the full work to be performed at some point in the near future.”

The BBC 3 concerts clearly struck a chord with the public and led many people to get in touch directly with Dr Belina.

“I have had a lot of emails from people: from members of the public, from female composers, performers, and many more who seem to be interested and inspired.

“I had an email from the descendent of a female composer who was trying to do more with her mother's work, and I have also had contact from two academic publishers and a wonderful organisation called Donne Women in Music who have asked me to be on their advisory board.

“I only stumbled on Augusta Holmès when I saw the call for this project. But it was a major discovery for me, which led me to discover more female composers of Augusta’s generation, not only in France but other European countries. So much of their work has not been published and studied and I would love to do more. I am very excited about the future.”

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