John Andrews, conductor of Trinity Orchestra, provides some welcome reflections on programming women composers for performances with his group.
One of the greatest delights of my professional life is being able to present lost, forgotten, and unexpectedly neglected composers to the public. Whether it be Handel’s English contemporaries, pushed to the side of history by one performer’s titanic success; the serious works of Arthur Sullivan, eclipsed by his own comic creations; or Malcolm Arnold’s only full-length opera, begotten but then smothered by the BBC, there is something wonderful about introducing a work to the public like two friends whom you’ve always thought would get on.
And there are many good reasons for taking the effort to expand our audiences’ sphere of acquaintances. The survival of works from the 16th through 20th centuries was often hugely contingent on many moments of accident and good fortune. Scores had to survive, ideally be published, and, in many cases, be championed by a performer a generation or so after the composer’s death. Before mass publishing, and then the explosion of the record industry, most music would slip from concert programmes with the mortal demise of their creator. So in the best case scenario, you may find that a work is every bit as good as its better-known surviving contemporaries, and at the very worst, it will be a pleasant few minutes to remind you that what we usually listen to represents a tiny fraction of the music of the past. It may even encourage you to see those more familiar works in a different light, particularly if, as with Fanny Mendelssohn or Clara Schumann, that composer’s life and career are inextricably intertwined with more familiar voices.
'To get this balance of programming right, I find it useful to plot a full four seasons ahead. Allowing pieces to find a natural place in the programme means not limiting your vision to one year and trying to cram too many disparate elements together. There are still some very particular challenges that arise, but also great rewards.'
And yes, if that composer also happens to be a woman, or from a historically less-empowered group in European history, then so much the better. The odds of their music’s survival were often even more steeply stacked against them. Therefore, the odds of striking gold among what has been preserved in the surviving scores is correspondingly higher. I am quite serious. Given 19th century attitudes, if it’s survived, it’s usually deserving of attention.
At Trinity Orchestra, we took a decision a few seasons ago (pandemics notwithstanding) to aim to present, on average, one piece by a female composer in every concert. On average here is an important qualifier because there are so many factors bearing down on concert programmes: venue, instrumentation, budget tend to impose themselves before you’ve even begun to think about the artistic shape of the evening and relationship between the pieces. To get this balance of programming right, I find it useful to plot a full four seasons ahead. Allowing pieces to find a natural place in the programme means not limiting your vision to one year and trying to cram too many disparate elements together. There are still some very particular challenges that arise, but also great rewards.
'In some cases, the music still hasn’t been published, while in others it is only available from European publishers at quite hefty hire fees, and, for UK orchestras, import duties. For me, this is the big one. After that hurdle has been cleared, things tend to run more smoothly.'
Let’s talk about the challenges. The biggest one is the often very practical one of sourcing the music. Any composer who didn’t have a big publisher onboard in the 19th century is going to be harder to locate. Some of the big houses have some of these composers, but more often than not, you will need an intrepid and patient librarian to go searching. In some cases, the music still hasn’t been published, while in others it is only available from European and American publishers at quite hefty hire fees, and, for UK orchestras, import duties. For me, this is the big one. After that hurdle has been cleared, things tend to run more smoothly.
Yes, audiences may not be so familiar with these names, but the 19th century composers in particular (and several in the 20th century) write in a musical idiom that is more than familiar. The speed with which Clara Schumann, Louise Farrenc and Florence Price have entered the repertoire is testament to the immediate accessibility of their music. Moreover, much of this repertoire is now recorded and widely available for use in promotional material. An orchestra programming the great works of this era should have no fears, except for the sanity and well-being of their librarian. Audiences have received the music with unalloyed enthusiasm, especially Mayer’s Faust Overture and Gipps’ Horn Concerto in January.
'And yes, if that composer also happens to be a woman, or from a historically less-empowered group in European history, then so much the better. The odds of their music’s survival were often even more steeply stacked against them.'
There is, however, the challenge that for obvious historical reasons, a greater proportion of the music written by women and minority-ethnic composers is of more recent provenance, and so is both expensive due to copyright and subject to audience anxieties about modern musical aesthetics. Here, I can offer few easy fixes, except to say that the composers themselves will be your greatest allies, then let your publicity team do their thing.
It’s worth remembering that the audiences who applauded (or booed) Monteverdi, Strozzi, Handel, Farrenc, Mozart, Mayer, Smyth and Verdi all went out into the evening excited to hear that season’s novelty. They wouldn’t have dreamed of making the effort to leave the house to hear something they already knew. While we can’t ever recapture their neophile enthusiasm, kindling just 10% of it opens the prospect of a room full of dazzling new acquaintances, whose energy, dynamism and sheer melodic beauty offer endless musical pleasure.
On 11 March, John will conduct the St Paul’s Sinfonia in works by Farrenc, Meyer and Gustav Mahler, and the modern premiere of Amy Beach’s solo cantata Jephtha’s Daughter. Find out more
On 19 March, Trinity Orchestra will perform Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3, alongside works by Stravinsky and Barber, under guest conductor Ron Corp. Find out more