Female Composer Series at NCH: a small step for women in music

The Sounding the Feminists initiative hopes to redress the gender balance in composition

The Fidelio Trio played a selection of works by Clara Schumann, Joan Trimble, Rebecca Clarke and Lili Boulanger

The Fidelio Trio played a selection of works by Clara Schumann, Joan Trimble, Rebecca Clarke and Lili Boulanger

 

Waking the Feminists came into being in 2015. It was a response to the niggardly representation of women in Waking the Nation, the Abbey Theatre’s programme to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising. The rest, as the saying goes, is history, and the effects will be felt in the arts in Ireland for decades to come.

Composing the Island, the Bord na Móna-sponsored musical celebration of a century of Irish music by RTÉ and the National Concert Hall, spawned a similar reaction, Composing the Feminists. As part of its response, the NCH added an all-female piano recital to the programme in a belated attempt to rebalance a festival that already had 11 all-male programmes. 

A year later the Royal Irish Academy of Music responded with a Saluting the Feminists day celebrating “the legacy of some of its key female pedagogues” and saluting “a strong army of female composers from Ireland”. And, in September 2017, Composing the Feminists morphed into Sounding the Feminists, which, earlier this year, got its toe securely inside the door of the NCH. 

The long headline on the media release said it all: “Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Creative Ireland programme to co-fund National Concert Hall and Sounding the Feminists’ new five-year initiative to promote creative work by female musicians worth €100,000.”

Last Wednesday the NCH presented the first concert of its Female Composer Series at the Kevin Barry Recital Room. The Fidelio Trio played piano trios by Clara Schumann (1819-96), Joan Trimble (1915-2000) and Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) and a work for violin and piano by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918). 

The programme notes were by the venue’s CEO, Simon Taylor, and showed the journey he had come on in just over a year. He spoke at Sounding the Feminists’ first public meeting where, having noted the increased number of women working in orchestras, he addressed the issue of the standard classical repertoire being mostly by dead, white men. 

“You will never,” he said, “get to a stage where, looking at the historical canon of classical music, you are getting anything approaching gender equality. Because they’re not there. And that’s not to deny that there are a certain number of female composers there who were neglected who could be revived. In a way that’s the same with a lot of male composers, historically, who have been neglected. But I think that if you look across genres and you include popular music and you include performers, I think you do see an emerging gender balance that is getting more balanced all the time.”

Dead female composers

Not a promising perspective for anyone interested in the work of dead female composers.

Yet in his programme note for Rebecca Clarke’s Piano Trio he wrote, “As with the other works in this evening’s programme, irrespective of the gender of the composer, this is undoubtedly a work that deserves a regular place in the chamber music canon.” 

The best-known of the evening’s composers, Clara Schumann, née Wieck, was married to the composer Robert Schumann and also an intimate friend of Johannes Brahms. She was one of the greatest musicians of the 19th century, or, as the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians equally truly put it, “one of the greatest pianoforte players that the world has ever heard” (the article was written in 1882 when she was still alive). She sacrificed composition to performance, to being a mother, and being the breadwinner in the family. She stopped composing in her early 30s.

French composer Lili Boulanger lived and composed in the sure knowledge that she would die young

Enniskillen-born Joan Trimble was a regular performer on BBC radio in the middle of the 20th century and, with her sister Valerie, formed one of the best-known piano duos of the time. She, too, put performing before composing and, after the traumatic experience of a television opera, Blind Raftery, which was broadcast live by the BBC in 1957 (“the orchestra in one studio, singers in another, everyone working with earphones,” she told me), she gave up composing for three decades, became a teacher, the carer of her invalid husband, and managing director of her family’s newspaper, The Impartial Reporter

French composer Lili Boulanger, a huge talent and the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, suffered from extreme ill health – a compromised immune system – and lived and composed in the sure knowledge that she would die young. She died five months before her 25th birthday.

Female student

Rebecca Clarke, born in England to a German mother and an American father, became the first female student of Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford, though it was as a viola player that she chose to make a career. Her best-known works, the 1919 Viola Sonata and 1921 Piano Trio, have an expressionist urgency, expressed in angular lines in the trio, which whet the appetite for more. But she, too, effectively gave up composition in the 1940s, when she found herself working as a nanny.

The Fidelio Trio has never impressed me in the context of live performance as they have in recordings. Their performances of the first three works were dutiful but rather pallid, the musical equivalent of poorly inflected speech – conscientious, perhaps, but not vitally communicative. Their approach moved onto an altogether higher plane to make the Clarke Trio in all ways the highlight of the evening, a striking work by a composer who, in the context of an anonymous competition, was taken to be either Maurice Ravel or Ernest Bloch.     

The Female Composer Series continues at the NCH on Thursday November 15th

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