Female Composers At The Keyboard: Part 1

I wonder how many female composers you can name? Contemporary female composers are not too hard but what about the Baroque, Classical or Romantic period?

This is why I’m excited about this month’s Curiosity Box on piano works by female composers. Community members CLICK HERE for access.

AN EMERGING AWARENESS

Of course, awareness of female composers has always been there on some level but it’s only relatively recently that they have made significant in-roads into the mainstream musical canon. I can remember in the late 90s, when I was studying for my music A-level, there was a fleeting nod to Nadia Boulanger as part of the French 20th Century area of study but, beyond that, nothing much. Grade 8, which I took at around the same time, was a similar story, with no female composers on the syllabus. It was a marked contrast with English literature where, even then, the exam featured works by multiple female contemporary poets, and female authors Jane Austen, and Toni Morrison.

It’s something which also struck Frances Wilson, author of The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog, writing in 2019:

“This lack of diversity troubles me – and it’s not some kind of gender identity/feminist virtue signalling on my part, but rather a wish to offer students and piano enthusiasts as broad a range of music as possible. We are so lucky as pianists to have access to a vast repertoire, yet too many anthologies focus on the core canon, which is mostly music written by long dead white guys.”*

Don’t get me wrong – we’re not dismissing the incredible works and the legacy left by those “long-dead white guys”; our last blog post rightly celebrated Beethoven’s 250th birthday. As Wilson says, 

“Ultimately… the gender of the composer shouldn’t matter and we should simply celebrate music and take pleasure in playing and sharing it.”**

PROVIDING ROLE MODELS

That said, it would have helped and inspired sixteen-year-old me to have been able to listen to, and play, the works of female composers. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I could compose as a female…it just would have normalised it for me, and given me role models to aspire to and perhaps identify with. 

Recent exam syllabi noticeably include more works by female composers; I am working with a sixteen-year-old student at the moment on her ABRSM Performance Grade 8, and two of her four pieces are composed by women. This wasn’t a conscious choice – she simply chose the pieces she connected with most, two of which happened to be by female composers. In our lessons, I can see the affinity she has with this music. Compared with 16-year-old me, she has a much more culturally-varied diet of repertoire to choose from.

That’s not in any way knocking the musical education I had (which was excellent) – but the times and the technology are different now. Back in the 90s, if my teenage self wanted a new recording or score, it meant a trip to an actual shop – imagine! Having ready online access to pretty much anything has made it much easier to source scores, recordings, videos and research whatever, and whoever, we want to. Control of the canon, and the ability to recommend repertoire by a wide variety of composers is more in our hands as teachers than it ever was. It’s a responsibility. And, without getting too heavy – it’s fun to explore; after all, we are all about being Curious as piano teachers.

QUESTIONS OF ANATOMY

Another thing that occurred to me, whilst researching this topic, is the role of anatomy. If you have ever seen a plaster-cast of Rachmaninov’s hands, you’ll know just how huge they were. The impact this had on his compositional style is clear. I am a small-handed pianist. I can just about span a ninth on the edge of the keys. However, it is not particularly comfortable, or a stretch that I would like to do for any length of time. Certain octave chord configurations are nigh-on impossible for me and require adapting. It’s not an issue shared by all female pianists – I read recently that Clara Schumann could span a tenth.

I recently attended a course for small-handed pianists (where, incidentally, all of the attendees were women). Penelope Roskell (author of The Complete Pianist) discussed alternatively-sized keyboards (they do exist!). Making such keyboards more widely available would make certain works in the concert repertoire more accessible to small-handed pianists. It would also reduce the likelihood of injury. This subject really merits its own blog post; watch this space! Could it be that this is an issue that many female composers intuitively get? I have enjoyed researching this article because I have played a lot of music that seems to “fit” me.  

EXPLORING WORKS BY FEMALE COMPOSERS

The benefits of exploring works by female composers seem obvious. By doing so we are:

  1. Creating a more balanced musical experience for our students;
  2. Giving credit where credit is due for the music of remarkable women composers;
  3. Providing inspiration and role models for all our students; and
  4. Gaining a treasury of repertoire for smaller-handed pupils.                                           

Perhaps there are others that occur to you? We’d love you to share your favourites in the comments below. 

FEMALE COMPOSERS AT THE CURIOUS PIANO TEACHERS

At The Curious Piano Teachers, we have been privileged to work with, and feature, the compositions of many female composers, including Elissa Milne, Samantha Coates, Diane Hidy, Paula Dreyer, Katherine Fisher, Julie Knerr-Hague and Pam Wedgwood, to name a few.

This month’s Curiosity Box includes an exclusive video of Dianne Goolkasian Rahbee’s Prelude, Op. 69, Twilight, performed by composer June Armstrong.

Look out for Part 2 of this blog post, when I’ll be sharing some of my favourite resources about, and by female composers. I’ll also be sharing the top picks from members of our Community.

By Hannah O’Toole – Community Manager for The Curious Piano Teachers

*You can read the full article here.

**Read the full article here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. The Name, Email and Comment fields are required

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.