Liza Lehmann, Alice Mary Smith and Adela Maddison were British composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but few today know their names, let alone their music. Now they have been singled out for a new label of classic records dedicated to raising the profile of female composers, many of whom have never been recorded and whose works have been “lost over time”.
The label, which is called La Boîte à Pépites, will discover and record compositions rarely, if ever, heard before, but deserving “a good place in the standard musical repertoire”.
Recent searches by Donnea charitable foundation focused on gender inequality in the music industry, found that only 747 of nearly 15,000 works performed by 100 orchestras in 27 countries in 2020-21 were composed by women, a total of 5%.
When asked why female composers are overlooked, Gabriella Di Laccio, soprano and founder of the Donne Foundation, answered the Observer: “There are several reasons. A very important one is ignorance of the repertoire. People able to include this music do not have the time or their goal is not directed to learning what is available.
“Also, there is a fear that the public will not come and, I’m sorry to say, prejudice. Unfortunately, we were brought up to believe that only men were genius songwriters. The unconscious bias is still present, which is very surprising.
The new label was founded by French cellist Héloïse Luzzati, who says digging up and studying original manuscripts has enabled scholars to “unearth” extraordinary compositions. “Too few of them are published and therefore even fewer recorded,” she said.
The label’s first release, which will be launched in the UK on September 30, is dedicated to French composer Charlotte Sohy, who died in 1955. Luzzati describes her music as “amazing… impressionistic… in the colors of Ravel, Debussy or Chausson”.
When asked why she was ignored, she replied, “If she had been a man, her music would have been known.”
A 3CD set presents world premiere recordings of works for piano, chamber and orchestra, performed by the Orchester national d’Avignon-Provence, among others.
In the liner notes, Alexis Labat, general manager of the orchestra, writes: “The classical repertoire of symphonic ensembles spans four centuries, and almost all of it is devoted to men… How can we explain this incredible shortage of female composers in our concert? seasons and our recordings?
Luzzati said: “A few years ago, the question of the role of women in the history of music began to take on a certain importance in my life as a musician. How could I have gone so many years without ever having played a piece composed by a woman?
This inspired her to create the “Elles – Women Composers” project, promoting female composers through a festival and a video channel.
The new label “expands this mission” with a series of albums, each devoted to a single composer. Its initial release in France in April proved “huge for someone unknown”, Luzzati said.
Extensive research remains to be done on various British composers, including Lehmann, who wrote hundreds of solo and ensemble songs, many of which were well received in their time.
Scholar Derek Hyde has described her as one of the three “most remarkable female songwriters” of the 19th century.
Luzzati said Lehmann was unfairly overlooked. She praised the emotion of his music, noting that “the quality of the writing is extraordinary”.
Next year, she plans to launch a music publishing house: “Today, for example, we hear Sohy’s music, but if a musician wants to play it, he must first write to us. You cannot find sheet music on a website or in a sheet music store. Editing of unpublished works is essential to rehabilitate the works of women composers.
She believes that through such “positive discrimination”, forgotten female composers will finally be appreciated – eliminating the need for their own record company. “Today this is not yet the case and there is still so much music by female composers to discover.”
Katherine Cooper, Classical Editor of Presto Music, which will sell the recording, said, “I can’t think of another label just for female songwriters. It’s a great idea that someone amplifies that and dedicates it. They highlight many composers who are truly misrepresented, if at all.