“HerStory”: The Piano Collection

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

Best-selling author Karen Marshall has been a driving force behind some of the most popular and useful piano education titles of recent years, including the Piano Star and Encore series (both ABRSM), Get Set! Piano method books (Collins Music) and Piano Trainer series (Faber Music).

To get the measure of this achievement, you can browse and read all of my previous reviews of Marshall’s work by clicking on this tag.

Marshall’s latest project is HerStory from Faber Music, and will appeal to a wider catchment of piano players beyond the education market, being a compilation of 30 works by female composers who thus far have not received the recognition they have deserved. But HerStory is so much more than simply another repertoire collection, as I will explain in this review.

Discovering 30 Unknown Works

Introducing HerStory, Marshall tells us,

“The topic of undiscovered works by female composers has been covered a great deal in recent years. When the pandemic hit, unable to do my regular teaching, I decided to investigate some female composers for myself. What first started out as personal curiosity developed into a signifiant journey of discovery. The more I researched, the more I realised how little was known about these composers and how fascinating their stories were. Most importantly, because many of these women were piano teachers, their work was enormously pedagogically rich. I found a treasure trove of new material from the baroque, classical, romantic and early 20th century periods that really spoke to me and my students.”

Marshall’s research steadily grew to encompass more than 1,000 works, a project she now describes as “one of the privileges of my life”.

The list was gradually whittled down to 30 pieces, and with the backing of Faber Music editor Lesley Rutherford, HerStory began to emerge. I am told by Faber that the title is a term increasingly used in place of history when written from a feminist perspective, or emphasising the role of women (as in this instance).

Keen to include the first known female composer, the 11th century Hildegard von Bingen (who of course wrote no piano music), a decision was taken to launch a competition for a young female composer to write a piano piece based on one of her ancient melodies.

The “prize” of a place in HerStory was eventually shared by Margarida Gonçalves and Emily Pedersen, whose music now takes its place on the following list:

  • Villanelle Marguerite Balutet
  • Grazioso from Sonata No. 2 Elisabetta de Gambarini
  • Étude in C Op. 50 No. 1 Louise Farrenc
  • The Banjo Op. 74 No. 4 Nannie Louise Wright
  • Berceuse Op. 2 Dora Pejačević
  • Menuet from Suite in G minor Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre
  • Étude in D minor Op. 50 No. 11 Louise Farrenc
  • Invention Ethel Smyth
  • Surgite, Surgite Barbara Strozzi
  • The Wood Nymph’s Harp Florence P Rea
  • Levee Dance Florence Price
  • Columbine Op. 25 No. 2 Amy Beach
  • The Spinning Top Elena Gnesina
  • O Virtuo Sapientiae Margarida Gonçalves/Hildegard von Bingen
  • Now Think. Emily Pedersen/Hildegard von Bingen
  • Aubade Cécile Chaminade
  • Waltz Caprice Op. 2 No. 2 Clara Schumann
  • Valse Maria Szymanowska
  • Juninat (June Night) Inga Lærum-Liebich
  • Andante cantabile from Sonata Op. 2 Maria Hester Park
  • Mélodie Op. 4 No. 2 Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel
  • Tempo di Minuetto from Sonata in A major Marianna Martines
  • Heloisa (Valsa de salão) Francisca Gonzaga
  • Lied Op. 35 [37] No. 1 Josephine Lang
  • Intermezzo Op. 3 No. 3 Paula Szalit
  • Sospiro (Tango) Francisca Gonzaga
  • Prélude (Ce que l’on entendit dans la nuit de Noël) Augusta Holmès
  • Pastorale Germaine Tailleferre
  • Waltz Op. 8 No. 9 for piano duet Marie Jaëll
  • Divertimento Anna Amalia von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel

The majority of the pieces listed are not widely available elsewhere. They include a wide variety of keys and time signatures, textures, styles and mood, and are presented roughly in order of difficulty.

Their level comfortably traverses the range of the UK Grades from around 2 to 8, making this a collection that could accompany any player on an extended learning journey. Adult enthusiasts who want to explore the collection more freely will find much here to interest them too, comfortably manageable at upper intermediate and early advanced level.

In the elementary to intermediate pieces, Marshall has sensibly added some performance directions to assist less experienced players unfamiliar with the music, while the music editing later in the book transitions towards a more urtext approach.

The final two pieces include more than one player: the Waltz by Marie Jaëll is a duet, presented with primo and secondo parts on facing pages, while Anna Amalia von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel’s Divertimento is a quartet for the unusual combination of clarinet, viola, cello and piano. Individual instrumental parts for this are available for free download, as are audio play-along tracks of both pieces.

As for the music itself, the compositions are fairly representative of their times (and of note, Marshall has avoided the more modernist language of Bacewicz, Gubaidulina et al). But while their composers mostly don’t emerge as pioneers, the collection is jam-packed with superbly crafted and rewarding pieces. I fully concur with Marshall’s assessment that, often written by teachers, they are filled with rich educational benefit; it is wonderful for them to now be restored to the pedagogic repertoire.

Collectively then, HerStory is a superbly useful and engaging anthology, chock-full of fabulous musical rediscoveries.

Stories and Pedagogy

As the name of the book suggests, Herstory is not just a music collection. For each and every piece, Marshall delivers a wealth of historical and pedagogic content, described in her introduction thus:

Stories • learn more about these remarkable female composers through the stories of their lives and quotes from them (or about them). Suggestions of other music to try are also given, as are the author’s personal observations.

Piece features • details of the pedagogical value of the piece: technically, stylistically and theoretically.

Activities • additional musicianship tasks to complete.

Practice generator • practice activities within a ‘generator’ box, with suggested tasks and the opportunity for students and teachers to add in their own ideas.

Theory drills • a set of written music theory activities at the back of the book.

The Stories of these composers’ lives are given considerable focus, and most take up a whole page of the book. Written in Marshall’s enthusiastically warm style, they go beyond the career highs to illuminate the personal and inner world of each composer. Fascinating (and sometimes moving), these miniature biographies replete with anecdote both advance our knowledge of female composers and deliver an inspiring backdrop to the music itself.

As mentioned, these stories include quotes either from the composers themselves or from people around at the time. Great composers appear in many of the stories throughout the book, always supporting the female composers’ work, and their quotes are illuminating.

Though the research of this material clearly occupied a significant amount of time (and Marshall includes two pages of references at the rear of the book), she points out in her introduction,

“This is not an academic document, rather a log of one piano teacher’s personal research that has created a ‘snapshot’ of thoughts and information. Sometimes there was lots of information available, sometimes not. However, lucky accidents and a bit of detective work have resulted in some lovely stories. I’ve also included the women’s own voices or their contemporaries’ thoughts where possible.”

The Piece Features boxes helpfully pinpoint pedagogic elements which can be addressed through learning the piece, grouped under three subheadings: technique, style and theory. I am sure teachers will find this helpful.

The Activities, Practice Generator and Theory Drills further position HerStory as an educational textbook as well as a music compendium. Marshall’s approach here ties in with her Piano Trainer series, and will especially appeal to those using those other resources.

Independent learners will also find this content helpful in pointing towards effective learning and practice, although some may wish to skip these elements and focus solely on playing the music.

The Publication

HerStory is a 120-page book with a tasteful cover printed on matt card; the artwork is truly lovely:

Within, the design follows Faber Music’s attractive and stylised approach, each of the recurring elements given its own corresponding motif within the overall template.

The Practice Generator and Theory Drills inevitably have rather a “schoolbook” vibe to them, but are presented with commendable clarity, while the Story texts have a generously sized and very readable font. In most cases, a portrait is also included.

The scores themselves, in common with most Faber publications, have a rather small music font, made more challenging to read by the dazzling white paper used. As I have often said, cream paper supports visual clarity and would have been far preferable, further enhancing what is already a high-quality production.

Fingering is included throughout and is well-designed. The book incorporates useful explanations of ornamentation on the page where they appear, too. Despite all this wealth of detail and support material, there is still plenty of room for players (and teachers) to make their own notes on the score.

The soft binding uses glued segments, which proved durable during the short review period; the book certainly seems more than fit for purpose. The spine is flexible, and playing a selection of pieces from different parts of the book I found that the score behaved well, staying open and flat on the music stand.

Closing Thoughts

HerStory is more than the sum of its parts, a singular and significant achievement, lifting the lid on a terrific range of superb music that is long-overdue its day in the sun.

Not only so, but Karen Marshall has also done a huge service in further elevating the music with such a wealth of historical research, personal detail, and pedagogic insight, all delivered with her wonderfully personable expertise and infectious enthusiasm.

As a fresh and varied collection of 30 intermediate to advanced pieces, the book offers rich pickings for concerts, piano clubs, festivals and examination syllabi alike, and will surely come to be regarded as a significant sourcebook of musical inspiration. These are winsome, highly likeable works which audiences will surely warm to, and which students and players of all ages will undoubtedly find deeply rewarding to play.

For more information and to listen to student performances of four of the pieces, you can watch this Pianodao video cast with Karen Marshall.

HerStory will undoubtedly and very deservedly be recognised as one of the most significant music publications of 2022. It is set to be released on 8th March, International Women’s Day, and can be pre-ordered now:

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.