Women Composers: A Graded Anthology

Featured publications are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

Hot on the heels of Karen Marshall’s lovingly curated HerStory from Faber Music, which I recently reviewed here, Schott Music bring us three brilliantly compiled and vividly presented collections of music by neglected female composers past and present.

Melanie Spanswick’s Women Composers: A Graded Anthology is equally as groundbreaking, and being a larger series these books offer space to a wider and more diverse range of repertoire, particularly in their inclusion of playful jazz and 20th century piano works.

It is interesting to note that of the 30 works in Marshall’s book and the 52 more here, not only are there no actual duplicates, but few of the composers themselves appear twice, an extraordinary confirmation (were it needed) that the pool of neglected music by female composers is a deep one indeed.

So let’s cast an eye over Spanswick’s series…

Series Overview

Melanie Spanswick tells us in her series introduction:

Women Composers: A Graded Anthology is a three-book series featuring piano music by female composers. Intended as a progressive compendium of educational piano music, this series illustrates the rich and varied repertoire written by female composers from the Seventeenth century to the present day.”

Not only are the three books progressive, but the content within them is carefully organised into levels (showing descriptions and UK Grade equivalents):

  1. Elementary, 1-2 • Late Elementary, 2-3 • Early Intermediate, 3-4
  2. Intermediate, 4-5 • Late Intermediate, 5-6 • Early Advanced, 6-7
  3. Advanced, 7-8 • Late Advanced, 8-diploma

These are similar to the categories used to organise the material in Spanswick’s outstanding adult returner series Play it Again Piano, reviewed here and these new books would work well as companion volumes to that series.

Each section comprises around half a dozen pieces organised chronologically; in the lists given later in this review you will be able to discern those levels.

Spanswick tells us the following about her piece selections:

“I have included a large variety of musical styles and genres, and you will find all types of music from Baroque dances and Classical sonata movements, through to jazz and swing numbers, as well as more adventurous Contemporary Classical music.”

Alongside each piece, Spanswick also includes a full page of text, split into two recurring sections. These are close in style, tone and content to the notes she has previously written for the LCM Handbooks.

Firstly, she gives us a brief biographical sketch of each composer. These short introductory stories are rather more formal in tone than Marshall’s and best suited to adult readers, but I certainly found them satisfyingly informative. It is clear that very considerable research underpins this content.

Secondly, Spanswick offers detailed ‘Performance Notes’ for each piece. Again the style of writing seems aimed at adult players and teachers, perhaps building on the regular in-depth practice advice she offers in her popular Pianist magazine contributions. Covering stylistic and technical considerations, and penned by such an experienced globetrotting pedagogue, they add tremendous value.

The Publications

Before exploring the content further, a word about the books themselves. Presented with brightly coloured covers which again reference the Play it Again Piano series, these have a clean inner presentation, are spaciously and nicely set out, with good fonts and consistent readability throughout.

As one would expect from Schott, the notation engraving is well presented. Spanswick has added some fingerings throughout; suggested metronome markings and pedalling are also added in most scores. Unlike most Schott publications, the pages are printed on white paper, which has quite thick, high grade quality.

Rather than add editorial dynamics or articulation to the earlier pieces, Spanswick has prioritised textual fidelity, leaving her interpretative suggestions to the designated Performance Notes text. She thus provides an exemplary balance of information needed by players and teachers at different levels of competence and experience.

The First Book

We now come to a consideration of the main content.

The music in each book is listed below, beginning with the first book in the series (which, remember, is suitable for Grades 1-4):

  • Elisabetta de Gambarini (1731–1765): Minuet
  • Florence Ada Goodrich (1850–1928): Water Sprite
  • Narcisa Freixas (1859–1926): L’Ocell
  • Felicitas Kukuck (1914–2001): The Boat
  • Barbara Heller (*1936): Joker
  • Melanie Spanswick (*1969): Mirage
  • Rachael Forsyth (*1982): Soggy Shoes Blues
  • Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665–1729): Menuet
  • Marjory Kennedy-Fraser (1857–1930): A Harvest Reel
  • Hedwige Chrétien (1859-1944): Pierrot sautille
  • Gertrud Orff-Willert (1914–2000): Andante con moto
  • Ivana Loudová (1941–2017): The Sleeping Beauty
  • Wendy Hiscocks (*1963): Fig and Fennel
  • Vera Mohrs (*1984): Two Cats Playing
  • Anna Bon (1738–after 1767): Andante
  • Maria Szymanowska (1789–1831): Mazurka
  • Elfrida Andrée (1841–1929): Allegro moderato
  • Agathe Backer Grøndahl (1847–1907): Song of Youth
  • Ethel Smyth (1858–1944): Minuet
  • Mélanie Bonis (1858–1937): Frère Jacques
  • Samantha Ward (*1982): Rockin’ Fingers

Here’s the YouTube playlist which Spanswick has curated for this book, including all 21 pieces:

Having listened to the whole playlist, I suspect readers will agree that this collection is an embarrassment of riches, a trove of truly superb educational piano treasures. Such an abundance of good music both illustrates how deep the Schott vaults are and how excellent their current roster of composers is.

As for the level suggestions, Spanswick has a solid history as a consultant working with examination boards to select and benchmark repertoire. That her professional experience and expertise is beyond reproach is confidently evidenced here. For the later elementary and intermediate pianist the first collection in the series becomes a must-have.

The Second Book

The second book is an equal triumph, covering the range from intermediate (around UK Grade 4) to more early advanced (Grade 7), and delivering the following list of wonderful finds:

  • Elizabeth Turner (1700–1756): Giga
  • Louise Farrenc (1804–1875): Étude
  • Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850–1927): Prelude
  • Cécile Chaminade (1857–1944): Gavotte
  • Mon Schjelderup (1870–1934): Song without Words
  • Dora Pejačević (1885–1923): Waltz-Caprice
  • Jenni Pinnock (*1987): Astralis
  • Maria Teresa Agnesi (1720–1795): Allegro moderato
  • Hélène de Montgeroult (1764–1836): Étude
  • Helene Liebmann (1795–1869): Andante espressivo
  • Helen Hopekirk (1856–1945): Sarabande
  • Anna Severine Lindeman (1859–1938): Allegretto
  • Melanie Spanswick (*1969): Kaleidoscope
  • Maria Hester Park (1760–1813): Allegro
  • Cecilia Maria Barthélemon (1767–1859): Adagio
  • Maria Görres (1823–1882): Children’s Song
  • Theodora Dutton (1870–1934): On a Southern Balcony
  • Julia Hülsmann (*1968): Jazz Piece
  • Jessica Cho (*1987): Capricious 

Here again, a playlist that Spanswick has put together:

Once more the benchmarking is excellent, although the Intermediate selection in the first part of the book seems to me on the challenging side, while Julia Hülsmann’s Jazz Piece, though interesting, appears less challenging than other works in the Early Advanced section, so might be attempted earlier in the book.

There are of course good reasons for including both challenge and consolidation. As a repertoire collection to be used alongside other music, this second volume includes a sufficient breadth of excellent music to satisfy players over several years in their pianistic development, delivering realistic aspiration alongside excellent value.

The Third Book

While the first two books each includes three levels/sections, the final collection offers just two, Advanced (Grade 7-8) and Late Advanced (Grade 8 – first diploma). With just six pieces per section the material and contents list inevitably feels more condensed, although the length of these concert pieces compensates, the book itself equalling Book 2 with 68 pages.

  • Marianna von Martinez (1744-1812): Allegro
  • Chiquinha Gonzaga (1847-1935): Atrahente
  • Amy Beach (1867-1944): Sous les étoiles
  • Lili Boulanger (1893-1918): Prelude in D flat
  • Tatjana Komarova (*1968): Little Dance
  • Mai Fukasawa (*1977): Between Dawn, Noon and Midnight
  • Fanny Hensel (1805-1847): September
  • Clara Schumann (1819-1896): Prelude and Fugue in B flat major
  • Teresa Carreño (1853-1917): Plainte
  • Lady Viola Kinney (1890-1945): Mother’s Sacrifice
  • Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940): April
  • Chaya Czernowin (*1957): fardanceCLOSE

Enjoy these performances:

The Advanced selection (Grade 7-8) is particularly rewarding, with enjoyable finds from Martinez and Gonzaga nestling beside the lovely Between Dawn, Noon and Midnight by Japanese composer Mai Fukasawa and (my favourite here) Lili Boulanger’s exquisite Prélude in Db Major.

I found the final selection more patchy, both in terms of level and inspiration, but April by Vítězslava Kaprálová is surely a masterpiece which would fittingly conclude any ARSM recital.

Closing Thoughts

Melanie Spanswick’s Women Composers: A Graded Anthology series certainly delivers a rich feast of music which rightly belongs at the heart of any player’s repertoire. That these pieces have yet to find their place on our music stands and in our hearts is surely a travesty that is long overdue correction.

We must hope that the composers included in the series will become better known not only through these books, but through a growing renaissance of interest in their larger creative output. My lasting impression with these books is that they represent the tip of a very significant iceberg.

Spanswick has done us all an immense favour by researching, compiling and presenting these fabulous collections, which unquestionable represent a milestone in music publishing, and fit beautifully alongside Marshall’s simultaneously released HerStory collection.

Melanie Spanswick’s Women Composers: A Graded Anthology is utterly superb, and will surely be of significant interest to pianists everywhere.

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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.