Piano Music by Women Composers

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

After several decades in which music by women composers was largely overlooked by those compiling piano anthologies, concert programmes, exam and festival lists, the recent renaissance of interest can be warmly welcomed as a necessary recalibration, and one which continues to bring to light many wonderful treasures.

Gail Smith’s pioneering Women Composers in History anthology (2013, Hal Leonard, available here) paved the way for more recent collections from Melanie Spanswick (reviewed here) and Karen Marshall (reviewed here). These ‘voices in the wilderness’ certainly piqued our interest, introducing piano enthusiasts to many names that we had been unaware of.

If those collections were the harbingers of change, two new anthologies compiled by Immanuela Gruenberg (again published by Hal Leonard) deliver a confident musical consummation of that promise, a tour de force of truly stunning classics.

Delivered with mature confidence and polished professionalism for a mass global market, these slick collections herald a watershed moment. Join me as I discover Piano Music by Women Composers

Introducing Piano Music…

Advertised as suitable for elementary to intermediate players (a designation I will consider later), the two books between them deliver 70 pieces by women who lived between the mid 18th to mid 20th centuries, predominantly from the Romantic Era.

These are handsomely presented volumes, with 96 and 112 pages respectively, printed on white paper and (despite their size) staple bound. They have glossy soft card covers with a tastefully understated graphic design, mirrored on the inner title page, which in turn leads to the Preface and Contents pages (reproduced below).

A very welcome feature, both books also include detailed, factual Composer Biographies, which add up to two pages in the first book, three in the second. The rest of the books are given over to the music, which is beautifully engraved and spaciously presented.

Fingering suggestions are generous in the first book, and sufficient in the second, reflecting the higher playing level expected. Commendably, Gruenberg has painstakingly identified which fingerings are editorial and which are from the original sources on a piece-by-piece basis, a reminder that the best scores can assuredly combine popular accessibility with academic rigour.

In her Preface to both collections, Gruenberg tells us,

“Upon embarking on this project, I had little idea of what I would find. There were, of course, the “usual suspects”: women composers whose names and whose music have stood the test of time and are familiar to many. There were also those whose names ring a bell but whose music does not. The real unknowns were, well, the unknowns. How many women composers whose music is worth studying and listening to were out there?”

The answer to that question might have surprised Gruenberg herself, but she clearly rose to the challenge with alacrity. Despite having limited access to libraries during the covid pandemic, she amassed well over three hundred works for consideration, eventually having to leave out eighty percent of the music she had collected.

She goes on to tell us,

“When selecting the twenty percent to be included, I searched for the following: beautiful, interesting compositions that students can benefit from and will love learning, teachers will enjoy teaching, and audiences will appreciate; a variety of styles, composers and nationalities; showcasing as many composers as possible, while striking a balance between well-known, lesser known, and unknown composers.”

Reading and playing my way through the books, what strikes me the most forcibly is the consistently high quality of the music selected. If other collections of music by women composers have shown us the tip of the iceberg, here we plummet headlong into the substance.

Book One

With 40 uniformly rewarding pieces, the first book hardly seems designed as a survey that intermediate players will labour progressively through.

More realistically, this is a sourcebook from which teachers and players will discover the riches of the repertoire at this level, and from which festival and exam boards might choose material for their syllabus. The collection would also appeal to more advanced players and diploma students looking for quick study material.

It is notable that so much of the included music is gleaned from the childrens’ pedagogic collections written in the wake of the best-selling Album for the Young by Schumann, whose influence is surely also felt in the music.

We are of course familiar with similar collections composed by Tchaikovsky, Gurlitt, and many more since. The selections here from Amy Beach’s Children’s Carnival, Mélanie Bonis’s Children’s Scenes, Cécile Chaminade’s Children’s Album and Louise Farrenc’s Easy Etudes are more than equal, serving up terrific and varied musical material. My only wish being that space could have been found for the complete works!

When it comes to level, I would say that the designation “Upper Elementary to Early Intermediate” is ambitious; from a UK perspective, the pieces fit the range from Grade 3 to Grade 5.

Book Two

The second book is specified for “Intermediate to Upper Intermediate Level” players, and here I would suggest the pieces are more suited to players at UK Grades 6-8 level (in fact, the book includes a present ABRSM Grade 8 piece).

The 30 pieces here are drawn from a wider range of sources and composers, delivering an astonishing cornucopia of musical discoveries:

Having this time dipped in rather than playing cover to cover, I would suggest that the content here will take some time to fully absorb, and that doing so may require us to face up to a somewhat altered narrative of the Romantic piano literature. Those who had thought the story of piano music centred around a handful of revered virtuosi will simply have to think again.

As an early endeavour, I decided to look beyond the more established names and delve into the pieces by Cécile Hartog, Josephine Lang, Adele Aus Der Ohe and Fanny Scholfield Petrie, all new names for me, all superb craftswomen on the evidence of these miniature marvels.

Closing Thoughts

Gruenberg’s collections will undoubtedly prove an important source for the continuing discovery of inspiring and enduring music. We must hope that many of the pieces here will quickly and rightly make their way into the core piano pedagogy and recital repertoire.

These significant volumes reward our recent curiosity with a substantial seam of brilliant repertoire. Simply put, the collections are outstanding, a landmark achievement and essential milestone which every intermediate or advanced pianist should rush to welcome.

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Andrew Eales

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