9 Female Composers from 3 Centuries

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

Some time ago I reviewed Wiener Urtext Edition’s Urtext Primo series of six books, each bringing together the music of three composers whose careers overlapped, two well known, the third less performed today. You can read my series review here.

These are serious editions suitable for late intermediate to early advanced players who want to explore key repertoire in a broader musical context, and some of the adult learners I work with have certainly found them rewarding.

Wiener Urtext now bring a seventh volume to the series. 9 Female Composers from 3 Centuries has a self-explanatory title, and is a natural expansion of a series that already shines a spotlight on the music of overlooked composers of the past. This latest collection offers authoritative new editions of 25 pieces, as always edited and with practice tips by Nils Franke.

There has of course been a spate of new collections of music composed by women composers, all of which I have praised in reviews here, and which between them have nicely filled a gap in our repertoire and historical understanding.

I am told these books have only been a modest success, however, which raises intriguing questions about whether publishing agendas and perceptions of the market match the unaffected musical appetites of players. As I look at this new collection let’s not only consider the intrinsic value of the publication itself, but whether and what it can add to this increasingly crowded market…

9 Composers, 25 Pieces

Firstly, then, let’s consider the repertoire that makes up this new addition to the Urtext Primo world. Here is the complete list of included pieces, which are of varied difficulty but predominantly suitable for late intermediate to early advanced players around UK Grades 5-7:

Elisabetta de Gambarini (1730-1765)
• Gavotta
• Giga
• March
• Cariglon
• Tambourin

Marianna von Martines (1744-1812)
• Tempo di Minuetto

Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)
• Etude Op.42/1
• Etude Op.50/10
• Etude Op.50/11
• Etude Op.50/18
• Etude Op.50/4

Fanny Hensel (1805-1847)
• Pastorella
• Übungsstück

Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
• Romanze Op.21/2
• Scherzo Op.15/4

Marie Jaëll (1846-1925)
• Grisaille
• En querelle
• On pleure
• On rêve au beau tempos
• Chanson berçante

Chinquinha Gonzaga (1847-1935)
• Yo te adoro (Tango)

Mélanie Bonis (1858-1937)
• Frère Jacques
• Bébé s’endort
• Méditation

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
• D’un hadron clair

The first thing to note about the list of included composers is that, in common with previous titles in this series, Franke has continued to focus on those of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras, whose music is available in the public domain, but overdue reevaluation and modern editing.

Having said that, with this collection the series ventures tentatively and for the first time into the music of the twentieth century. And broadly speaking, these later pieces in the collection are those which interested me most when exploring the book.

In case you are wondering (as I was) whether the pieces here overlap with those found in the other collections I have recently reviewed, the fascinating answer is that they barely coincide at all. Just three titles appear in the other compilations I have:

  • Marianna von Martines’ Tempo di Minuetto is found in Karen Marshall’s HerStory (reviewed here)
  • Clara Schumann’s Scherzo Op.15/4 appears (without opus number) in Gail Smith’s pioneering Women Composers in History
  • Melanie Bonis’ Frère Jacques has previously been featured both in Melanie Spanswick’s Women Composers: A Graded Anthology (Book One, reviewed here) and in Immanuela Gruenberg’s Piano Music by Women Composers (reviewed here).

That Franke offers such a profusion of material not found in the many excellent previous collections underlines the point that there is a wealth of overlooked music ripe for rediscovery. In a most basic sense, this also answers our earlier question about what this new collection adds to the market.

Having played through most of the collection, I am also happy to report that the selection here includes many wonderful discoveries. The pieces by Elisabetta de Gambarini and Marianna von Martines are fine discoveries, while the works by Clara Schumann, Fanny Helsel and Louise Farrenc are as accomplished as one would expect from these proven names.

But as already intimated, the works by Chiquinha Gonzaga, Mélanie Bonis and Lili Boulanger especially stun with their brilliance, while those by Marie Jaëll can only fairly be described as perfection in miniature.

I wonder whether it is perhaps about time to explore the complete works from which all such anthologies draw. For example, various of Louise Farrenc’s many wonderful Études, drawn from her various collections, appear in all these publications without overlap. How about a new urtext complete edition?

And I suspect there are many such composers who have been under-served by the catalogue thus far, and whose music merits our closer attention. I would wager that the archives of Jaëll, Bonis and Boulanger in particular have far more glittering jewels yet to reveal.

Turning to the question of the distinctive features of Franke’s series in general and this new publication in particular, the publisher tells us,

This academic foundation and approach to house style further sets this edition apart from other recent collections of music by women composers. On the one hand, the more colourful presentation and marketing of other collections adds to their already considerable appeal. On the other, Urtext Primo editions benefit from industry-leading engraving on luxury cream paper, and an editorial approach which lends these scores particular authority.

Where direct comparisons are possible between these editions and others, they are instructive and occasionally surprising, however.

Marianna von Martines’ Tempo di Minuetto, for example, is helpfully identified in Karen Marshall’s HerStory as coming from a Sonata in A major; oddly, this isn’t clear in Franke’s Urtext Primo edition. Marshall also includes cue notes from the original manuscript which Franke (presumably selecting a different primary source) omits.

On the other hand, Marshall adds copious editorial dynamics and phrase marks to support developing musicians, a point she explains in her introduction. Franke adds none, but does include the composer’s fingerings, surprisingly missing in Marshall’s version.

Both editions include interesting biographical sketches of the composer. Meanwhile, Marshall adds considerable pedagogic scaffolding and personable anecdotes about her own response to the music; Franke’s playing tips focus on historical performing and stylistic advice.

Similar comparisons might with ease be made between the various recent publications from Gail Smith, Melanie Spanswick and Immanuela Gruenberg, all outstanding in their own right, highlighting the point that the presentation, character and approach that editors and publishers take can be very different, and makes a huge difference to the overall product that emerges.

You might also imagine how easy it becomes for the music editor to jump down the proverbial rabbit hole in search of the perfect balance, when of course there isn’t one.

To summarise the point, we cannot, and I will not, simply state that any one of these publications is better than the others. In an ocean whose depths we have barely yet fathomed, competition hardly even qualifies as a moot point. Each of these published series and anthologies, including this new edition from Franke, is genuinely superb in its own right. It is for the enthusiast to determine which best addresses their personal interest.

The vision and execution of the Urtext Primo series is excellent, and no less so in this new addition featuring the music of 9 female composers, from 3 centuries. I am fond of the series, and this new volume is certainly another gem.

Adult learners wanting to explore the music of neglected women composers can purchase this edition with the confidence of knowing that it offers a superb and revelatory collection of great music, and that it does so with beautifully engraved scores that demonstrate editorial authority.

Nor should those who own other recent publications of music by female composers resist the temptation to add this new anthology to their growing collection. Once again, the search for buried treasure has borne fruit: the book is a real diamond!

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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.