Friday 20 April 2018

Celebrating female composers on International Women's Day

Woman of note: Clara Schumann
Woman of note: Clara Schumann

George Hamilton

If you happened to be tuned in to Sunday Miscellany last weekend on RTÉ Radio 1, you might well have noticed that two of the four pieces of music that accompanied the musings were written by women.

Clara Schumann's charming piano Impromptu in E major was there alongside a composition by a contemporary Dutch harpist, Anne Vanschothorst.

Clara's romantic flight of fancy led me to a CD where it's one of 22 tracks, all of them written by women.

Next Thursday is International Women's Day, and in celebration South Tipperary Arts Centre in Clonmel is hosting a three-day programme of events. All the music has been written by women.

Finding A Voice has gone a good bit further than Organo Phon, the German classical label, which released the CD I mentioned, Klavierwerke von Komponistinnen aus drei Jahrhunderten.

The album title translates as "Piano works of female composers from across three centuries". At its heart is the music of Clara Schumann and her great friend Fanny Hensel.

She was the elder sister of Felix Mendelssohn and had to struggle to escape from his shadow. Clara was married to Robert Schumann, and when he died she devoted herself to promoting his music at the expense of her own.

But while the earliest piece on the CD dates from around 1800, in Clonmel they'll be hearing compositions from much earlier than that, as well as women's contributions right up to the present day.

The opening concert at lunchtime on Thursday features the 12th-century nun Hildegard von Bingen. She's one of the earliest names to appear as a composer. A Benedictine abbess, a writer, a mystic, a philosopher - an extraordinary figure, not just in music.

Old St Mary's Church is the venue. Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel are on the programme in the same place next Saturday lunchtime.

Also to be heard, three songs by Poldowski, the name adopted by Régine Wieniawski, the composer and pianist daughter of the celebrated Polish violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski.

And the American Amy Beach's work is in that concert, too. She was a teenage sensation in the 1880s, when she made her debut as a concert pianist just six weeks after her 16th birthday.

But when, two years later, she married an eminent and much older Boston surgeon, her public appearances more or less stopped.

It wasn't that the good Doctor Beach had anything against Amy's music. It was just that he didn't deem it appropriate for the wife of a professional of his standing to be out performing on the public stage.

Ironically, this allowed Amy's talent as a composer to flourish. By the time she resumed her concert career after his death, the reputation of Mrs H H A Beach, as she styled herself, was well and truly made. There'll be music, too, from one of America's finest living composers, Joan Tower, who's won contemporary classical Grammy awards.

She's known for her Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, a shot across the bows of a musical establishment very much dominated by the work of men like Aaron Copland, a tongue-in-cheek title referencing his famous composition, Fanfare for the Common Man.

Almost 850 years of women in music. You'll find more on Finding A Voice at www.southtippartscentre.ie.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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