Liza Lehmann, Alice Mary Smith and Adela Maddison were British composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but today few would know their names, let alone their music. Now they have been singled out by a new classical music label dedicated to raising the profile of female composers, many of whom have never been recorded and whose works have been “lost to time”.
The label, called La Boîte à Pépites (jewel box), will discover and record compositions that have rarely, if ever, been heard before, and deserve “a good position in the standard musical repertoire”.
Recent research by Donne, a charity focused on gender inequality in the music industry, found that only 747 of the almost 15,000 works performed by 100 orchestras from 27 countries in 2020-2021 were composed by women – a total of 5%.
When asked why female composers have been neglected, Gabriella Di Laccio, soprano and founder of the Donna Foundation, told the Observer: “There are several reasons. One very important thing is not knowing the repertoire. People in a position to turn on this music either don’t have the time or their focus isn’t on learning what’s available.
“Also, there is the fear of the audience not coming and, I’m sorry to say, prejudice. Unfortunately, we have been brought up to believe that only men are genius composers. Unconscious prejudice is still there, which is very surprising.”
The new label was founded by French cellist Héloïse Luzzati, who says digging up and studying the original manuscripts has allowed researchers to “unearth” some extraordinary compositions. “Too few of them are published and therefore even less recorded,” she said.
The label’s first release, which will be launched in the UK on September 30, is dedicated to the French composer Charlotte Sohy, who died in 1955. Luzzati described her music as “amazing … impressionistic … with the colors of Ravel, Debussy or Chausson “.
Asked why it was being ignored, she said: “If she had been a man, her music would have been famous.”
The 3-CD boxset contains world premiere recordings of piano, chamber and orchestral works, performed by the Avignon-Provence National Orchestra, among others.
In the liner notes, Alexis Labat, the orchestra’s executive director, writes: “The classical repertoire for symphonic formations covers more than four centuries, and almost all of it is devoted to men… How can we explain this incredible lack of female composers in our concert season and our recordings? “
Luzzati said: “A few years ago, the question of the role of women in the history of music began to gain some importance in my life as a musician. How could I have gone so many years without ever playing a piece composed by a woman?”
This inspired her to start the project “Elles – Women Composers”, promoting female composers through a festival and a video channel.
The new label is “expanding this mission” with a series of albums, each dedicated to a female composer. Its initial release in France in April proved “big for someone who is unknown,” Luzzati said.
Extensive research has yet to be done on various British composers, including Lehmann, who wrote hundreds of solo and ensemble pieces, many of which were well received in their time.
Scholar Derek Hyde has described her as one of the three “most outstanding singer-songwriters” of the 19th century.
Luzzati said Lehmann was unfairly forgotten. She praised the emotionality of her music, noting that “the quality of the lyrics is outstanding”.
He plans to start a music label next year: “Today, for example, we can hear Sohy’s music, but if a musician wants to play it, he has to write to us first. You can’t find the sheet music on the website or in the sheet music store. The editing of works that have not yet been published is essential for the rehabilitation of the works of female composers.”
She believes that through such “positive discrimination” forgotten female composers will finally be appreciated – which will ultimately eliminate the need for their own publishing house. “Today this is not yet the case and there is still so much music by female composers to discover.”
Katherine Cooper, classical editor of Presto Music, which will sell the recording, said: “I can’t think of another label that is solely dedicated to female composers. It’s a great idea that someone is stepping up and devoting themselves to it. They shine a light on a lot of composers who are really underrepresented, if at all.”