There have been some astonishing composerly revivals during the course of music history: Bach was underrated until Mendelssohn performed the St. Matthew Passion at the Berlin Singakademie in March 1829, Mahler was largely known as a conductor in his lifetime, Ives and Conlan Nancarrow scribbled (or hole-punched) away in obscurity, but are now widely lauded.
The prospect that other composers are lying ready to be discovered is an enticing one—just think of discovering new masterpieces, a new St. Matthew Passion, Missa Solemnis or Rite of Spring. This striking infographic suggests that there may be far more works to be discovered that we had supposed:
This information is from Drama Musica, a record label founded by Brazilian soprano Gabriella Di Laccio. It illustrates the inherent gender imbalance that has operated across musical history, resulting in a core repertoire that is almost entirely male.
Whilst this imbalance is partly a real reflection of the number of works written by female composers—there were fewer opportunities for women, so fewer works were written by them—the fact that so many of them have been forgotten cannot be said to be a result of the normal sifting-process of musical history. The social conditions in which these pieces were written and the period following each composer’s life meant that they were more likely to be ignored than those by men. It is hard to imagine Mendelssohn reviving the music of a female composer in 1829. In more enlightened times we can.
Hence Drama Musica embarking on a CD project with the support of Arts Council of England and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. This first stage was the curation of five CDs dedicated to the music of female composers. Three of these concentrate on figures from the 16th to 19th centuries that have been largely forgotten but whose music is worthy of revival. The other two reveal a second strand to the project: to support the work of female composers working today. In these albums historical works by female composers are programmes with new commissions from Brazilian composers Catarina Domenici and Silvia Berg.
The CD project has since spawned its own website: DONNE, Women in Music. Talking to C:T about the project, Gabriella Di Laccio outlined her vision for it: ‘The ultimate plan is for DONNE to be an international platform focused on education, visibility and equality: We want to have hundreds of videos on the website introducing historical and living female composers, bringing their stories closer to younger audiences and the general public. We will continue to expand our Big List and also develop the website to make easier for performers to find music composed by women. We will also continue to record music by women: this is very important as radio stations can only play this repertoire if there are enough good quality recordings available. And as we live in the age of music streaming, having more music by women recorded is also the quickest way to have this repertoire available to anyone who would like to listen to it’
We hope to bring more information as the website develops and CDs are released. In the meantime, here is Gabriella Di Laccio talking a little more about DONNE: