A ‘Live’ Concert at Last! Music, She Wrote

by Jennifer Bryce

The venue for this concert was a fairly new space in suburban Melbourne, The Button Factory. A pleasant place to be on a hot day with a bar at the back, plenty of indoor plants and an interesting gallery. https://thebuttonfactory.com.au/

I had heard nearly all of the performers in pre-Covid days – often in concerts associated with the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM). I had assumed that all were fully professional and was surprised to read that some of them have ‘day jobs’ such as pharmacist and physiotherapist – a sign of the hard lot of the professional musician.

The theme of this concert: ‘Music, She Wrote’ was an admirable exploration of the work of women composers of the 19th and early 20th century. The only composer I’d heard of was the most recent, Margaret Sutherland (1897 – 1984).

As I sat listening to engrossing substantial pieces of music I realised that I couldn’t think of a musical equivalent of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. In other words, in literature, although it was very difficult for women to have their work accepted, some outstanding writers managed to be recognised during the 19th century, but I couldn’t think of a female composer with the standing of, say, Schubert or Tchaikovsky.  I cast my mind to the lot of Alma Mahler, discussed elsewhere on this blog: https://jenniferbryce.net/category/my-reading/page/2/ As a young woman her musical composition was close to her heart, but when she married Gustav Mahler he announced that she was to stop composing her own music – he used her as a copyist.

The concert opened with a Little Suite for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon by Margaret Sutherland. The piece was composed for bassoonist George Dreyfus and first performed in 1960. We were reminded that Sutherland’s psychiatrist husband didn’t approve of her composing and she didn’t receive much acknowledgment of her substantial oeuvre until after the marriage ended.

Rebecca Clarke (1886 — 1979) was an internationally recognised violist –one of the first female professional orchestral players. Born in England, she studied at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music in London, but she spent most of her adult life in the United States.  Those of her compositions that were published in her lifetime were largely forgotten after she stopped composing.

Rebecca Clarke’s Wikipedia entry suggests that the lack of encouragement—sometimes outright discouragement—for her work made her reluctant to compose. Interest in her work has been revived and there is a Rebecca Clarke Society that was established in 2000 to promote the study and performance of her music. Not surprisingly, much of her work features the viola. On this occasion we heard a Lullaby and Grotesque for Viola and Cello, composed in 1916. The Lullaby explored some interesting harmonies and the Grotesque was lively, but not as discordant as I’d expected.

The next item was Piano Quartet in F Minor, Op 28, by Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850 – 1927). An only child, Le Beau received piano lessons beginning at the age of five, and composed her first piece at the age of eight. She was educated at a private institution for girls and when she left there at the age of sixteen, she devoted the rest of her life to music. The Le Beau family decided to relocate to Munich to facilitate Luise studying under composer Josef Gabriel Rheinberger.  Due to the regulations put in place by the Royal Music School, Le Beau was tutored separately from the male students.

In the 1880s, Luis had some success with compositions such as Op.27, Ruth – Biblical Scenes for Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra, and she won the first prize for her Cello Sonata Op.17 in an international composition contest. Around this time, Georg Vierling, a member of Berlin’s Royal Academy of Arts nominated Le Beau for a chair position at the Royal School of Music. But Le Beau was not granted the position, as it was never assigned to women. As well as chamber music, Le Beau wrote symphonies, an opera and choral music. The Piano Quartet performed at this concert was held together by a recurring theme. The music reminded me at times of Schubert – certainly a substantial piece of nineteenth century romanticism.

After interval we heard a Sextet in C Minor, Op 40 by Louise Farrenc (1804 – 1875). Scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano, there were two lively movements on either side of an andante sostenuto – virtuoso piano playing was required and pianist Peter de Jager magnificently rose to the occasion.

Born in Paris, Louise Farrenc was a brilliant pianist and also studied composition with Anton Reicha, possibly away from the Paris Conservatoire where he taught because the composition class was open only to men. She married a flautist and for a while they toured together performing her works. He, however, soon grew tired of the concert life and, with her help, opened a publishing house in Paris, which, as Éditions Farrenc, became one of France’s leading music publishers for nearly 40 years. Farrenc’s piano playing was so accomplished that in 1842 she was appointed to the permanent position of Professor of Piano at the  Paris Conservatoire, a position she held for thirty years and one which was among the most prestigious in Europe. But initially she was paid less than her male counterparts. As well as piano music and a considerable number of chamber music pieces, Farrenc wrote two overtures and three symphonies. 

Sincere thanks to the performers: Bernadette Baker, violin, Lisa Clarke, clarinet, Peter de Jager, piano, Nicholas Jensen, cello, Sara Rafferton, bassoon, Ely Ruttico, viola, Phoebe Smithies, horn, Jasper Ly, oboe, and Kelly Williams, flute. It was so good to be made aware of these largely forgotten composers and to spend a pleasant couple of hours listening to their music.