The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Vox feminarum: Women’s Voices – The Composers

  2nd September 2021

2nd September 2021


Newly released on the ever-enterprising Edinburgh-based Delphian label, a generous selection of songs by Ina Boyle shines fresh light on the output of one of Ireland's most neglected composers. Privately educated in composition by the likes of Percy Buck, Charles Kitson, Charles Wood and Ralph Vaughan Williams (the latter a key influence and important supporter), Boyle (1889-1967) was denied wider recognition during her lifetime by a combination of rural seclusion, a self-effacing nature, and societal prejudices against the notion of women composers. Her music, redolent of middle-period Vaughan Williams with a nostalgic, often modal flavour, has a distinctive inward quality that marks her out as worthy of more than passing consideration. Yet it is only in the past few years, half a century after her death, that it has begun to win the attention it deserves.

Her songs, mainly syllabic settings of texts ranging from folk poetry, George Herbert and Robert Herrick to Whitman, Yeats, Robert Bridges, Edith Sitwell and Walter de la Mare, display an uncommon (if occasionally idiosyncratic) sensitivity to the words and their layers of nuance. The subtle variety and development of Boyle's style, its gentle wit, and a distinctive use of harmonic inflections and spare textures, are highlighted in wonderfully idiomatic performances by mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy, tenor Robin Tritschler and baritone Ben McAteer, overseen with customary responsiveness by pianist Iain Burnside.

Delphian's generously filled disc contains somewhat less than half of Boyle's output of songs, but her wider output is ripe for investigation too. 2018 saw the release on the Dutton Epoch label of her Symphony no.1 'Glencree', Violin Concerto and A Sea Poem, performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Ronald Corp, proved particularly popular with collectors, and this new addition to the catalogue deserves a similar success.

Yet the paucity of Boyle's works on disc until recent years highlights the similar fate of many women composers whose works have been neglected for far too long. Ethel Smyth, Florence Price and Ruth Gipps are among the names whose music has belatedly been making welcome appearance in recordings, and Smyth features together with Elfrida Andrée and Mel Bonis on Toccata Classics’ recent disc of Romantic violin sonatas ‘First Ladies’, another addition to the catalogue well worth investing in, with assured marvellously assured and persuasive performances from violinist Annette-Barbara Vogel and pianist Durval Cesetti. Such names as Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann will be more familiar to many listeners, even if only by association with their respective brother and husband, but their own output (like that of Alma Mahler) has happily enjoyed much greater attention of late. France’s Louise Farrenc and Lili Boulanger, Poland’s Grażyna Bacewicz, and even Czechoslovakia’s Vítězslava Kaprálová are among other names increasingly familiar to classical collectors, thanks in part to greater exposure on the airwaves as well as the greater availability of performances on record; while the many living women composers currently active are happily disproving the idea that contemporary music (whether of a modernist bent or of a more sympathetically tonal kind) is an exclusively male preserve.

The number of female composers with adequate representation on disc is still, however, tiny compared with that of their male counterparts, even though their names are liberally peppered throughout music history. Entrenched prejudices are hard to shift, especially ones as ingrained and ‘natural’ seeming as artistic sexism. The old argument that there simply aren’t any women composers of stature just won’t wash any more (especially when the historic measures of artistic greatness have been set by an almost exclusively male academy of experts). Consider the useful timeline of women composers usefully provided by the Oxford Music Online website (part of Grove Music Online, see link below), which lists hundreds of composers with scarcely any recordings to their credit, ranging from the eighth-century Armenians Sahakdukht and Khosrovidukht, via the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods right up to the present day. It’s a chronology that is as sobering as it is potentially uplifting.

Of even greater interest is the online interactive world map of female composers recently prepared with evident devotion and huge attention to detail by 28-year-old Valencian music teacher Sakira Ventura. This is a real labour of love, the result of an almost missionary zeal to bring to public consciousness women whose voices (and music) have been side-lined for far too long. Designed primarily with fellow teachers and students in mind, it has clickable profiles of hundreds of composers right across the globe, from Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii (1838-1917) in the west to New Zealand’s Gillian Whitehead (b. 1941) in the east, from Iceland’s Karolina Eiriksdottir (b. 1951) in the north to Luisina Kippes (b. 1989) from the southern tip of Argentina. For anyone with the slightest hint of musical inquisitiveness, Ventura’s atlas, with its zoom feature, clickable profiles and Index sidebar (click on the ‘Index’ sign next to her ‘SV’ logo) is a real godsend. For the English language version, make sure you click on the ‘EN’ option at the map’s top left.

In the meantime, we look forward to ever increasing numbers of discs featuring women composers, performers and conductors in the coming years, as the historical and cultural imbalance is slowly corrected. For those eager to escape the cultural hegemony, the 19th-century confederation of beards that has for too long served as the arbiter of taste in classical music, the time has never been better. Happy browsing!

The recordings:
- Boyle: Songs  DCD34264
- Boyle: A Sea Poem, Symphony no.1, Violin Concerto, etc.  CDLX7352
- First Ladies: Romantic Violin Sonatas by Andree, Bonis & Smyth  TOCN0013
The web links:
- www.oxfordmusiconline.com/page/women-composers-by-time-period
- Sakira Ventura’s Map of Women Composers  svmusicology.com/mapa?lang=en

Latest Posts


Early Music round-up: Some new and recent releases

19th October 2021

With all but small-scale musical activities largely suspended until recently over the last year-and-a-half, new recordings have witnessed bumper crops of solo recitals and chamber music, but another apparent beneficiary has been early music. Anything from the early Baroque and still earlier eras is often unexplored territory for many listeners, but with the rise in performance standards of the past few decades and the huge expansion of repertoire (not to mention the emergence of many independent labels willing to take... read more

read more

Keeping the Politics out of it? Part 3: Music and Politics in the 20th Century and Beyond

14th October 2021

As we’ve already seen in previous instalments of this short series, music and social power structures have always been closely connected, whether it be the relationship between musicians and the church or court, or the dominant ideologies of nationalism in the 19th century. Lavish masses and motets redounded to the glory of God or to God’s sacred and secular representatives, while patriotic-style choruses, tone-poems and even art song were used (often co-opted in retrospect) to bolster ideas of national identity, cohesion,... read more

read more

Keeping the Politics out of it? Part 2: 19th-Century Musical Nationalism

5th October 2021

The present-day desire to keep politics out of music is, as we have previously seen, something of a pipe dream when the long history of entanglement between the arts and power structures (sacred or secular) is considered. From its earliest roots in the Middle Ages, western classical music has constantly been at the service of church and state, a position which changed only cosmetically and by degree during the 18th-century Enlightenment and the early Classical era. The church’s influence may have waned over time, but the... read more

read more

Keeping the Politics out of it? Part 1: Music and the Establishment

28th September 2021

How many of us use music as a means of escaping from the cares of everyday life? Not just the mundane details of day-to-day existence (work, shopping, household matters), but the now-constant cycle of news and adverts broadcast over all varieties of media. For many, music is a refuge from the drip-drip-drip of news stories, of political posturing, grandstanding and mishaps.  Music, surely, is a place where we can at least leave politics behind, isn’t it? Well, not quite… For a start, in many countries it’s the very same... read more

read more

A shopping list by Beethoven... (or Breaking away from the Age of the Statue)

22nd September 2021

On 27 February 1823, an entry in Beethoven’s conversation book reads as follows:
    + Sugar.
    + Spice.
    + Wine.
    + Macaroni.
    + Tooth powder.
        Through Schindler.
This short shopping list was drawn up in case Caspar Bauer, a representative in England of the Esterházy Court, were to come to dinner that evening. In the event, he didn’t, but this brief entry illustrates two things:... read more

read more
View Full Archive