Classical Chat: Music is far from just a man's world

Dame Ethel Smyth. Picture restored by Adam Cuerden
Dame Ethel Smyth. Picture restored by Adam Cuerden

For much of its history classical music has been stubbornly dominated by male composers, with talented female writers sidelined.

Fortunately things are now changing, with many pieces being rediscovered and women being restored to their proper place in musical history.

This process has shown just what enthusiasts have been missing out on, and also reveals numerous talents lost or agonisingly cut short.

Right in time for marking International Women’s Day, here are a half a dozen gems penned by female composers:

Hildegard of Bingen - Symphonia. One of the first composers known to us in Europe was a woman, a remarkable 12th century visionary and abbess. Her music consists of soaring chants, prayers and hymns, offering a trip to a long-lost world.

Fanny Mendelssohn – String Quartet. The sister of well-known composer Felix was no minor talent as this quartet proves. The highlight is the third movement Romanze, which goes from heartbreakingly gorgeous to edge-of-the-seat thrilling.

Amanda Maier – Violin Sonata. This wonderfully melodic piece shows Maier’s blend of German and Scandinavian influences. There is more than a whiff of the forest and lakes of Sweden about this.

Ethel Smyth – Serenade in D. The extraordinary Smyth wrote everything from full-scale operas to the suffragette anthem (which she conducted from a jail cell using a toothbrush). This large-scale four-movement work has impressive orchestral climaxes and graceful dance episodes.

Germaine Tailleferre – Concerto for Two Pianos, Chorus, Four Saxophones and Orchestra. This isn’t the best piece the only female member of Les Six wrote but it is certainly eye and ear-catching. Upbeat, bouncy choral writing contrasts with more placid sections where the winds are to the fore.

Unsuk Chin – Cello Concerto. Korea meets Ligeti in this phenomenally-difficult showpiece by a star of the contemporary composing scene. A work of frankly awesome scale and drama.