largeiza Lehmann, Alice Mary Smith and Adela Maddison were British composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but few today would know their names, let alone their music. Now they have been singled out by a new classical 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, which is called La Boîte à Pépites (the jewel box), will discover and record compositions that have rarely, if ever, been heard before, but deserve “a good place 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 of women – a total of 5%.
Asked why female composers are overlooked, Gabriella Di Laccio, soprano and founder of the Donne Foundation, told Observer: “There are several reasons. A very important one is ignorance of repertoire. The people who are in a position to include this music either don’t have the time or the focus isn’t on finding out what’s available.
“Also, there is a fear of the public not coming and, I’m sorry to say, prejudice. Unfortunately, we have been brought up to believe that only men were genius composers. The unconscious bias is still present, which is very strange.”
The new label was founded by French cellist Héloïse Luzzati, who says that discovering and studying original manuscripts has allowed researchers to “unearth” some extraordinary compositions. “Very few of them are published and therefore even fewer are recorded,” he said.
The label’s first release, out 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…tinged with Ravel, Debussy or Chausson”.
Asked why she was ignored, she said: “If she was a man, her music would be known.”
A 3CD box set includes world premiere recordings of piano, chamber and orchestral works, performed by the Orchester National d’Avignon-Provence, among others.
In the sleeve notes, Alexis Labat, the orchestra’s executive director, writes: “The classical repertoire for symphonic formations spans over four centuries, and almost all of it is dedicated to men… How can we explain this incredible deficit of female composers in our concert seasons and our recordings?’
Luzzati said: “A few years ago, the question of the role of women in the history of music began to take on 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?’
It inspired her to found the project “Elles – Women Composers”, promoting female composers through a festival and a video channel.
The new label “expands this mission” with a series of albums, each dedicated to a female composer. Its initial release in France in April proved “huge for someone who is unknown,” Luzzati said.
Extensive research remains to be done on various British composers, including Lehmann, who wrote hundreds of solo and ensemble songs, many of which were well received in their day.
Scholar Derek Hyde has described her as one of the three “most prominent female songwriters” of the 19th century.
Luzzati said Lehmann has been unfairly forgotten. He praised the emotion of her music, noting that “the quality of the writing is outstanding”.
Next year, he plans to open a music publishing house: “Today, for example, we can listen to Sohy’s music, but if a musician wants to play it, he has to write to us first. You cannot find sheet music on a website or in a sheet music store. The curation of works not yet published is essential to the recovery of the works of women composers.’
She believes that, through such “positive discrimination”, forgotten female composers will finally be appreciated – ultimately eliminating the need for their own record label. “Today that is still not the case and there is still so much music by female composers to discover.”
Katherine Cooper, classical editor at Presto Music, which will sell the recording, said: “I can’t think of another label dedicated exclusively to female composers. It’s a great idea that someone is stepping up and committing to it. They shine a light on a lot of composers who are really under-represented, if at all.”