For quite some time now I have been interested in all things female. Namely women pianists and composers. Some say here in the 21st century we finally have equality although it seems to me that classical music has always been a male dominated profession. Women composers seem particularly thin on the ground. There are more around today but during the 19th and 20th centuries this wasn’t the case at all. Women struggled to get their works performed and published.
In 1911 the Society of Women Musicians was founded to address this problem. It survived until the early 1970s – I think it a great pity that it has ceased and I would be very interested in reforming this organization.
The first president of the SWM was the British composer Liza Lehmann (1862 -1918). You may notice that her dates are identical to those of Claude Debussy but her music couldn’t be more different. Lehmann represents a wonderfully romantic late Victorian style; she wasn’t a ground breaking, cutting edge composer but her music is so expressive and beautiful its difficult not to be moved by the rich harmonic progressions found in her many songs.
Lehmann was born in London and ‘grew up in an intellectual and artistic atmosphere’. She studied singing with Alberto Randegger and Jenny Lind, and composition with Hamish MacCunn, Niels Raunkilde and Wilhelm Freudenberg. After making her singing debut at a Monday Popular Concert at St James’s Hall, she spent almost ten years performing concerts all around England and Europe, receiving much encouragement from Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann.
She married composer and painter, Herbert Bedford in 1984 and stopped performing completely turning to composition. Lehmann is known for her song cycles, the most famous of which is In a Persian Garden (for vocal quartet and piano). The Daisy Chain and In Memoriam (based on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem) have also remained popular and demonstrate the breadth and variety of Lehmann’s settings. Other compositions include parlour songs, an edwardian musical comedy (Sergeant Brue), a comic opera (The Vicar of Wakefield) and the opera, Everyman.
Lehmann toured the US successfully in 1910 (accompanying herself at the piano!), she was singing professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and she completed a vocal manual; Practical Hints for Students of Singing.
Liza Lehmann was England’s foremost female song composer at the beginning of the 20th century. She excelled at lighter material but was able to set serious texts with the utmost profundity. I discovered her music quite by chance when I was asked to play one of her magnificent recitations (The Selfish Giant), at a music festival in Hamilton, Ontario. I was bowled over by the beauty of the music and also by the fact that I had (to my shame!) never heard of her.
Soprano, Jane Wilkinson Ayaz and I feel we should rectify her relative anonymity by programming 3 or 4 Lehmann songs in a forthcoming tour we are undertaking. In fact we are going to include several female British composers (more about that in future blogs).
Meanwhile have a listen to some Lehmann: I thought it fitting to include this song because it is sung by the wonderful Elizabeth Connell, who sadly died yesterday; its called There are fairies at the bottom of our garden.
Sarah-Jane Brandon performs one of my favourites, Evensong.