Women Composers – A Graded Anthology For Piano: An Interview for No Dead Guys Blog

A few months ago, I gave an interview for pianist and writer Rhonda Rizzo , which was published on her excellent blog No Dead Guys. Rhonda publishes a wide variety of articles relating to piano playing and music education, and she also features many guest posts.

This written interview focused on my new Women Composers Anthology, surveying the reasons for compiling the series. I enjoyed answering Rhonda’s thoughtful questions and this interview has been republished below.

As the holiday season is now upon us, this will be my last post for a few weeks, and, as always, I’d like to thank you for your continuing support. Please feel free to browse my recently updated website which currently hosts over 850 articles.

I wish you all a wonderful Summer and I look forward to writing again towards the end of August.


Congratulations on the publication of Women Composers: A Graded Anthology for Piano! What first attracted you to the idea of creating these books, and why do you think they’re an important addition to the teaching repertoire?

Thank you so much! After I gave a presentation at the Music Messe in Frankfurt (Germany) in 2019, I had a long brainstorming session with my editors at Schott Music. I mentioned the relative lack of anthologies dedicated to the female composer, and, at the time, Schott had, as far as I know, just one piano volume dedicated to the music of women composers. They thought that a new series was a great concept, and particularly liked the focus on a graded, or a progressively difficult, series of piano pieces.

I was first attracted to the idea of creating these books because I’m a bit of a feminist at heart! Spurred on by my late grandmother, who was way ahead of her time in many respects, and who ran a very successful business during a period in history when women were expected to be house wives.

I started researching the possibilities for this series in 2019. I had already briefly researched female composers for the 2021 – 2024 London College of Music Piano Syllabus.  As I moved forward with the project, so many elements changed – and I changed my mind about lots of the pieces, too! Grading piano pieces is notoriously tricky, and my series is only loosely based on the UK examination boards’ levels, as this can be fairly limiting.

One facet I really appreciated was the discovery of a large, diverse collection of women composers. It wasn’t possible, sadly, to include them all, and copyright restrictions often prevented me from doing so, but I became aware of many composers whom I had never heard of before. I feel this is probably the most valuable addition to the teaching repertoire; introducing and encouraging teachers and students to explore new, undervalued, and underplayed music.

The ‘graded’ aspect is important for many reasons. When we set ‘levels’ on repertoire, we immediately assist teachers and their students. It helps them to understand that they won’t be out of their depth in, for example, Book 1, where the pieces, whilst not really simple (as might be expected for a beginner) are easy enough to read through and enjoy for those of around Grade 1 – 3/4 standard. I’ve already seen the benefits of this in my Adult Piano Returner Facebook Group, where many of the members might be placed in the ‘elementary’ category, and they are delighted to find a varied selection of pieces which they know they will be able to work through and, eventually, play well.

It was also important to represent music throughout history (I’ve done this in my series, Play it again: PIANO, too), so that there’s a nice mixture of styles: baroque, classical, romantic, etc. These genres are present throughout each level – another important teaching addition, in my opinion.

You’ve achieved extraordinary success as an internationally-recognized composer, author, and music educator. What prompted you to champion other women composers with this graded series of book?

Thank you – that’s very kind. I’m certainly relishing my journey, and I really love writing piano books and composing music.

I enjoy helping others to succeed. I do this in my piano teaching all the time (as do many teachers), and in this series I’ve not only been able to highlight those composers who I didn’t previously know, but also some of my composer colleagues with whom I have worked and have admired their music. I love to learn about historical figures and, specifically, all about their journeys; as I was playing through and surveying the music, I became acquainted with each composer’s life story, and this often uncovers exactly why they wrote what they did. I love the lineage concept as well; it’s sometimes possible to pinpoint a composer’s style through the composition professors with whom they studied.

Which female composers of the past do you feel have been most unjustly ignored (until now)?

‘Renowned’ female composers are popular for a reason; they are talented and were able to find a way for their voice to be heard. However, there are always those who may have fallen by the wayside.

I made several interesting discoveries; Narcisa Freixas, a Spanish composer from Catalonia, who wrote elementary music for children and who ran a successful project in schools in Barcelona, enabling all children to experience music irrespective of their background. Her little melodies are infectious. French composer Hedwige Chrétien’s music speaks very directly. Again, she wrote many little pieces which are rewarding to play and have a certain character. Both composers are featured in Book 1.

I enjoyed exploring the music of German composer Maria Görres and American composer Theodora Dutton (both featured in Book 2). The former wrote in a highly melodic, passionate style, and the latter, captures the spirit of her background in On a Southern Balcony from The Southland Sketches.

In Book 3, I simply had to include a piece by Brazilian composer Chiquinha Gonzaga, whose work, Atraente, ‘fizzes’ with irrepressible energy and charm – and I love her life story, too! Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová’s music is becoming increasingly popular, and for good reason. The second piece from April Preludes Op. 13 (in Book 3) displays glorious chromatic harmonic progressions and is so well written for the instrument.

How did you find these composers and these scores, and how challenging was it to choose which ones to include in this series?

I discovered several helpful resources including the New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the Hildegard Publishing Company (who publish music written by women), Donne – Women in Music (a website for female composers), and the Archiv Frau und Musik or Archive of Women in Music, which is based in Frankfurt, Germany, as well as the Petrucci website or the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP).

Useful publications include; The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel (Macmillan Press: 1994),  The Pandora Guide to Women Composers by Sophie Fuller (Rivers Oram Press: 1994), and Sounds and Sweet Airs by Anna Beer (Oneworld Publications: 2016). There were many factors to consider when deciding which composer, and which piece, to include. Difficulty and projected ‘level’ played a key role – but some music might be easy for some, whilst others might consider it a challenge; one had to think about musical difficulty over technical demands, too. This is also true when constructing a piano exam syllabus.

Ultimately, I wanted a mixture of old and new music, combined with a smorgasbord of contrasting structures and stylistic features, genres, and historical periods; one wouldn’t necessarily want several similar dance pieces in one level, for example. I did feel it vital to add either a contrapuntal piece or a classical style piece at every level, as well as a healthy smattering of Romantic fayre, and the all-important more modern styles representing the Twenty- and Twenty-first centuries. These are key elements in all good teaching volumes.

Do you find that women composers approach the musical forms of their eras differently than their male counterparts? If so, how?

I’m not convinced that they approach composing differently from male composers, but it is possible to detect a ‘female’ touch or sense of style in some pieces. For me, this is most apparent in works such as British composer Elizabeth Turner’s Giga in Book 2; a lovely baroque movement, which, to me, feels delicate with its discreet ornaments and understated filigree passagework. Despite Venezuelan composer Teresa Carreño’s often ‘assumed’ title as the ‘Valkyrie of the Piano’, I always sense a feminine charm running throughout her music, and Plainte Op. 17 No. 1 (Book 3), with its persuasive sentimentality, is the perfect example.

You’ve included contemporary selections in each book. With so many excellent female composers writing today, how did you choose which ones best fit with the older pieces featured in these collections?

I was determined to include an array of living composers, and, fortunately, Schott were very supportive here. I believe anthologies really benefit from the inclusion of new, completely unfamiliar music, and I did research this aspect as much as I could, and included what was possible within the ever – present copyright restrictions. Having done my research, I would now love to create a series featuring only living composers – perhaps I may do that next!

Elementary to intermediate level student pianists enjoy music with a jazz or blues character. Therefore, for Book 1, I asked three composer colleagues to write suitable pieces because I also wanted the series to contain new compositions which haven’t appeared in previous publications. All three composers are experienced at writing in this style and have provided great little pieces. British composer Rachael Forsyth’s Soggy Shoes Blues is a fun and fairly simplistic romp with plenty of ‘swing’ rhythm, which is important for students to learn. Australian composer Wendy Hiscock’s Fig & Fennel has proved popular already in my Adult Returners Facebook Site – it’s rhythmic, bright and breezy. British composer Samantha Ward’s Rockin’ Fingers is just that – a finger twister featuring the twelve-bar-blues pattern – again, a vital element for students to learn.

Most contemporary music selections include minimalist style pieces, and I have written two such works especially for this series: Mirage (Book 1), and Kaleidoscope (Book 2). German composer Vera Mohrs’ delightful piece Two Cats Playing, from Cat Songs (Book 1), displays many useful teaching features such as how to quickly assimilate chords and note group patterns. German composer Barbara Heller’s Joker (Book 1), whilst not strictly minimalist in style, employs the useful technical skill of combining staccato and legato.

British composer Jenni Pinnock’s Astralis (A Star) demonstrates the importance of time signature changes and combines this with a wonderfully simplistic harmonic language and an enticing distant melody. German composer Julia Hülsmann’s composition – simply entitled Jazz Piece – whilst influenced by jazz harmonies, is, in fact, more of a beautiful, reflective minimalist style piece. A sure-fire favourite in Book 3 is bound to be Japanese composer Mai Fukasawa’s Between Dawn, Noon, and Midnight. This captivating work, all centred around one note (F), creates the feeling of time standing still and I couldn’t resist its inclusion.

Few anthologies highlight more adventurous (or dissonant) classical styles, and I was very keen to do this as I feel it’s necessary if one wants to effectively spotlight all styles – and students must be able to learn how to play these works. My friend and colleague Malaysian composer Jessica Cho (whose music is popular in the Far East), kindly wrote her piece especially for this series. Capricious captures the character of the composer’s puppy dog Bear bear; moving all around the keyboard, this work still offers a reflective mood, and requires such techniques as a very broad depth of piano sonority combined with faster moving passages and glissandi. Russian composer Tatjana Komarova is a Schott composer and wrote Little Dance in 2012 for The Petrushka Project. I’m attracted to its brevity and piano colour. Similarly, Schott’s Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin wrote fardanceClose in 2014 (revising it in 2020), and whilst not for the faint-hearted, it’s rewarding to play and demands tremendous sonority and scrupulous time-keeping – it’s a lovely addition to the diploma student’s repertoire.

There are a total of thirteen living composers in all and I’m very grateful for their contributions to this series.

Given that most of the composers included in these books will be unfamiliar to young pianists (and maybe their instructors), how much biographical information did you include with each piece?

All the pieces are accompanied by a page of detailed text. There is a biography about each composer, and this is coupled with ‘Performance Notes’ (which range from between 250 – 500 words). The practice suggestions, whilst not as detailed as those in my series Play it again: PIANO, will, I hope, provide a useful survey of every piece with practical learning and practice ideas. I have also provided metronome, fingering, and pedaling markings to most pieces (where composers haven’t added their own), as is expected in an educational resource. Of course, all these markings are just suggestions – teachers and students are free to cross out my markings and add their own!

How did your extensive experience as an educator and composer guide your choice of which pieces to feature (and in which book)?

Naturally I was influenced by the music and composers which I prefer. But I tried not to let this act as an obstacle against including styles which I might not favour, and therefore I hope there is a good mix. As the music becomes increasingly difficult, I chose renowned composers as their works tended to be longer and more demanding, for example German composer Clara Schumann’s irresistibly expressive Prelude and Fugue in B flat major Op. 16, and German composer Fanny Hensel’s splendid movement, September, from The Year H. 385. There were certain pieces by various popular composers that I simply had to include, for example, French composer Lili Boulanger’s Prelude in D Flat and American composer Amy Beach’s Sous les Étoiles (both in Book 3); if you listen to these works, I hope you’ll hear why.

The other challenge which needed to be addressed was the issue of diversity. I felt it critical to represent as many disparate backgrounds and countries as possible. With this in mind, I ensured composer representations from both North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, Far East and Australia.

What advice can you offer to teachers regarding teaching these pieces?

I hope the ‘Performance Notes’ provide some practical and musical guidance, but I’m also preparing a series of workshops, with which I will be touring later in the year, as well as offering webinars online, where I will ‘teach’ a selection of the pieces. These will be ‘hands on’ as much as possible, and I will take students (and teachers) through the stylistic traits present within certain works, offering numerous practice ideas and suggestions. For those interested, there will be more information about this on my blog soon.

For many students, hearing their piece is an imperative part of the learning process. With this in mind, I have created three playlists on my YouTube channel. All fifty-two pieces can be heard by clicking on the links below:

Book 1

Book 2

Book 3

Will the books be available for purchase in the US? If so, where (and when)?

Yes, as with all my books, they are available from Schott’s website (linked below). However, you can also purchase them from Amazon, Musicroom, Presto Music, and many other online shops.

Book 1: https://en.schott-music.com/shop/women-composers-no443433.html

Book 2: https://en.schott-music.com/shop/women-composers-no443434.html

Book 3: https://en.schott-music.com/shop/women-composers-no446794.html

You can read the original article, by clicking here.


Publications

Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Rhonda Rizzo says:

    Melanie, thanks for running that interview again on your site! It was an honor to interview you for No Dead Guys and I’m pleased you liked it enough to share it on your own.

    1. Thank you, Rhonda. Your blog is a wonderful resource and I am honoured to have been featured.

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