The Southbank Centre's Women of the World festival is shining a light on lost composers from Amy Beach to Lili Boulanger – and proving you have to look back to look forward
There are many exciting, challenging and celebratory events at the Southbank Centre this weekend, and plenty of one-offs. But if you want firsts, head for Sunday night's Mirth Control concert. The programme features works all by women – nothing so unusual in an age blessed with so many extraordinary female composers; but, for this concert, the Southbank Centre's Gillian Moore and Mary King, working with Sandi Toksvig and Sue Perkins, looked back, for the talents from the past that have been overlooked or forgotten. And so, alongside Ethel Smyth's March of the Women (performed at last year's festival – and looking set to become a theme tune) will be works by Amy Beach, Hildegard of Bingen, Lili Boulanger and Clara Schumann.
"It's a voyage of discovery for all of us" says Jane Glover, who's conducting the final movement of the Schumann piano concerto. "It's a really good piece – I've never done it before. I'm really thrilled."
Moore, as the Southbank Centre's head of classical music, programmes the majority of the centre's classical music. "We're not – this year at least – celebrating all the amazing contemporary women composers that there are," she says. "We will come on to that story, [but] there's a job to do initially to uncover all these hidden women who were either working away and nobody knew about it or were stopped from really developing as creative artists – as Clara Schumann was."
Schumann's fate is well known – child rearing and then supporting her mentally ill husband and large family with a punishing regime of concert tours. But why don't we know more about Amy Beach? Or Lili Boulanger? Lili was the younger sister of Nadia, one of the 20th century's greatest and most influential teachers, who apparently decided quite young that she would not continue her own compositional studies because she said her sister was so much more talented. Mary King takes up the story. "Lilli was the first woman to win the prix de Rome, in 1913, but she died only five years later at 24 – she had chronic health problems all her life."
The piece of hers being performed is Les Sirènes. "It's a work I didn't know," says King, "but it's absolutely fantastic and should be part of the mainstream repertoire. It's for a female choir with soprano solo who represent luscious mermaids of a siren disposition. It's quite challenging harmonically as it's quite chromatic, and the whole key centre is quite low – the alto part goes down to a bottom E so it's been quite a challenge recruiting the choir. It's very lush and beautiful. And absolutely not done!" Perhaps Sunday's concert will help establish a place for the work in our concert halls.
A female composer who did live a long life but you still probably haven't heard of – at least on this side of the Atlantic – is Amy Beach. The Bostonian lived from 1867 to 1944 and wrote a great deal of music, including a symphony, the Gaelic, part of which will be performed on Sunday. "It was written only three years after Dvorak's New World," says Moore. "In fact she got into a polemic in the papers with Dvorak, who said that the true music of America was African-American, while she said 'well actually, for those of us in the north, a more authentic voice is the Celtic music of Scotland, Ireland and parts of England and Wales and that's what I want to concentrate on'." Her symphony weaves in Irish folk tunes, and is, says Moore, "a very confident statement about what she feels American music should be. I simply don't know why she's so little known here."
Performing all the evening's music will be the Wow orchestra, who all are, of course, women. Except not. "The only challenge we had last year and this," says Moore, "is the tuba – there don't seem to be any women tuba players! Last year we got some from France, but they're not available this time." What is it with the tuba? "I don't know!" she laughs. There must be women tuba players out there!" and she still has her fingers crossed they'll find one before Sunday. Does an all-woman orchestra make a particularly "female" sound? Is there such a thing as gendered music?
Absolutely not, says Glover. "I don't think two men have the same sound, or 12 men. What happens in orchestras is that they find their own sound. Any group – whether singers, players, will find their own sound, whoever they are, regardless of gender."
VS Naipaul's comments last year in which he claimed to be able to tell the difference between male and female writing were particularly controversial. Could the same be claimed of musical compositions? "No. That's a red herring. A dangerous one," says King. "I mean, you can sometimes tell Judith Weir, but because she's got a voice as a composer, not because she's female."
Alongside the music will be talks by Sandi Toksvig, Jude Kelly and Jo Brand, while Sue Perkins will be conducting all the evening's works bar the Schumann. Perkins proved her skills behind the podium by winning the BBC's Maestro competition some years ago, and has continued to build up her conducting work since, but is, of course, not a professional conductor. Moore stresses that the evening will be one of "serious fun". "It's certainly not totally frivolous to have Sue, but on the other hand it does help with the broad appeal we want the evening to have."
"It's a huge job to get these composers known, and to get the names of Amy Beach or Lili Boulanger, or the fact that Clara Schumann was a composer, or the fact that Hildegard of Bingen was the first known composer and wrote this amazing music out there in front of an audience of 2,500 people many of whom who've come along just for general interest …is really important."
And by looking back, we are looking forward, to our own young composers. "Today's 20-year-olds need to have something to refer to – a picture gallery in their heads" says Moore. "We're trying to find the women from the past who provide some kind of historical backdrop to that, and it's not easy. There are very specific questions with composing. Virginia Woolf said you need £500 per year and a room with a lock on the door if you're going to write fiction. How much more is that the case when you're composing music where to make a gesture that lasts a split second could take you two weeks, because it's so slow, to create enormous sounds. How much more resources do you need, how much more quiet and independence – commodities which women traditionally have not had?"
All three agree that the situation today is encouraging. Only last week Sally Beamish was Radio 3's composer of the week, while on Monday Judith Weir's Miss Fortune opens at the Royal Opera House. "I don't feel any self-consciousness at all about championing young women composers because they are so many great ones" says Moore. "Women composers are being performed. I'd always say there are never enough, but promoters are doing very well at having women composers attached to orchestras and to arts organisations," says Glover.
But ultimately, it's not a question of gender, but of quality. "The works in Sunday's concert are pieces one would happily put in any programme… the only thing that matters is whether it is good. If your music is good then we should jolly well be playing it. We shouldn't be playing any old women composers just because they happen to be women. That would be completely counterproductive and hugely irritating," says Glover.
• Mirth Control, March of the Women is on 11 March at the Royal Festival Hall. Details here.
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