Women Composers: A Graded Anthology for Piano

Rachael Gillham
Friday, July 1, 2022

Rachael Gillham takes a look at Women Composers: A Graded Anthology for Piano by Melanie Spanwick, published by Schott.

Women Composers: A Graded Anthology for Piano
Women Composers: A Graded Anthology for Piano

Throughout history, compositions from women have wrongly sat quite far down in the pecking order. We hear examples of women taking male pseudonyms to have their work respected and recognised, and female composers have struggled to gain a consistent spot in classroom repertoire. Composer Clara Schumann, who features in Book 3 of Women Composers, at one time lamented: ‘I once believed I possessed creative talent, but have given up this idea. A woman must not desire to compose – there has never been yet one able to do it’. Her husband's opinion also reinforces this, as he said: ‘To have children and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because of this.’

Melanie Spanswick has addressed this gap in history in her latest offering. Simply titled Women Composers: A Graded Anthology for Piano published by Schott Music, the books are published in three volumes according to difficulty. Book 1 covers Grades 1–4, Book 2, Grades 4–7 and Book 3, Grades 7, 8 and above. They are all staple bound and have 21, 19 and 12 works in each volume respectively. The index is clear and concise and arranged according to difficulty, with each having six or seven pieces. The covers are very clean, modern and uncluttered in design with a glossy wipe-clean finish; each has a single colour with an outline of a grand piano superimposed on the composers’ names. The interior layout of the books is flawless, with easy-to-read font and uncluttered pages; the paper is sturdy.

This collection has been thoughtfully researched and throughout its entirety features composers from 20 countries including Norway, Sweden, France, Croatia, Venezuela, Israel, Japan, the USA and Australia. The works span from Menuet by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre composed in 1687, to contemporary offerings published recently, (some as commissions specifically for the collection). This includes Mirage by the author herself, Atralis by Jenni Pinnock and Capricious by Jessica Cho – the latter two characterised with irregular time signatures that change throughout the piece.

With this compilation, it's clear that Spanswick has done plenty of research, meaning that students and their teachers will find a wealth of information on every piece. Every composer has a brief biography, including personal life as well as their musical achievements. These are informative and inspiring, showing how respected these women are and were, featuring friends and contemporaries of Haydn, Clementi, Handel and Brahms to name a few.

Reading the biographies not only brings the composers to life, but will definitely whet the reader's appetite to do more research and hopefully to explore more repertoire by these wonderful composers. It certainly struck me just how many ‘firsts’ were achieved in the book. Among these are the first woman to have an opera produced at the New York Met, the first female composer to be awarded a DBE, and one of the first ever published female composers. Many of them are respected pedagogues and some founded schools of music, thus blazing a trail for subsequent generations.

In addition to this, there is also a very detailed section for performance notes. These are comprehensive and include tips on stylistic playing as well as technical and practice strategies so as to be able to play a satisfying interpretation of the music. These tips are similar to the teaching notes for exam repertoire. As the author is a teacher, examiner and writer, it's no surprise that these are clear and expertly written. Spanswick introduces the collection on her YouTube channel and has playlists of the complete collection. All the pieces – whether classical, jazz or contemporary – deserve to be discovered, played and loved.