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Using a similar approach to her earlier biographical dictionary of women adventurers in the century-and-a-half to 1900, Mary F McVicker (an Illinois-based writer who admits to degrees in law and finance but makes no claim for her musical credentials) turns her focus to women composers. Chapter introductions aside, Women Composers of Classical Music squeezes roughly 500 years and 369 biographies into a little under 200 pages. It’s quite an ambition – and one that falls far short of realising itself.

Entries are arranged chronologically – from ‘The Renaissance Transition’ and on ‘into the Twentieth century’ – with each chapter prefaced by an introduction and composers then sub-divided by country of origin, McVicker distilling each life into a potted biography, with some appended by a list of key works, others making do with a throwaway reference.

There is still, regrettably, a considerable argument to be waged on behalf of women composers, particularly those from the past who have largely been written out of history. But beyond offering a sizable roll call of names, McVicker’s homespun regurgitation of material distilled from other sources consistently fails to excite further interest or investigation. Throughout, there’s a rather saccharine gloss on composers’ family backgrounds and subsequent achievements that too often gives way to generally approving supposition whenever the author volunteers her own threadbare commentary.

Wholly absent in individual entries is any sense (let alone analysis) of the music, even where scores and recordings are available. That seems a more serious omission when considered alongside McVicker’s unconvincing introductions to each of her era-centred chapters, where clunky generalisations serve time and again to shore up the conviction that her obvious enthusiasm for the subject is but scant compensation for her no less apparent lack of detail and depth of understanding.

A discography that recommends more than twice as many LPs as CDs is, to say the least, of dubious value. of passing use is the brief ‘Opera Timeline’ – a chronological inventory of performed, ignored and forgotten stage works, but it hardly justifies the hefty asking price.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Classical Music, 2011 - ©Rhinegold Publishing