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Quibblers may argue that most of the eight female composers featured in Anna Beer’s book could hardly be described as ‘forgotten’ to the musically aware – Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Hensel, Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger and Elizabeth Maconchy. To which the only rejoinder is, ok, so what do you really know of them? And how far does their music still languish unheard? Hopefully this volume will encourage further exploration.

Beer has chosen her composers with every regard to the quality of their output; and in several cases we also read of the extraordinary quantity of music they produced. Overall, though, the emphasis is not on complex musical analysis but rather on providing a scholarly (yet never less than highly readable) series of individual narratives, covering an extended historical period, from the early 17th century onwards. Within that time-frame, the fascinating idea emerges that to some extent the cause of women composers went backwards as more regressive 19th-century notions of a woman’s place in society and the home took root. not that things were ever easy.

The less familiar composers to many are likely to be the extraordinarily entrepreneurial Francesca Caccini, Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (her story set against the world of Louis XIV) and Marianna Martines, a writer of captivating arias who never wrote an opera…because that was man’s work. Yes, expect tales of musical misogyny – for example, even Fanny Hensel’s proud father, Abraham Mendelssohn, had a prejudiced idea of what music written by a female should sound like.

Happily Beer can offer examples of supportive husbands, including Wilhelm Hensel, Marin la Guerre and William LeFanu, spouse of Elizabeth Maconchy (who also could hardly have been blessed with a more encouraging teacher in one Ralph Vaughan Williams). Imagine, though: when Maconchy was denied a Mendelssohn scholarship at the Royal College of Music, the institution’s director Hugh Allen actually told her: ‘If we’d given it to you, you’d have only got married and never written another note’.

ANDREW GREEN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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