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Lost female composers in ‘HerStory’: The Piano Collection by Karen Marshall – the story behind the book

Just over 16 months ago we were again in lockdown and my classroom music teaching was no longer possible. With extra time and in an environment in which female composers were being talked about more and more (from exam syllabuses to encouraging opportunities for young female composers) it was clear to me that other than a few names I’d not played any late female composers’ piano music or knew much about female composers at all. I became incredibly curious and wanted to understand what was out there. And so my research began. A chance conversation with Lesley Rutherford about what I’d been doing resulted in her saying ‘I think there’s a book in this, Karen.’ So, on the hands-free phone in the car, talking to Lesley, driving down the A19 (having picked up the lockdown treat of the week – fish and chips take-away) my project of curiosity became a book-in-writing.

Scanning through old editions online resulted in me printing out whole volumes to find just one piece. At least 1000 pieces were studied and, for the most part, played (even if just a few bars) to find music that I felt would really speak to the present generation of piano students and amateur pianists. YouTube was also studied to see if there were other pieces I needed to seek out. In addition, great care was needed to balance the musical periods as far as possible and make sure the pedagogical value of the book was sound and useful, to honour my potential readers. Each woman became part of my life for up to two days. I laughed and cried and was deeply moved, but was also in awe of the achievements and resilience of so many of these women. There was tragedy but also hope.

What became particularly striking to me was the educational value of a lot of the music – much of the work these women did was teaching – performing as pianists was not a possibility for many of them. Great composers also gave them support and tuition including Schumann, Brahms, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns and Liszt providing a supportive community for creativity. Importantly too, many of the women in the book also set up their own music schools, so Yorkshire Young Musicians’ involvement (mentioned later in this blog) was very much in the spirit of the book. Within the the pages of this book, Maria Hester Park taught the Duchess of Devonshire and her daughters. Marguerite Balutet set up her own music school, where she not only taught the piano but also piano pedagogy. Marie Jaëll’s students carried her body from her home when she died dressed in the French flag, her pupils were her family. Florence Price supported her family through piano teaching, as did others in the book, including Clara Schumann, Maria Szymanowska, Francisca Gonzaga and Josephine Lang, as they became single parents through divorce or being widowed.

The book contains 29 female composers and 30 pieces of music, including one duet and a piece of chamber music (free backing tracks and additional scores are available with the book). I want to give a special mention to Margarida Goncalves (studying at the Royal Academy of music) and Emily Pedersen (studying at the Royal Northern College of Music). These are the only living composers’ compositions within the book, and they are the joint winners of the Faber competition to compose a piece using the melodies of the patron Saint of Music and Writing, Hildegard von Bingen. The first live performances of these wonderful new works by Margarida and Emily, representing a new generation of gifted female composers, were given at the YYM concert . I am so grateful that they both could attend. I feel genuinely so lucky to have their brilliant compositions within the pages of my book. As a house writer for Faber Music, I feel a great sense of responsibility to support the rising generation, ensuring I sacrifice some of my own royalty payment for contributors (too many people are asked to contribute their music for free these days, which is so wrong). However, giving this opportunity has resulted in something that has been so beneficial for everyone.

On 6th March 2022, it was magical for me, as an author, to have the entirety of HerStory: The Piano Collection (Faber Music), performed by a specialist music school and so many young pianists and musicians. This music school in particular has a special place in my heart. Yorkshire Young Musicians (YYM) played no small part in our daughter gaining a place at a world-respected music conservatoire. As parents we are incredibly grateful for the outstanding teaching she received each Sunday. It’s a superb organisation that helps children from all backgrounds – whatever their financial situation – and I have happy memories of sitting in the café at Leeds College of Music (as it was then), usually writing a book, as my daughter completed her full day’s musical study at YYM. From vocal, piano or flute lessons to ensembles, Dalcroze, music theory, composing, musicianship and aural development. Organisations like YYM are very precious things and must be cherished.

The book (as already mentioned) was written in lockdown (published on International Women’s Day, 8th March, 2022), and was made possible through the extra time I had and the amount of music uploaded to the internet because libraries were not being accessible in person. Ironically, I couldn’t attend the concert personally because I contracted Covid just four days before. I attended over Facetime, and the show went ahead. I do want to publicly thank all the performers, parents, teachers, and audience who attended (including my writing colleague and friend, Heather Hammond) and especially YYM alumni students, Carl, Isabel and Sean, all of whom I remember as students. Everyone was amazing! The concert wouldn’t have happened at all without Emily Alexander (Head of Yorkshire Young Musicians), and her tireless energy and tenaciousness to make this happen, the generous Albemarle for providing the wonderful venue and my fantastic publisher, Faber Music, represented there by my brilliant editor, Lesley Rutherford.

You can check out the entire concert here!

I hope you enjoy HerStory: The Piano Collection, as the publication pays homage to these female composers and the musical gifts they have left for us today. The book includes quotes from the composers themselves or from contemporaries of the time. I leave you with one of these quotes, a poem written by Maria Hester Park’s husband in which he tells of the special person his wife was. She was just one of so many special female composers within the pages of HerStory: The Piano Collection. It was one of the greatest privileges of my life to write this book and bring these lost voices to a new generation of pianists. The music is superb, tackling so many technical, musical and stylistic challenges, with every piece having a purpose for pianists’ growth.

Remembrance, 1817, on her death by Thomas Parks

By skill and science highly was she grac’d. In music’s melting art, and with such taste And touch of feeling did she sounds convey, Her heart appear’d more than her hands to play;
Yet what did most the hearts of others win, All was sweet harmony, sweet peace within; Whence I may say, who best have claim to know, She never lost a friend, she never made a foe.
Take this remembrance, dear departed Worth! Till Heav’n do more make known what once thou wert, on Earth.


HerStory: The Piano Collection by Karen Marshall

HerStory: The Piano Collection presents invaluable repertoire by remarkable female composers across the ages. This important collection is progressively graded, suitable for intermediate to advanced level players (approximately Grade 4 to Grade 8) and also features a piano duet and a trio for piano, clarinet and viola/cello. Each piece is accompanied by a fascinating ‘snapshot’ of the composer, providing invaluable insights into how they lived and composed, alongside quotes from them or about them.

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