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“There is no such thing as women’s music”

The violinist Clara Cernat and the pianist Carmen Martínez-Pierret present on CD a programme with music by twelve women composers that also serves to open the cycle 'Rasgando el silencio' of the Teatro de la Maestranza.

PABLO J. VAYÓN / translated from Spanish

Monday 8 November, the Teatro de la Maestranza begins a series of four concerts featuring women composers. The pianist Carmen Martínez-Pierret, who will play in this first recital together with the violinist Clara Cernat a programme that is almost identical to that of a recently presented album. The Spanish pianist comes to the interview armed with books, quotes and references, some of them from the great classics of feminism. In the conversation she is vehement, confident and conciliatory. She expresses herself with the force of a torrent and the passion of a lover or a neophyte, despite the fact that she has spent “more than 25 years exploring the world of women composers”.

-Where did your interest come from?

-At a certain point I began to wonder why the conservatoire did not study works by women composers, why their music was not played in concerts. I started to investigate and discovered that there were women composers. I gradually became more and more passionate about the subject and began to understand what had happened. And so on and so forth. By now I must have around 300 books on the subject and an archive with scores by more than 600 women composers; I don’t play them all, of course, because it would be impossible and because there is a selection, an elective affinity, that makes you identify more with certain women, that makes you more interested in their work and you become more involved in their study. There is a corpus of works that the canon of the history of music has been leaving aside, and I really like to work on the dissemination of this music. The history of music is not complete if these composers are not given the light they have lost.

La ficha

Mel Bonis (1858-1937): Allegretto Op.84 (1910) Sérénade Op.46 (1899)

Ethel Barns (1874-1948): Humoresque (1909) / Swing Song (1909)

Amy Beach (1867-1944): Romance Op.23 (1893)

Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944): Sérénade Espagnole Op.150 (1895) [Transcripción de F. Kreisler] / Capriccio Op.18 (c.1890) / Rondeau Op.97 (1899)

Teresa Carreño (1853-1917): Mi Teresita (1896) [Transcripción de A. Hartmann]

Poldowski (1879-1932): Tango (1923)

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918): Nocturne (1911) / Cortège (1914)

Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983): Berceuse (1913)

Teresa Milanollo (1827-1904): Impromptu Op.8 (1903)

Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979): Lullaby (1909) / Chinese Puzzle (1921)

Dora Pejacevic (1885-1923): Romanze Op.22 (1907)

Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969): Oberek (1949) /Humoreska (1953) / Taniec Mazowiecki (1952)

Clara Cernat, violín y viola (en las obras de Rebecca Clarke); Carmen Martínez-Pierret, piano

Thelxínoe Music

-And what happened to make that happen?

-It was not easy for women to become composers for a long time. Many did not succeed because their families were opposed, not only to their receiving a quality education, but also to their dedicating themselves professionally to music. Let’s talk about the famous case of Fanny Mendelssohn, who did have an extraordinary education, but her family did not agree with her becoming a professional composer.

-Yes, it’s true that especially the father considered that the world of professional composers was very difficult for a woman and could make her suffer, but the brother, even though he agreed with the father, let her know many times that he would help her if she still wanted to publish her music. And she always had the unconditional support of her husband.

-Yes, I totally agree. On my label, Thelxínoe Music, I created just this collection called La chambre bleue, of which this album is the first, and that’s a meeting place for men and women and their love of culture. One of the things I always say is that there were so many men who helped women. Despite the social pressure of her family, which was rather conservative, Fanny had the love and support of her brother and her husband.

-Perhaps there are more clear cases of the problems you mention, such as Clara Schumann, who in her own diaries and letters questioned her true worth as a composer.

-Yes, of course, that terrible “Women can’t compose”. But Robert was very supportive. There is an exciting book that has just been published in Spanish under the title El síndrome de la impostora, a work by two French authors [Elisabeth Cadoche and Anne de Montarlot]. The book has a subtitle, which is Why do women still not believe in themselves? Look, I want to read you something. On 17 February 1843 Robert Schumann writes in his Diary: “Clara is writing a suite of little pieces of a delicacy and a richness of invention which she has never before achieved. But to occupy herself with children and a husband lost in his reverie [notice how he spoke of himself] is hardly reconcilable with composition. Clara lacks continuous practice, and I suffer with her in thinking that many of the inspirations of her heart are lost simply because she does not have the possibility of expressing them. Clara herself recognises that her main profession is that of a mother, to the extent that I think she is happy in these circumstances, which in any case cannot be changed.


-Of course, but Robert even published Clara’s songs confused with his own.

-Yes, before they got married he said that his dream was that they could publish their works together without saying which was whose. But there are so many literary references, we can go to Virginia Woolf, to A Room of One’s Own, or to a very interesting text of his called Killing the Angel of Home. This 18th and 19th century vision of what was expected of a woman at home, someone who should devote herself to everyone, and that took time for herself. But I am not here to polemicise about what has been. What has been has been, and that’s fine. Many of these women found support, Fanny and Clara in their husbands or Louise Farrenc, in her husband too (Aristide Farrenc, who was also a musician) and in their parents, who were artists, but that’s only part of it. How many women have not existed as artists or could not come into existence because their wings were clipped at the beginning? Thomas Mann’s daughter, for example, which is something I’ve just discovered recently thanks to a book by Joanna Russ, Cómo acabar con la escritura de las mujeres, which has also been published in Spanish by a publishing house in Seville, Editorial Barrett. She talks about this subject, and there are some very interesting quotes, how many vocations have been ruined because they didn’t have that support.

-You created your record label to house this project?

-It has just been created, but in reality there are three collections. One is called Pour le piano, which has already released an album called Round about Mozart, which I play with a jazz pianist, Guillaume de Chassy: we talk about Mozart. From La chambre bleue, the first disc is this Sérénade, and my intention is to continue publishing compositions by women in it; and then a third collection called Rouge Idéal, in which the first disc will soon appear.–Claro, pero Robert incluso publicó las canciones de Clara confundidas con las suyas.


-And the Maestranza cycle came about at the same time?

-Well, we should have started the cycle last year, but the pandemic changed everything. Also the album, which we decided to record in April, because we thought that one day this would come to an end. The Maestranza is one more of the initiatives I’ve been doing in recent years. I direct two festivals in the Aragonese Pyrenees, Pirineos Classic and Jazzetania, the last two editions of which I have mainly dedicated to women’s repertoire.

-Your project seems to have accelerated in the last few years… Perhaps now the social climate favours it.

-The canon of music history has not taken women into account and I want to make them visible. In The Legacy of Europe, Stefan Zweig wonders if history is fair, and he thinks it isn’t, because he thinks it tends to magnify the great and dwarf the small (I’m not quoting literally in this case, but it more or less goes like this). And then there is a reference in the visual arts, Linda Nochlin, an art historian. She has a book that must be from the 70s, but which was published by Akal last year, Situar en la historia. And in it she asks why there have been no great artists who are women. And she answers all that very exhaustively, why the canon has not been fair to women in the first place. The genealogy of women composers has been altered. Nadia Boulanger, who was a highly educated woman, once went so far as to say that her sister Lili was the first female composer in history, and when I read that, I was shocked, because she didn’t know the women composers who had come before. She didn’t even know Hélène de Montgeroult, for example, whose entire piano method is in the French National Library. I have spoken about her with Josep Colom, who is amazed by her Etudes. Why Nadia Boulanger did not know about this legacy, because it had not been incorporated into the main corpus of the history of music. Joanna Russ says something about this that I find fascinating: “When the memory of our predecessors is buried, it is assumed that there were none, and each generation of women thinks they face the burden of doing it all for the first time”. When Clara Schumann says “Why should I be a composer, if no other woman has done it before”, she did not know about the previous ones. I feel that genealogy as my own, I feel united to all these women, I don’t know why. One of my missions, and I have assigned it to myself, of course, no one is forcing me, is to contribute modestly to making the works of the women composers I am interested in known, and one of the ways of doing this is the Maestranza cycle, which I have organised with Israel Fausto Martínez, who is one of the colleagues I have taken into my field. We have already played together works by women composers and he is very interested, and we will make a record with sonatas for cello and piano.

Carmen Martínez Pierret con Israel F. Martínez en el Alcázar de Sevilla en septiembre de 2020. / ACTIDEA

-[…and the torrent goes on…]. 

-But I have come to conciliate. I don’t share at all this idea of cancellation and this eagerness in some universities to erase white men and so on from the curriculum. But how… There is room for everyone here. At the end of this month I am playing in the National Heritage cycle, I am giving two concerts, one in the Royal Palace and the other in the Royal Chapel of Aranjuez, with works by Spanish women composers from the 19th century, many of which are being performed for the first time in modern times, because they have remained there anchored in the 19th century, completely lost [I can testify that the names of Soledad de Bengoechea, María Isabel Prota Carmena, Eloísa d’Herbil or Eloísa de la Parra Gil, included in these recitals, are absolutely unknown]. What will be left of all this. The public will decide, they will decide what they like. Look, a new attempt at a canon referring to the Elizabethan period [referring to the time of Isabella II of Spain] has come out, and there is not a single female composer in it. That’s all right. I think it’s a job very well done, but I’ve come to remind you that in the Spanish 19th century there were also women composers, and by the way I’ll play two waltzes by two Spanish Infantas, so that people know that in the 19th century the women of the Royal House also composed.


-Is there such a thing as women’s music?

-No. I return to Zweig. In his Diarios, published by Acantilado, he writes one day: “In the afternoon I went to listen to Mozart’s Requiem and then I went back to read his biography”. He says that you have to go back to biographies to learn. I remembered one of my teachers, Claude Helffer, a great specialist in contemporary repertoire, who always gave us the historical context when studying any work, including the composer’s life. He had the same point of view: you had to know the composer’s life, to know what was happening in his life and in his context. I say the same thing with women composers. There is a wonderful collection that Taurus has brought out in Spain, Historia de las mujeres, and there is another one that interests me a lot, Historia de la vida privada. You can’t understand women without this history of private life, because a large part of their lives were spent indoors. Can you tell in any way that a composer is a woman from her music? From my point of view, no. Not at all. Not at all. I’ve done a lot of tests with my colleagues. I have passed them a list with the names of a hundred female composers and asked them to tell me honestly how many they knew. And, at most, my musician colleagues, I tell you, came up with ten. But once one of them said to me, ‘Wow, Claude Arrieu was a woman? All his life he had thought he was a man. He never felt that the music he listened to was that of a woman. I go back to Nadia Boulanger, and that quote I used on the CD: “Let’s forget that I am a woman and let’s talk about music”. That’s why I let the women composers speak. There is no difference. Cécile Chaminade says something similar: “We are creative beings”.

-So let’s apply Boulanger’s maxim: let’s forget that they are composers and let’s talk about music. Most of the music they have recorded on the CD is between 1890 and 1910 (15 of the 20 works). They are very different composers from different backgrounds. Is there anything that unifies the choice of works?

-I wanted to focus on modern works. I also play contemporary music. I have recorded Marisa Manchado’s complete works for the Autor label. I play the contemporary ones. But I’m more interested in recovering the women of the past. The contemporary ones are already fighting for themselves and they have great supporters, like my colleague and friend Ricardo Descalzo, for example, who does a great job. I thought above all about the period between the two centuries. The idea is to make a second disc with those of the 19th century, some Swedish, German and Pauline Viardot, the Six Morceaux that we played at the Maestranza and that we will record there. The criterion was diversity, that they should come from very different countries (Venezuela, Croatia, France, England, Belgium…). Then we sat down and chose the pieces that resonated with us, the ones we liked the most. We wanted to make short pieces, not an album of sonatas, but to showcase many. Diversity and of course quality.

-There is a more modern composer, Grazyna Bacewicz.

-Yes, but we are talking about the 50’s. And she is well known in Poland. Lutoslawski held her in high esteem. I had the opportunity to interview Lutoslawski, now very old, for the Revista Musical Catalana and he spoke to me with veneration of Bacewicz, but when you leave Poland, almost nobody knows her. Most pianists don’t know who she is.

-Yes, but Bacewicz was a composer not only recognised by Lutoslawski, but awarded numerous prizes in her country. She was by no means neglected.

-Of course she was. But that happens to many. I find it even sadder, because many of these women had a lot of recognition during their lifetime. It is even more incomprehensible that they have not passed into posterity. I’m not saying that these women were mistreated or ostracised, far from it.

-In the end, they were privileged to have access to an education that was beyond the reach of most individuals of their time.

-Yes, in a way, that’s true. I agree with that. But what you have to appreciate is the difficulties women faced in the 19th century in gaining access to artistic studies. The Paris Conservatoire, for example, took a long time to admit them to its classrooms.

-Tell me about your collaboration with Clara Cernat and how long have you been working together?

-We met at a festival in France more than twenty years ago. She now lives in Toulouse, where she teaches at the Conservatoire. When I proposed this album to her, more than two years ago, before the pandemic, she was very interested, because she hardly knew any of the composers. It was like entering a kind of parallel universe, and she is very happy to be able to play this repertoire.

-Have you been able to play it anywhere else?

We’ve done it a little, as a run-in. We’ve played it twice at my festival and also in the south of France and in Castellón. The big presentation for us is the Maestranza. People have been delighted with these concerts. I provide some basic information about each author, to contextualise them. But I always tell the audience that when they leave they should forget that they have been to a concert of women composers. What interests me is that they have discovered a new repertoire that they can add to their musical reference library. That is my aim, to broaden. At the end of the day, what an artist does is to share with the public what he or she is passionate about, and that is the only thing I want to do.


La violinista rumana Clara Cernat. / D.S.

Picture: La pianista Carmen Martínez-Pierret MARA SAIZ


Original article on DIARIO DE SEVILLA