The realization was a shock for Héloïse Luzzati. How could she have spent the better part of three decades playing music without each studying a piece composed by a woman?
As her concerts dried up at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and concert halls around the world went dark for months, the French cellist devoted much of her time to filling that gap. “The role of women in music history started to take on a certain importance in my life as a musician,” the French cellist told NPR’s Leila Fadel. “We don’t know enough works composed by women. My goal is to increase the percentage of known works written by female composers.”
She unearthed manuscripts by Mel Bonis (1858-1937), Clémence de Grandval (1828-1907) and Rita Strohl (1865-1941). In many cases, these pages of music had simply remained in a trunk in the attic, kept by the composers’ own descendants.
Luzzati struggles to choose a single piece as her favorite. “The [are] so much. I can’t answer that question, she said. I wonder, how could I [not] know this room?”
Many of these works had never been published or recorded before, and yet to Luzzati they shone like priceless jewels. His project quickly grew from a set of online biographical videos to a virtual advent calendar with recorded performances, a festival with the best soloists in castles and other historical sites near Paris – and now a new one. label.
La Boîte à Pépites aims to “unearth pieces that seem worthy of a good place in the standard musical repertoire”, explained Luzzati. The label’s first release, launched in France in April and scheduled for September 30 in the UK, centers on French composer Charlotte Sohy, who died in 1955.
“I was completely captivated by this music,” said Luzzati, who gave a special nod to what she considers a “masterpiece,” Op. 24 piano trios.
“It’s quite specific to French music from the beginning of the 20th century, sometimes impressionist, sometimes figurative, in the colors of Ravel, Chausson or Debussy.”
The rich harmonies also come from someone who faced tremendous hardship, having survived two world wars, mothered seven children and cared for a conductor-composer (Marcel Labey). Sometimes she composes under a male name – that of her grandfather, Charles Sohy – or simply uses the abbreviation Ch. Sohy “to get around the prejudices about women”, Luzzati explained. And yet his catalog has 35 opuses. She studied with the composer Vincent d’Indy, himself a pupil of César Franck.
A three-CD set – also available on streaming platforms – features world premieres of Sohy’s piano, chamber and orchestral works. Among the soloists are rising stars and veterans of the classical world in their own right, including David Kadouch, Xavier Phillips, Célia Oneto Bensaïd and Marie-Laure Garnier. The Quatuor Hermès recorded Sohy’s first two quartets and the Orchester national Avignon-Provence took charge of the orchestral works under the direction of Debora Waldman.
It all started when Waldman introduced Luzzati to Sohy’s grandson, François-Henri Labey. Since retiring from conducting regional conservatories a decade ago, Labey has copied his grandmother’s handwritten work digitally onto a computer. He says he found his “Great War” Symphony in C sharp minor at the bottom of a drawer. In 2019, Waldman conducted the Orchester Victor-Hugo Franche-Comté in the posthumous world premiere of the work, composed during World War I. Sohy was informed of her husband’s death on the battlefield while writing the second movement, only to learn of it a week later. that he was found alive.
Luzzati is uncompromising in her selection of both pieces and performers offered through her project, a charity run by musicians. Violinist Renaud Capuçon and pianist Bertrand Chamayou are among the internationally renowned musicians who have joined the effort. Rather than simply performing a piece because it was composed by a woman, Luzzati and her fellow artists work together to bring to life some of the most accomplished works by a composer who happens to be a woman.
“We want this music to exist for the future and for younger generations as well,” she explained. “We don’t want to rewrite music history. We want to add women who matter to history.”
Gender inequality is still prevalent in the music industry today. While there are growing efforts to promote music by composers from underrepresented genres and backgrounds, only 5% of compositions scheduled to be performed by 100 orchestras worldwide during the 2020-2021 season have been written by women, according to the British Donne Foundation.
Historically, much of this music has been overlooked – if not entirely dismissed – by musical directors and even teachers. Music students, from their very beginnings to advanced studies in the best conservatories, still largely learn the music composed by white men who have been dead for decades, if not centuries.
Some women achieved great notoriety during their lifetime, especially in the late 19th century. The virtuoso pianist Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) was a prolific composer and the only female music teacher to teach at the Paris Conservatoire during this century. But she was quickly forgotten after her death, despite the publication of her work.
“So there you go. It’s as simple as that. When a female composer dies and she’s no longer around to keep her work alive, she disappears almost instantly,” Luzzati said.
His group has also highlighted living composers, such as the Ethiopian nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou or the Argentinian Alicia Terzian. There are also new arrangements, like that of a song by Barbara, who started out as a cabaret singer before writing her own tunes.
And Luzzati has just started. She then turned to music publishing – blowing the dust off old manuscripts so the works could be performed by students and soloists. If successful, the ripple effect could have a lasting impact on the classical music industry.