It is however recorded that even as an abbess, Kassia still opposed the emperor. He oversaw the second period of destruction of religious icons in the Byzantine Empire which she was deeply against, saying: ‘I hate silence when it is time to speak’.
And we know that she was a composer and poet, with more than fifty of her vocal works surviving, many still part of the Orthodox liturgy sung daily around the world.
The Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene - women have often been symbols, empty vessels used by mostly male artists to represent the sorrows of Easter and the joy of Carnival, sacred and secular, purity and corruption, wisdom and folly. Summer and winter. Absolute good and absolute evil.
Meanwhile, actual flesh and blood women are and have always been something else entirely - human beings. No human being is all good or all bad. Humans are creative, and this concert explores the creativity of female composers, who often had to pursue their creativity and curiosity against tough odds.
Chiquinha Gonzaga’s husband forbade her to compose and play music. Surely Gonzaga, a mixed-race woman and young mother in 19th-century Brazil, would have had no choice but to do so? Like Kassia, she answered back.
‘I cannot imagine a life without harmony’, she’s said to have told him. She left, and her father and husband declared her ‘dead and of unpronounceable name’.
Gonzaga lived a long life and had a prolific career - she wrote choro music, Rio’s pop music of the day, which combined elements of the music of the enslaved people who had been taken from different parts of Africa with that of immigrants from various regions of Europe. There was great shock at the Presidential Palace when Gonzaga and a friend played a new tune on piano and guitar - how could they have brought this street riff-raff music into such refined surroundings?
‘For boys, and even more so for girls, in music school there was a sense of ‘What are you doing, writing? Who do you think you are, Beethoven?’ It was really not a good attitude. ‘All the good music has been written’ was basically it. And I was the only female in class, with six guys, all grad students. I was an undergrad, and I just sat there, and they never bothered to look at my work, and that’s the way it was.’
This experience didn’t crush Hoover’s curiosity and desire to create. She was fascinated by Native American art, literature and music. The flute and flute players have an important role in many Native American cultures, and Hoover, a flute player herself, has written beautiful, unique music for the flute which explores these ideas and images. Playing them is like being in a shimmering kaleidoscope of light and colour.
Sometimes people ask ‘Why have a women composers concert?’, and I have sympathy for women artists, tired of being put in a box and wanting to be recognised for their work first and foremost, who correctly complain that ‘female isn’t a genre’. The music by the female composers in this concert doesn’t all sound the same.
Most of the classical music that I have learned and performed has been by men, and the simple reason for that is that there have been and are numerically more male composers. But that’s not the end of curiosity - why is that? And how can it be that millions and millions of people have heard the music of women every year for decades, centuries, millennia, without even knowing it? Why did de la Guerre achieve huge success in her lifetime only for her work to slide into obscurity for centuries?
Women composers had to tramp out more difficult, uphill paths while they were alive and working. Emperors, husbands, pregnancy, children, rivals, kings and God could all come between a woman and her music while she was alive, and after she was dead those same factors and a male-led ‘posterity’ meant the path she’d stamped out could easily become overgrown and disappear.
When the silent symbol decides that she has her own ideas to express, it can be very disruptive.
Simply, without performers and programmers making the effort to open the way, the music of women won’t be played or acknowledged as much, and there’s no pretending otherwise. Illuminate founder Angela Slater has made a huge contribution to this work, not only with Illuminate but with her earlier analysis of the ABRSM music exam syllabuses, which found that only 4.4% of listed works were by women. This has already begun to change - I’ve noticed a massive increase in works by women in their most recent flute syllabus. They are great pieces; the broader repertoire will enrich the learning of young players.
This concert is a celebration of women from different times and places who were told ‘you can’t do that’ and did it anyway. Women who took themselves seriously when nobody else did. Perhaps that extra pressure is what gives their work its diamond shine.
If you’d like to read more about Elizabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre and seven other female classical composers, I highly recommend Anna Beer’s brilliant book Sounds and Sweet Airs.