“Ask Clara”, a site to shed light on the place of female composers in the history of music

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From Francesca Caccini in the 17th century to Camille Pépin in the 21st. Named “Ask Clara», Referring to Clara Schumann – brilliant pianist, composer and wife of the famous composer – a free database was launched in June by a team led by Claire Bodin, director of the Présences Feminines festival dedicated to female composers of the past and present. The platform lists the works of more than 700 long-eclipsed artists.

To us musicians, no heritage has been transmitted

Claire Bodin

«Since our childhood, we have not heard the music of female composers, or so rarely that we do not remember it., says Claire Bodin to AFP. To us musicians, no heritage has been transmitted; we were fed on the idea of ​​the genius of the great composer, always a man, without ever questioning the repertoire of female composers».

770 compositrices

This tool, funded by the cultural action of Sacem, has listed no less than 4,662 works by 770 composers of 60 nationalities, from 1618 to 2020. The site plans to add 4,000 more works in the fall, including those by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), a saint of the Catholic Church and one of the first known female composers.

The search is done by name, title, instrument, country or era. Among the oldest, the Italians Francesca Caccini – who would be the first woman to have composed an opera -, Isabella Leonarda and Barbara Strozzi, one of the first professional composers, again the Frenchwoman Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. And the platform has a lot of female composers from Anglo-Saxon countries, “much more advanced in this area», Specifies Claire Bodin.

They should not be programmed simply because they are women, but because there is a real artistic interest

Claire Bodin

A long-term research work which began in 2006 and which has not yet been launched “because it’s a trendy subject». «It’s not a question of rewriting History but of enriching the repertoire, explains Claire Bodin. They should not be programmed simply because they are women and to give themselves a clear conscience, but because there is a real artistic interest».

For this harpsichordist who put aside her career to devote herself to these projects, the non-programming of the composers remains a major obstacle to the dissemination of their works. For the past ten years, she has regularly lectured on the subject. Few of the public can give names beyond the “top 5»By composers, such as Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Lili Boulanger or the contemporaries Betsy Jolas and Kaija Saariaho.

«For concert halls, there is the filling constraint which is generally based on the big names like Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Brahms or Bach. We only see the top of the iceberg, because even among men there are a lot of composers who deserve to be highlighted., recalls Claire Bodin. Everyone has to start programming female composers because the guest artists, if they are not sure that other venues are doing it, will hesitate to play these scores.».

A “feminine presences” festival

Scheduled for March, the Présences feminines festival has been postponed to October, from 12 to 20. Since its creation, seven works by female composers have been commissioned, including one by Camille Pépin, 29, who this year became the first composer to win the Victoires de classical music.

For its 2021 edition, the festival has launched a call for projects for the creation of a musical tale for young people. Cécile Buchet won out over 15 female composers. For Claire Bodin, the promotion of female composers must also be carried out at the level of conservatories.

Interviewed by AFP in 2019, Camille Pépin had indicated that she was the only girl in composition lessons at the Paris Conservatory. “But today the teachers I meet and the young musicians want things to happen; there are assumptions that are tough but start to fall apart».

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