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A Celebration of Female Composers: Cécile Chaminade

Welcome to our Celebration of Female Composers series! In the lead up to our next concert, Celebrating Female Composers, on Saturday 9th March 2019, we will be profiling various female composers. Some will be featuring on the next programme, and some are just extraordinary composers that we love to listen to.

Third in our series is the astonishingly prolific Cécile Chaminade, who performed before royalty, inspired over 200 fan clubs and was way ahead of her time.

Name: Cécile Louise Stéphanie Chaminade

Born: 8 August 1857 in Paris

Died: 13 April 1944 in Monte-Carlo

What They Say:

"This is not a woman who composes, but a composer who is a woman." – Ambroise Thomas, composer

What She Says:

“There is no sex in art. Genius is an independent quality. The woman of the future, with her broader outlook, her greater opportunities, will go far, I believe, in creative work of every description.”

Cécile Chaminade is a curious historical character within the music world. On the one hand, she was enormously successful in her own lifetime both commercially and in terms of appreciation; she was born and studied in Paris but she toured globally, travelling as far as the United States. No less a person than Queen Victoria was a fan, Liszt admired her skill at the piano and Bizet called her a “little Mozart” when she was child. And yet towards the end of her life and after her death her reputation fell into obscurity and despite being perhaps the most successful female composer of the nineteenth century it is only in very recent years that her name has become popularly recognisable once more.

And that’s a shame. Chaminade’s most popular surviving piece of music, the Concertino for Flute (played here with Harmony Sinfonia by our own Sharon Maloney), is a beautifully melodic piece of work with sweeping harmonies, playfulness and dexterity. It is also very exemplary of her style, which is romantic and engaging. Although the Concertino remains the main known piece written by Chaminade, she actually composed approximately 400 pieces for a range of ensembles up to and including full orchestra. This in itself was rare in female composers of this era as they generally lacked the access to large numbers of musicians and large-scale performance spaces required to compose for orchestra, and to have those works performed.

Aware of this, and of her market, Chaminade specialised in chamber music. Recognising that there was a market for solo piano music and arrangements that could be played within the home, and seeing an opportunity to support herself and her family who had fallen on hard times following the death of her father, she focused far more on this than her orchestral compositions. She also arranged all her orchestral works for small solo or small ensembles and these sold extremely well.

Typical of her forward thinking, she recorded many piano rolls in her lifetime as well as several recordings of her work for the gramophone, recorded by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in 1901. These can be listened to here on YouTube and are in very good condition for the era. In 1913 Chaminade was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, the first woman ever to receive it.

Chaminade did not enjoy good health in later life, and underwent the amputation of a foot later in life. Bedbound and having fallen into relative obscurity, she passed away in Monte Carlo in 1944.

Chaminade’s orchestral pieces included the ballet suite Callirhoë, of which only one recording as ever been made since its Marseille premiere in 1888, and much of which has been reconstructed; a choral symphony called Les Amazones of which only the piano and vocal scores survive; and the comic opera La Sévillane, of which only a piano score remains. It seems that there is much work still to be done in re-discovering Chaminade’s extensive creative output, but it is surely impossible that the full scores for the music of a composer of such global popularity are not in existence somewhere. Fingers crossed that they one day will surface.


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