Marking International Women’s Day in a week-long festival online, the SWAP’ra organisation – Supporting Women and Parents in Opera – is celebrating female composers, both past and present, whose music has not been sufficiently known, if at all. Singers from seven different conservatoires appear in the Forgotten Voices series, spotlighting no fewer than 30 composers from Europe and the Americas.
Students from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – coached by mezzo-soprano and SWAP-ra co-founder, Kitty Whately – inaugurated proceedings with a livestreamed concert featuring three Welsh composers and one from Scotland. Morfydd Owen, who had seemed assured of a bright future, was just 26 when she died in 1918 from complications following an appendectomy. All her songs had a light and natural flow, but it was Gweddi y Pechadur (Prayer of the Sinner), a Welsh favourite, which came over most effectively in tenor Rhys Meilyr Jones’s rendering, the piano’s darkly chromatic harmony piling on the agony. Grace Williams, a prolific but neglected writer, was represented by two songs that showed her measured command of the medium.
The unexpectedly gratifying encounter was with the work of Elaine Hugh-Jones, at 93 very much alive, and kicking over the metaphoric traces in songs whose style may be old-style romantic, yet whose word-settings have a sharp immediacy. Hugh-Jones only took seriously to composing in her 60s after a career as both accompanist and teacher and it was fitting to have this affirmation of her gifts. Most telling was her setting of Shakespeare’s verses from Cymbeline, Fear No More the Heat of the Sun, and, by comparison with Grace Williams’s treatment of the same words sung just before it, emerged with greater urgency, the piano an equal partner in the drama. Williams pointed up each chilling repetition of “come to dust” by the voice dropping low, but while she chose not to set the last stanza, that became the fine culmination of Hugh-Jones’s version. Mezzo Molly Beere delivered the last line “And renownèd be thy grave!” with a touch of suitably defiant bravura.
Singers from the Royal Academy, the Royal College and Royal Northern College of Music, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Trinity Laban Conservatoire, and the National Opera Studio will also perform throughout the week, presenting the wealth of music unearthed in research for the project. The histories of all these composers’ persistence in the face of prejudice – gender and racial – are sobering. Some names such as Pauline Viardot, Cécile Chaminade and Amy Beach are gradually becoming more familiar, but among the many unsung heroines are those who had to resort to pseudonyms: Peter Riley, Poldowski and Guy d’Hardelot, AKA Avril Coleridge-Taylor, Irène Wieniawski and Helen Rhodes. The shining conviction of this new cohort of singers was heartening but, given the current crisis facing live music generally, the concern must be that the singers and composers risk confronting insuperable obstacles in times ahead, much as this initiative is needed.
• Forgotten Voices runs until 13 March.