Hidden Genius in Music’s History

Music revelation: oboist Tom Gallant, the artistic director of the Frisson Ensemble, is one of the world’s few virtuoso solo performers on the instrument (Photograph courtesy of

Although the list of female classical composers is a long one, the average person cannot name five.

Amy Beach, Florence Price and Louise Farrenc are among those the Frisson Ensemble will highlight when it takes to the stage for the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts next month.

The New York ensemble, renowned for having the “best and brightest of classical music’s rising stars”, will perform two completely different programmes while here.

The second, Women Composers Throughout History, will feature music by many seldom-heard composers, using narration and slide projections to help showcase their talents.

Lifestyle spoke with Frisson Ensemble’s oboist and artistic director, Tom Gallant.

Q: Have female classical composers traditionally been overlooked (by musicians, by history) in favour of males? Are famous female classical composers an oxymoron?

A: Yes, women have traditionally been overlooked and we don’t really have famous female composers on the name recognition level of say Bach, Beethoven and Leonard Bernstein.

Composing was outside of what was considered traditional roles for women throughout most of history and some of the earliest composers had only performance outlets either in the church or in the courts.

They were often not even permitted to perform in public. Hildegard Von Bingen is one example — she was a Benedictine abbess, mystic, composer and writer living in the 12th century.

She was able to compose while in the convent and only in the past 20 years is her music being recorded and performed on a regular basis.

The 19th-century/early 20th-century composer Amy Beach at first composed under the name of Mrs H.H.A. Beach and later changed her public name to Amy Beach after her husband passed away. Q: You’ve included music by how many women in the second concert? Is there a common theme?

A: In the concert we will feature music that begins with some very early women composers such as Hildegard von Bingen from the 12th century, Francesca Caccini who lived in the 17th century.

Of course we are not a group that specialises in music of those periods, so we will be doing contemporary versions of this music.

I would not say there is a common theme, except we have put together a variety of women composers on one programme, many of whom the audience has probably not heard before.

We’ll also be adding some commentary from the stage — many of these women led extraordinary lives and have interesting stories to be told.

Q: Florence Price, Amy Beach and Louise Farrenc — what was so significant about them?

Have opportunities for female composers progressed much since?

A: Louise Farrenc was an exception in that she became quite well known when she was alive in the 19th century.

However, after her death, her music was pretty much forgotten only to be performed again in the past 30 years or so.

She actually started her own publishing company in order to get her works out to the public.

The Nonet, by Louise Farrenc, that we’ll be performing, is actually written for our core instrumentation of strings and winds and it was one of her most successful works during her lifetime.

Florence Price was the first African American woman composer to have a work performed by a major US orchestra.

There is a lot of interest these days in women composers both from the past and for today.

After some controversy this year, the Philadelphia Orchestra added more women composers to their concerts and there are at least five women composers who have won the Pulitzer Prize in music.

However, for the most part, women are underrepresented in concerts around the world.

Here is an article from The Washington Post that talks about this:

• Frisson Ensemble will take the stage in the Earl Cameron Theatre at 7.30pm on March 5 and 6. Tickets are available at