In Epigraph, the second movement of my string quartet, 'A Room of Her Own', I quote three melodies by three female composers. These melodies weave together, fragment and finally disintegrate, before being reborn in the third movement, Anon. The following notes are intended to provide some insight into the working lives and experiences of the composers, and in particular the circumstances surrounding the composition of the quoted works.
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1925)
By Margaret Sutherland (Australian composer, 1896-1984)
Praised by Sutherland’s mentor and friend Arnold Bax for being ‘the best work by a woman that I know’, Sutherland’s Violin Sonata was premiered by the composer and violinist Leila Doubleday during a Society of Women’s Musicians concert in London. With Bax’s advocacy and recommendation, Sutherland sought publication of the Sonata by J&W Chester, but was refused. It was not until 1935 that Lyrebird Press agreed to publish the work, ‘paying’ Sutherland with a set of Couperin scores.
After returning home to Australia in 1925, the Sonata received its Australian premiere at a recital in Melbourne, with Bernard Heinze on Violin and Edward Goll on Piano. Recalling this event, Sutherland said:
“The recital was well attended, but no one seemed to know what I was driving at. A frequent comment was ‘straight from the sub-conscious’, until I felt like some kind of Freudian freak. I knew then that it was going to be a desperately heart-breaking up-hill journey, and I felt cold and dismayed. And I was right…”
Married for 22 years to a man who believed that a desire to compose was a mental illness in women, refused publication by Boosey and Hawkes because of her gender, and denied a professional paid commission until the age of 70 (her 3rd String Quartet), Sutherland persisted as a composer and as a staunch advocate for the recognition of the arts in Australia. Today she is recognised by many as the matriarch of Australian music for her unique compositional voice and her generous and untiring advocacy for Australian music. Her music is performed infrequently in Australia.
Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano (1846)
By Clara Schumann (German composer, 1819-1896)
In early 1844, concert pianist and composer Clara Schumann embarked upon another punishing performing tour, leaving her two young children with family and travelling with husband Robert, who, when left to his own devices, was prone to gambling and drink. Four months of relentless and demanding concerts took their emotional and physical toll, though not, as one would expect, upon the performer- when the couple returned to Leipzig, Robert suffered a mental breakdown. Soon after, Clara and Robert moved to Dresden, and over the next two years, Clara gave birth to daughter Julie, son Emil (who was to die age 18 months) and suffered a miscarriage. Amongst all this, Clara continued as the family breadwinner, and Robert’s health remained precarious. This was the environment in which she composed and published her Piano Trio.
While Clara initially considered the Piano Trio with pride and satisfaction, after Robert composed his own Piano Trio a few years later, she began to reconsider its worth – “Of course, it remains the work of a woman” – and to compare it unfavourably with the work of her husband.
For years Clara maintained a successful career as a concert pianist, providing for Robert and their eight children. Up until Robert’s death in 1856, she composed numerous chamber works, songs and choral works, though commitments of work and family made finding time to compose challenging. Following Robert’s death, she willingly devoted herself not to her own compositions, but to furthering the legacy of her husband.
Sonata for Viola and Piano (1919)
By Rebecca Clarke (British-American composer, 1886-1979)
Described by Clarke as her “one little whiff of success”, the Viola Sonata was composed for entry in the Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music composition competition. Entries to the competition were made anonymously, and the Impressionistic vocabulary of the Viola Sonata provoked some judges to believe that it had been written by Ravel.
During judging of the competition, the 73 entries were whittled down to just two- Clarke’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, and Suite for Viola and Piano by Ernest Bloch. Two more rounds of voting failed to split the pair, and so the competition’s sponsor, chamber music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge stepped in and awarded 1st prize to Bloch. Regular protocols deemed that the identity of entrants other than the winner should remain unknown, but due to the tied vote, the identity of the 2nd place recipient was disclosed. The jury were astounded to find that the work they held in such high esteem had been written by a woman. Rumours circulated that Clarke had not written the work herself, or in the least had had considerable help from other composers (men, no doubt). It seemed unlikely that such a substantial and impressive work could have been written by a woman. The Daily Telegraph went so far as to suggest that ‘Rebecca Clarke’ was a pseudonym and did not exist.
In the same competition the following year, Clarke was awarded 2nd place – again- this time for her Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano. Composing most of her works between 1910 and 1930, Clarke’s compositional output consists of songs and chamber works, often single movement works with evocative or poetic titles. Through either lack of opportunity, desire or inclination, she wrote no orchestral music. Clarke composed her final work in 1944, the year of her marriage to Scottish pianist James Friskin.
 Rosalind Appleby, Woman of Note- The rise of Australian Women Composers, Fremantle Press, 2012, pg. 16.
 James Murdoch, ‘Margaret Sutherland’ in Australian Contemporary Composers, The MacMillan Company of Australia Pty Ltd., 1972, pg. 183.
 Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs- The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, Oneworld Publications, 2016, pg.227.
 Liane Curtis, “A case of identity: rescuing Rebecca Clarke”, The Musical Times, May 1996