Can you name five male composers? Most likely, yes: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms.
Can you name five female composers? Most likely not.
Cellist Héloïse Luzzati fights this predicament by bringing female composers back into the spotlight.
She began playing cello aged five at the conservatory in Le Mans (Sarthe). She continued her training at the Conservatoire in Paris, where she started to question why the place was so... male.
From the classical music she learned, to her teachers and conductors, at recording studios and in orchestras, her world revolved around men.
Youtube channel, record label and festival
The Covid period gave her the time to look for the female composers whose stories had been left out of history books.
Her research drove her to create La boîte à pépites, a YouTube channel dedicated to showcasing the music of female composers as well as providing a six-minute biography for each woman.
The opening sentences of this article were borrowed from La boîte à pépites.
From success on YouTube, she kept the momentum going by founding the association Elles - Women Composers, a record label also called La boîte à pépites and the upcoming fourth edition of Un Temps pour Elles festival (from June 10 to July 9).
All these ventures put female composers in the spotlight. But it is still an uphill battle.
Only 4% of composers played in concerts are female, and only 8% of orchestra conductors are women.
Ms Luzzati is surprised how even female composers themselves are unaware of the existence of their historical counterparts.
It took 25 years for you to see that men dominate classical music. What was your ‘eureka moment’?
I can’t really pinpoint a ‘eureka moment’, but rather that it was an accumulation of small things, one after another.
So for example, sitting in an orchestra and playing bad classical music that requires lots of money to release and record, simply because the male artist is a household name. The music does not justify this.
I started to ask myself how is it female composers never get booked? Could we not do better? Why is it never women? This was my analysis as a professional player.
Before turning pro, when I was still a student at the Conservatoire de Paris, I never played compositions by women. There was this impression of being educated by men only.
I have nothing against men, but I think a bit of diversity here and there is essential.
When I recorded my first film scores, we were directed by men, playing music by men. It felt like something was being taken away from me.
Do you think it hindered your training in classical music history?
Absolutely. This is why it has become a lifelong quest.
This is both a personal journey to feed my curiosity and a process of historical compensation. I feel that what I record is useful and has added value.
This is an artistic process, but also involves being willing to share, to reach a wider audience, and to reveal a history that has been suppressed.
Then came the association...
In fact the boîte à pépites YouTube channel came first, during the Covid lockdown.
Never would have I expected that it would then lead to founding an association, a label and several editions of a festival…
It seems like you uncovered a long-forgotten labyrinth of talent…
I am not the first one, in all modesty.
My strength is my ability to put these composers’ work into the spotlight.
The association can then get to work on everything else. This includes researching potential music to promote, made possible because of our musicians’ instinct to discover good music.
Then came the record label and the festival, which put our work on an international stage.
Have you noticed a particular way in which women compose classical music?
There is no such thing as different female or male composition styles.
But I have to admit that sometimes I think that if a certain male composer had been a woman, his composition would have been classed ‘feminine music.’
I sometimes feed that cliché myself, both as a composer and as a performer.
People come up to me at festivals to say that if they had closed their eyes, they would have thought I was a man, because I have a ‘masculine type of playing.’
These are baseless, meaningless interpretations.
Can you explain to our readers why female composers have been erased from history?
Classical music was written by men, as was history. Women have been erased from this history.
Secondly, classical music is the least diverse art form because it requires an intermediary.
By that I mean anyone can pick up a book and read it. A painting is seen and interpreted. A sheet of classical music, however, needs someone able to read it and play it. And if that music is not recorded, how can people later assess it and form opinions about it?
No recording equals no participation in the history of classical music.
I often use the example of the French composer Louise Farrenc (1804 - 1875), who had an outstanding classical music career. Her music was recorded and played. She deserved an entry in the Dictionary of Music and Musicians that reflected her success, only to end up with “teacher at the conservatoire”, eight years after she died.
Why did she disappear? Because she could no longer defend her legacy. The same goes for many women.
When I interviewed composer Zahia Ziouani in 2022, she told me only 4% of orchestra leaders were women, around the same percentage for female composers’ work being programmed...
It has improved, reaching 8% recently.
What is outstanding about Ms Ziouani is that festival programmers can no longer ignore her, since she is living proof that women have earned their stripes.
In my case, it is slightly more complicated because what I’m trying to do requires time, conviction, confidence, recording, and a lot of money.
For Ms Ziouani, because of her public success, any issue can be resolved in a much shorter time.
You are a cellist. Do you consider yourself to be a historian too?
Historian is too big a word. A researcher would be more fitting. I love research and have spent my life digging up new music.
So, if I’m in Paris, there is a high chance that I’ll find you in the Bibliotheque nationale de France (BnF)?
Kind of, yes. In fact the association partnered with the BnF for next season, with concerts organised using women composers’ funds from the BnF.
I am very excited and proud about this project. It will represent the fruit of our daily work, in the most passionate, fantastic way.
How can our readers help you to find new music?
I love this question! If readers have women composers in their lineage and do not know how to put their work into the spotlight, it is our duty and desire to help.
Our first collection, a compilation of work by Charlotte Sohy, came from the descendants of a composer.
The sheet music was not even in library collections. Everything came from private resources, just like our next CD.
So, I implore anyone with a female composer in their family history to please come forward.