The realization came as a shock to Héloïse Luzzati. How could she have spent the better part of three decades playing music without every studying a piece composed by a woman?
As her gigs dried up at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and concert halls around the world went dark for months, the French cellist dedicated much of her time to remedying that gap. “The role of women in the history of music began to gain a certain importance in my life as a musician,” the French cellist told NPR’s Leila Fadel. “We don’t know enough works composed by women. My aim is to increase the percentage of known works written by female composers.”
She unearthed manuscripts by the likes of Mel Bonis (1858-1937), Clémence de Grandval (1828-1907) and Rita Strohl (1865-1941). In many cases, these pages of music had simply been sitting in a trunk in the attic, preserved by the composers’ own descendants.
Luzzati has a hard time picking just one piece as her favorite. “There [are] so many. I cannot answer this question,” she said. “I ask myself, how could I [not] know this piece?”
Many of these works had never been published or recorded before, and yet to Luzzati they shined like priceless jewels. Her project quickly grew from a set of online biographical videos to a virtual advent calendar featuring recorded performances, a festival with top soloists at châteaux and other historic sites near Paris — and now a new record label.
La Boîte à Pépites (The Jewel Box) aims to “exhume pieces that seem worthy of a good position in the standard musical repertoire,” Luzzati explained. The label’s first release, launched in France in April and set for September 30 in the UK, is centered around French composer Charlotte Sohy, who died in 1955.
“I was completely captivated by this music,” said Luzzati, who gave a special nod to what she considers a “masterpiece,” the Op. 24 piano trio.
“It’s completely specific as French music from the beginning of the 20th century — sometimes impressionistic, sometimes figurative, with colors of Ravel, Chausson or Debussy.”
The rich harmonies also come from someone who faced tremendous odds, having survived two world wars, mothered seven children and cared for a conductor-composer (Marcel Labey). At times, she composed under a male name — that of her grandfather, Charles Sohy — or just used the abbreviation Ch. Sohy “to bypass the prejudices about women,” Luzzati explained. And yet her catalogue includes 35 opuses. She studied under composer Vincent d’Indy, himself a student of César Franck.
A three-CD boxset — also available on streaming platforms — features world premieres of Sohy’s piano, chamber and orchestral works. Among the soloists are rising and veteran stars of the classical world in their own right, including David Kadouch, Xavier Phillips, Célia Oneto Bensaïd and Marie-Laure Garnier. The Quatuor Hermès recorded Sohy’s first two quartets and the Orchestre national Avignon-Provence took up orchestral works under the baton of Debora Waldman.
It all began when Waldman introduced Luzzati to Sohy’s grandson François-Henri Labey. Since retiring from directing regional conservatories about a decade ago, Labey has copied his grandmother’s handwritten work in digital format on a computer. He’s said that he stumbled upon her “Grande Guerre” (Great War) Symphony in C sharp minor in the bottom of a drawer. In 2019, Waldman led the Orchestre Victor-Hugo Franche-Comté in the posthumous world premiere of the work, composed during World War I. Sohy was informed of her husband’s death on the battlefield while writing the second movement, only to learn a week later that he was found alive.
Luzzati is intransigent in her selection both of the pieces and performers put forward via her project, a charitable organization run by musicians. Violinist Renaud Capuçon and pianist Bertrand Chamayou are among the internationally renowned musicians who have joined the effort. Rather than simply performing a piece because it was composed by a woman, Luzzati and her fellow artists work together to breathe life into some of the most accomplished works by a composer who happened to be a woman.
“We want this music to exist for the future and for the young generations too,” she explained. “We don’t want to rewrite the story of the music. We want to add the women who count in the story.”
Gender inequality is still prevalent in the music industry today. While there are growing efforts to promote music by composers of underrepresented genders and backgrounds, only 5% of compositions scheduled to be performed by 100 orchestras worldwide in the 2020-2021 season were written by women, according to the UK-based foundation Donne.
Historically, much of this music has been overlooked — if not dismissed entirely — by music directors, and even teachers. Music students, from their very beginnings to advanced studies at top conservatories, are still largely taught music composed by white men who have been dead for decades if not centuries.
Some women gained wide acclaim during their lifetimes, especially in the late 19th century. Virtuoso pianist Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) was a prolific composer and the only female professor of music to teach at the Paris Conservatory in that century. But she was quickly forgotten after her death, despite her work being published.
“So there you go. It’s as simple as that. When a composer dies and she’s no longer there to keep her work alive, it disappears almost instantly,” Luzzati said.
Her group has also spotlighted living composers, like Ethiopian nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou or Alicia Terzian of Argentina. There are also new arrangements, such as one of a song by Barbara, who started out as a cabaret singer before writing her own tunes.
And Luzzati only just got started. She’s setting her sights next on music publishing — blowing the dust off old manuscripts so that the works can be played by students and soloists alike. If she succeeds, the ripple effect could have a long lasting impact on the classical music industry.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The story of women composers throughout the centuries is fraught with prejudice, patriarchy and exclusion, and a new record label aims to change that. La Boite a Pepites, or The Jewel Box, dedicated its first release to piano, chamber and orchestral music by Charlotte Sohy, a French composer who died in 1955 and lived through two world wars.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBORA WALDMAN AND ORCHESTRE NATIONAL AVIGNON-PROVENCE PERFORMANCE OF CHARLOTTE SOHY’S “HISTOIRE SENTIMENTALE, OP. 34: IV. OUBLI”)
FADEL: After a launch in France in April, the label heads next to the U.K. on September 30, and hopes for an American release as well. The person who founded the label is Heloise Luzzati. She’s a French cellist who joins us now from France. Hello.
HELOISE LUZZATI: Hello.
FADEL: So this is an exciting project. And I want to start with just what first drew you to the works of women composers in history.
LUZZATI: A few years ago the question of the role of women in the history of music began to gain a certain importance in my life as a musician. How could I have spent so many years without ever having played a piece composed by a woman? And at the beginning of quarantine, like everyone else, I had fewer gigs and finally the time to create this project that seemed necessary to me.
FADEL: How would you describe Sohy’s music?
LUZZATI: Incredible music. It’s completely specific as French music from the beginning of the 20th century – sometimes impressionistic, sometimes figurative, with colors of Ravel, Chausson or Debussy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIE VERMEULIN PERFORMANCE OF CHARLOTTE SOHY’S “QUATRE PIECES ROMANTIQUES, OP. 30: II. VALSE”)
FADEL: So how did you decide to launch your label with world premiere recordings of Charlotte Sohy? So why did you choose her?
LUZZATI: Last year, I was with the Orchestre National Avignon-Provence in the south of France, and I was completely captivated by this music. And the conductor put me in touch with Charlotte Sohy grandson, who, for the past 10 years, has been copying his grandmother’s manuscripts. And I was able to have access to all the works of Charlotte Sohy.
FADEL: And none of it had ever been published before?
LUZZATI: No. No.
FADEL: So from this release of these three albums of Sohy’s music, was there any one piece of music that you found and played and thought, oh, my God, I can’t believe the world hasn’t heard this?
LUZZATI: There is so many. I cannot answer this question. Maybe the piano trio – I think it’s a masterpiece.
(SOUNDBITE OF XAVIER PHILLIPS, NIKOLA NIKOLOV, AND CELIA ONETO BENSAID PERFORMANCE OF CHARLOTTE SOHY’S “TRIO, OP. 24: II. ANDANTE”)
FADEL: Why have these compositions of women Sohy been hidden away in attics, forgotten for decades and sometimes centuries? And how is your label trying to change that?
LUZZATI: Today, only 4% of the works are composed by a woman. I don’t think the reason is that concert programmers knowingly refused programs. In my opinion, we don’t know enough works composed by woman. My aim is to increase the percentage of known works written by female composers.
FADEL: Why do you think women composers, like Sohy and others, have been ignored for so long?
LUZZATI: I think – I like an anecdote about the French composer, pianist and teacher Louise Farrenc. In 1872, the Universal Dictionary mentioned Louise Farrenc – one of the most honorable places in the history of French music. Eight years after her death, all that remain is this mention – professor of the conservatory. There you go. It’s as simple as that. When a composer dies and she’s no longer there to keep her work alive, it disappears almost instantly.
FADEL: Wow. So it dies with her, which is so sad.
LUZZATI: Yeah. And she was published and played and she had everything.
FADEL: That’s incredible. In her lifetime, she was recognized. But as soon as she was not able to speak for herself anymore, her legacy was gone.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MEDITATIONS, OP. 18: I. PAIX ‘ASSIS AU BORD DE LA RIVIERE CHARMEUSE'”)
MARIE PERBOST: (Singing in non-English language).
FADEL: With Sohy, didn’t she write under a male name for a while?
LUZZATI: Yeah, she used her grandfather name, Charles Sohy.
FADEL: In order to be published? Or why did she use her grandfather’s name?
LUZZATI: It’s a smart way to bypass the prejudice about, you know, the woman who compose music.
FADEL: A way to get around the prejudice for women.
FADEL: In general, how do you find these women’s music?
LUZZATI: Some of them in library, some – and it’s a really interesting thing to observe. Often, men put their work in the national library, but few women did. So I don’t really know why, but it must be because of self-confidence that would allow you to believe that woman’s work could be part of the history of music. The works of woman have often remained with the descendants of the composer.
FADEL: Wow. Incredible. So it all depends on whether their children and grandchildren saved the pieces of paper.
(SOUNDBITE OF XAVIER PHILLIPS, NIKOLA NIKOLOV AND CELIA ONETO BENSAID PERFORMANCE OF CHARLOTTE SOHY’S “TRIO, OP. 24: III. ALLEGRO”)
FADEL: Have you found that people are generally interested, I mean, since you’ve announced the label?
LUZZATI: Yeah. I think we are really lucky, and I’m really happy. I didn’t expect the Sohy project to be so successful. Since the launch in France in April, we have more than 1 million streams on the platforms. And I didn’t expect it at all. So it’s encouraging for the future. We don’t want to rewrite the story of the music. We want to add the woman who counts in the story.
FADEL: Yeah, so add it to the repertoire that exists already.
LUZZATI: Yeah. Yeah.
FADEL: That was Heloise Luzzati, founder of the new music label La Boite a Pepites. Thank you for sharing your story.
LUZZATI: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBORA WALDMAN AND ORCHESTRE NATIONAL AVIGNON-PROVENCE PERFORMANCE OF CHARLOTTE SOHY’S “HISTOIRE SENTIMENTALE, OP. 34: IV. OUBLI”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.