Clara Leonardi is an amateur violinist who is enthralled by the repertoire of women composers and is the founder of ComposHer, a platform dedicated to women in classical music. It's this theme that she addresses in her monthly Bachtrack column "The Clara Variations".

Clara Leonardi © DR / Bachtrack
Clara Leonardi
© DR / Bachtrack

As happens every year as Christmas approaches, seasonal playlists have taken over streaming platforms. Whether we're talking about English carols or gradually secularised religious songs, some of these titles have topped the charts, largely because of star performers – in France, the classic example is Tino Rossi's Petit Papa Noël. Still, the universe of Christmas songs is not limited to these few pieces: ever since the 19th century, women composers have also taken on the task of writing these seasonal works, of which some have become standards. Here's a short history of some songs that will allow you to escape from the triptych of Jingle Bells, O Tannenbaum and Silent Night.

Between romanticism and folklore: the Swedish school

From the end of the 19th century to the start of the 20th, Sweden saw the proliferation of particularly active women composers. Many, like Elfrida Andrée, the first female professional organist in Sweden, were renowned instrumentalists, but they also took on composition, including large scale works like symphonies and concerti.

In Sweden, Christmas is suffused with rich traditions, particularly religious ones: in addition to the festivities on 25th December, the feast of St. Lucy, celebrated on 13th December, is marked by processions throughout the country, during which the saint is represented by a young girl clad in white and wearing a crown of candles. So it's unsurprising that Swedes have written plenty of pieces to celebrate these occasions. Bethlehem stjarna ("The Star of Bethlehem"), written by Alice Tegner en 1893 and much recorded in Sweden, is often sung on St. Lucy's Day. Its gentle melancholy comes from a continual shift between minor and major harmonies.

The light of the same star, together with the light of the candles as symbol of domestic harmony, is referenced by Nu tändas tusen juleljus (which translates roughly as "a thousand Christmas candles have now been lit"), set in 1898 by composer Emmy Köhler. The sweet atmosphere of the hearth – laced with a touch of melancholy – is also created by Elfrida Andrée on the piano – in her Julstämning ("Yuletide reverie").

French women composers: between playfulness and meditation

The end of the 19th century is marked by the success of several female composers in France, amongst whose number are Cécile Chaminade and Mel Bonis. Chaminade is almost exclusively remembered for her Concertino for flute, leaving her important piano repertoire little played – of which a Concertstück with orchestra pays testament to her extraordinary international career as a concert pianist. She also wrote an impressive number of art songs, including Noël des oiseaux, sung here by Anne-Sofie von Otter, which marries a religious mood ("little Jesus, lord of heaven") to childsplay ("come see the little birds").

Since the melancholy is more noticeable in Mel Bonis' Noël de la Vierge Marie, there are still plenty of references to childhood, the Nativity being addressed from the point of view of the Virgin Mary's maternal feelings. With Mel Bonis, the piety isn't a surprise, since religion occupies a significant part of the output of this prolific composer. Her output starts with numerous works for piano, a vast chamber repertoire and a few orchestral suites and then moves on to sacred music towards the end of her life.

Anglo-Saxon Christmas carols

An essential part of the United Kingdom's end-of-year festivities, Christmas carols, songs of varying levels of religiousness, have been reinterpreted countless times, to the point of forming some of the most standard works in the canon of vocal ensembles. Perhaps because these pieces were partly intended for children's choirs, English-speaking women composers have particularly exploited their possibilities, the teaching repertoire being one of the areas to which women had easiest access in past centuries.

One of the more famous, The Little Drummer Boy, was written by Katherine Davis: this American music teacher, who studied with Nadia Boulanger amongst others, wrote more than 600 works, mainly intended for her students. Composed in 1941, The Little Drummer Boy achieved fame when it was performed by the Harry Simeone Chorale in 1958 – it even topped the hit parade! Unsurprisingly, it figures in the repertoire of the King's Singers.

Without reaching the same level of fame, the hymn Jesus Christ and the Apple Tree, an 18th century poem set to music in the 20th century by English composer Elizabeth Poston, figures on the set lists of many British ensembles, such as the Cambridge Singers (shown here). The text of this carol makes particular reference to the New Testament's symbolising Christ as an apple tree: "The trees of nature fruitless be / Compared with Christ the Apple Tree".

The revival of British vocal ensembles

The rich tradition of British vocal ensembles is particularly thriving at present: from the King's Singers to Voces8, numerous singing groups inhabit the field of a cappella. Outside the reinterpretation of famous pieces from the worlds of classical and popular song, many of these ensembles are making place for the creation of new music. Towards the festive season in just about every year, we'll see the release of a batch of albums devoted either to carols or simply to songs which evoke winter. These albums give the opportunity to hand out commissions, or at least to explore lesser known contemporary works which enrich and add complexity to the usual Christmas playlist. It also allows them to make space for new artists and thus for new composers.

The soundscapes of the a cappella choir lend themselves wonderfully to meditative, suspended pieces with religious connotations. Therefore Cecilia McDowall's 2012 O Oriens, performed her by the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, is built on a Christian Advent antiphon: "O rising sun, spendour of justice and eternal light, illuminate those who inhabit the darkness and the shadow of death, come, Lord, come to save us!"). The work sets the darkness, evoked by McDowall's dissonant harmonies, against the text, centred on Christ as the bringer of light.

This duality between light and darkness recurs in Rebecca Dale's Winter from the album of the same name.  Known amongst other things for her film music, the composer uses an image-filled style which evokes at some points a  wintry light, at others a darker sky ("As shards of dancing crystal fly / Across the dim and icy sky").

Between light and darkness, contemporary women composrs have anticipated in some fashion the atmosphere of uncertainty which pervades the festivities of this strange December. If in this difficult time, the health situation prevents us from coming together to sing merry ditties, let's use it to discover this little known repertoire in our loudspeakers or headphones!


Translated from French by David Karlin