Centuries-old music written by forgotten female composers is recorded for first time ever for Leeds museum's project marking Women's History Month

Lost to the passage of time, the melodies of these forgotten female composers will now finally have an audience.

Museum curator Kitty Ross, pictured with sheet music from Leeds museums' Sounds of our City exhibition
Museum curator Kitty Ross, pictured with sheet music from Leeds museums' Sounds of our City exhibition

Music unearthed by Leeds Museums and Galleries has been played and recorded by aspiring musicians at the city’s Conservatoire, along with pianist Ruth Nicholson, as part of a project for Women’s History Month.

The sheet music of seven composers has been rediscovered by curators through the ongoing Sound of Our City exhibition at the Abbey House Museum, showcasing tunes written by the people of Leeds.

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Some of the compositions are nearly 200 years old and have never been experienced by an audience.

One of the pieces of music composed by Maris Stella which has been recreated and recorded by the Leeds Conservatoire for the first time

“It has been a remarkably uplifting and inspiring experience seeing a new generation of music-lovers in Leeds working so hard to bring the melodies created by these composers to life once again,” said Kitty Ross, who is curator of social history at Leeds Museums.

Composers whose music has been reimagined and digitised include Virginia Gabriel, who wrote popular ballads in the 19th Century as well as a number of serious compositions and popular composer Charlotte Allington Barnard.

Also played for the first time is In the Moonlight by Annie Jessie Fortescue Harrison, who went by the alias Lady Hill. The musician composed a number of piano pieces in the mid 19th Century along with American pianist Clara Gottschalk Peterson.

Ms Ross said: “From their music, we can hear that each of these women was incredibly talented and artistically gifted in their own right. But they were also united by the tenacity and determination they showed in overcoming some of the barriers that the women of their respective eras would have faced in becoming recognised, popular and successful.

Leeds Conservatoire student Jane Burnell who has helped to recreate music by forgotten female composers. Picture: Richard Storrow

“For many years now, the pieces of music they created to express themselves existed only on paper, forgotten over the passage of time and never recorded or shared with a modern audience.”

Not only has the project brought to life the music of a past generation of women, but a present one, too, as those in the arts continue to wait for the day concert halls will be once again filled with music.

Patsy Gilbert, who is vice principal and director at Leeds Conservatoire’s School of Performance said the project had helped give purpose to many students during the Covid-19 pandemic.

She said: “The amplification of female voices in Classical music is so important, particularly to the next generation of artists and musicians - providing inspirational messages to anyone who can’t see themselves, or their experiences being acknowledged in the music industry.

Patsy Gilbert, vice principal and director of Leeds Conservatoire's School of Performance

“Here at the Conservatoire we are dedicated to addressing gender imbalance in music training and the industry beyond and have developed a number of initiatives to empower, promote and ‘make visible’ female artists and musicians.”

The recorded work by the seven female composers is now available to listen to on Leeds Museums’ YouTube channel, while the Sounds of Our City exhibition remains closed to the public but can be viewed online.

Composer Virginia Gabriel