Her Story: A Personal Insight Into a Unique Collection

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I get a lot of things sent to me for review. In fact, you may be surprised to hear that I get far more items for review than I could ever hope to include without it becoming a full-time (unpaid) job! Her Story: The Piano Collection one that dropped onto the doormat fairly recently, and as it includes a couple of unique works by living composers, I wanted to share it in slightly different way…as you’re about to find out.

Her Story: The Piano Collection is a brand new book from Faber Music, compiled by Karen Marshall, containing 30 works by female composers. But this isn’t just a music book, it’s a storybook too. It’s not just about the music, but about the composers’ stories themselves. With that in mind, I’m very grateful to one of the contributors, Margarida Goncalves, for being so willing to be interviewed for this blog-post-review. Just as the book does, I want to share some of her story too.

Lied by Josephine Lang in Her Story

As musicians, and indeed, as composers, we all hard to start somewhere. More often than not, that’s in our childhood where we encounter our formative musical experiences. Margarida shares her experiences below:

What’s one of your earliest musical experiences? Was music a big part of your childhood?

“Music has always had a huge impact on me since I was a little girl. I have two older sisters and I vividly remember playing with them and singing as if our lives were a musical. We loved Disney films, and we would memorise the full soundtracks and sing it while harmonising in 3 voices. I did it from a very young age, and a later experience, at the age of 7, I joined the same music school my sisters were already in.”

How did you first start/get into composing?

“For the first 8 years after I joined Setubal’s music conservatory, I only played violin, but I always felt that I wasn’t as good as I wished and it left me very frustrated. That’s when I also started learning piano at the age of 15 and it was in fact my piano teacher who informed me of a composer friend of his, and he asked me if I would like to meet him. I had of course, already thought about composition, and I did sketch some pieces but only after I met Gonçalo Lourenco (the Portuguese composer I studied with), did I realise that the composition world was so much bigger than what I thought. In my late-teenage years I focused both on playing violin and writing music. It wasn’t until I was 18 that I realised violin didn’t satisfy my creative needs. That’s why I chose the path of composition, because there isn’t anything like writing your own music.”

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For me personally, composing is another creative outlet. Someone once described is as like giving birth. I couldn’t possibly comment, but there is some truth in a feeling of sending one’s compositions out into the world. But what about for Margarida?

What do you enjoy most about composing?

“My favourite part is definitely collaborating with players and making my pieces come alive. Coming from a string player background, I have always been used to being surrounded by other players, and the truth is that the composition world can be a little bit lonely. So I try to fight against that by working with my colleagues and friends, and it is an absolutely amazing thing to do.”

What do you find most challenging about composing?

“For me, what makes composition so incredibly hard and frustrating sometimes, is figuring out how to notate the music I hear in my head. I do know some composers that are the opposite of me, but in my case, most of the hard work is making decisions of how to notate and express through a score what I want to put across emotionally.”

Over the past few months, I’ve enjoyed exploring Her Story. It is a unique connection, and one which should be seen as an iconic milestone in music publishing. It is rare for me to say it, but I enjoyed every piece, and it’s a collection I shall enjoy playing from as much as I enjoy teaching. You can read some more of my thoughts further down, but how did Margarida get involved?

How did you get involved in composing a piece for Her Story?

“I was online, searching for competitions and opportunities to write, when I stumbled across a Faber Music competition for female composers. As soon as I read the regulations, I was sure I wanted to apply. Normally, competitions ask for a lot from a composer in terms of being creative and original, but this one specifically required us to base our music on the works of Hildegard von Bingen, a composer that I have always admired, even before I became a composer myself. So for me, it was a really great opportunity, and so I decided to write ‘O Virtuo Sapientiae’.”

O Virtuo Sapientiae by Margarida Goncalves

I was particularly drawn to Margarida’s piece as I have always loved the music of Hildegard von Bingen too; in fact, I selected a CD of her music as one I couldn’t live without, as featured in this previous blog post. Hildegard’s music obviously inspired Margarida too:

What inspired you to write ‘O Virtuo Sapientiae’?

“I was definitely inspired by the original melody by Hildegard, as it is one of my favourite melodies in all music history. There’s something about her music that really touches me, and this particular piece is so beautiful that I had to write something in homage to it. In fact, I had never written something so fast before, once I figured what features of the original I was gonna use, the piece fluently grew out of just two simple idias: the melodic line, and a pedal drone.” 

Her Story is surely a unique project, and it’s not just Margarida’s music which features. Emily Pedersen also rose to the challenge writing ‘Now Think’, also based on Hildegard’s music. But, I asked Margarida:

What do you think is particularly important about a project such as Her Story?

“I think the Her Story collection is absolutely brilliant because it gathers so many different and underrated composers that wrote fabulous music. Not only that, the fact that it’s all about female composers that are not that well known, makes the book even more impressive. As a female composer, it’s really inspiring to see and hear the music of all these magnificent women come to life. There’s so much lacking in music history about these women, and I truly think this book brought them to the spotlight in the 21st century and that’s just terrific.”

But for Margarida, what comes next?

Is there one piece you would most like to write in the future?

“There isn’t simply one piece. There are so many different pieces and projects I want to create! Nevertheless, the next thing on my mind is a collaboration with a very dear friend of mine. She is a painter and I would love to write a set of solo pieces for her paintings. It’s still very much in the beginning, but I love to work with different artists and I believe if the project moves forward it will have great success.”

An extract from Her Story

I am very grateful to Margarida for sharing her thoughts in a way which connects us with the music itself. It is as much about her story as it is about Her Story, and this is true for all the female composers mentioned.

Compiled by Karen Marshall, Her Story is a beautiful and thoughtful collection. I really did enjoy the pieces so much, but in particular, ‘The Banjo’ (Nannie Louise Wright), ‘The Wood Nymph’s Harp’ (Florence P. Rea), and ‘Levee Dance’ (Florence Price) stood out for me. Extra special mention must be made of Paula Szalit’s ‘Intermezzo’ which may have become my new favourite piece! Each piece is accompanied by a page giving background information about the work and, more importantly, the composer. As ever, the book is beautifully presented, the music clearly typeset, and text crisp and informative.

What I liked especially about this collection is the thought which has gone into it. As I say, I receive a huge amount of material for review, and the books which stand out are those which have some form of personal connection and input. In Her Story, prepare to be surprised and inspired, but overall, prepared to be filled with joy and admiration.

Her Story written, compiled and edited by Karen Marshall, is published by Faber Music, ISBN 9780571542376, RRP £14.99.

I was sent a review copy of this book free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher. You can find my Reviews Policy here.

About Margarida

Margarida Gonçalves is a young Portuguese composer with a passion for music and art. Her composition studies began at the age of 15, and in less than one year, she started premiering her pieces around Portugal. In 2019, she was offered a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music, where she is currently studying with the composers David Sawer and Helen Grime.

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