Cécile Chaminade – a pioneering female composer

Cécile Chaminade (1857–1944) was a French composer and pianist known chiefly for her piano music. She was a contemporary of Mel Bonis who featured in one of our #ERSOOnline “forgotten voices” films. Like Bonis, Chaminade faced many obstacles as a female composer.

Chaminade was born to musical parents and showed musical promise at a young age, performing her own composition for Bizet at the age of 8. Her parents refused to send her to the Paris Conservatoire as they felt this to be inappropriate for a girl of her social class, but did allow her to take private lessons with some of the professors. She gave her first public recital as a pianist at age 18 and toured France, the UK and America, playing her own music. In 1913 she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, a first for a female composer. The composer and teacher Ambroise Thomas said, “This is not a woman who composes, but a composer who is a woman.”

In the latter half of her life, Chaminade’s work became less well regarded. While once praised for writing charming, feminine music, musical taste around the turn of the century led to her music being seen as too feminine and frothy whilst later pieces like her Concertstück were criticized for being too masculine.

As well as piano and vocal music, Chaminade also wrote a comic opera, a ballet, and a choral symphony. One of her most performed pieces today is her flute concertino.

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