Leokadiya Kashperova: a forgotten female composer gets her moment
The Russian pianist and composer, admired during her lifetime, has been largely forgotten. Enter Radio 3's Composer of the Week...
From 12 to 16 December, BBC Radio 3's Composer of the Week is dedicated to a Russian composer who is still relatively little known – and unjustly so.
The focus of this week's programmes is the composer Leokadiya Kashperova (1872-1940), and the series marks the 150th anniversary of her birth. Exceptionally, the series will feature a number of UK premieres. Plus – for the first time in the history of Composer of the Week – the entire week will be made up of specially recorded works.
For many decades, Leokadiya Kashperova was best known, if at all, as piano teacher to one Igor Stravinsky. Her full story as a musician and composer has finally now been unearthed, through the researches of Dr Graham Griffiths, supported by Radio 3’s Forgotten Women Composers project.
During her lifetime, Kashperova was described as ‘a most welcome phenomenon of St Petersburg’s musical life’. She studied composition with Nikolay Solovyov and piano with Anton Rubinstein, who predicted that she would eclipse all the men at the St Petersburg Conservatory. The contemporary Russian composers Alexander Glazunov and Mily Balakirev favoured Kashperova in the interpretation of their music and she travelled internationally as a soloist, performing her own compositions and others.
Before 1917 most of Kashperova’s works were published and heard, but the arrival of the Russian Revolution caused her voice to be silenced. Public performances of Kashperova’s music stopped altogether because of her connections with the gentry. Private performances were rare. She continued to compose – but now without any hope of hearing it played.
Here, some of the performers involved in the Composer of the Week series – including soprano Claire Booth, cellist Anastasia Kobekina and conductor Jane Glover – discuss their favourite piece by Kashperova.
Claire Booth, soprano
'Kashperova’s vocal repertoire has been an absolute revelation. Her Songs of Love, and indeed all the songs I was fortunate enough to record, show such a natural affinity for the voice – soaring vocal lines, and brilliantly paced.
'Just when you feel you understand the harmony, she takes you off in another direction. Take Gebet for example – initially the song evokes a hymn-like simplicity, but then it passes through all manner of modulations in the piano. The vocal line manages to maintain a sense of reverence, even as it rises to a gorgeous climax, underpinned by the most beautiful harmonies.
'This mix of German Classicism and Russian Romanticism is a heady brew indeed, and these songs are absolutely ripe for rediscovery. Having performed Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben as a solo performance (accompanying myself in recital), I’m particularly pleased to note that Leokadiya envisaged her Songs of Love to be self-accompanied... and I look forward to honing my piano technique!'
Jane Glover, conductor
'I was thrilled to be asked to include the B minor Symphony by Leokadiya Kashperova in a programme of music by forgotten female composers.
'I knew little about Kashperova beyond the fact that she had taught the piano to Stravinsky, and was a considerable pianist herself. So discovering the incredible qualities of her own composition through this hugely impressive symphony was a wonderful experience.
'Without question, Kashperova was formidably equipped: her orchestration is remarkably sure-footed, robust and inventive; her lyrical qualities are passionate and gloriously affecting; she has a great sense of structure, even drama; and, above all, her music is completely Russian.
'She includes two Russian themes in the course of the symphony, one in the second movement and another in the finale, and beyond these her whole palette of colour and gesture is steeped in the world of her great Russian symphonic forebears.
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'This lovely work deserves to be heard a great deal, and I felt so honoured and privileged to be part of its reawakening.'
Hiroaki Takenouchi, piano
'I’m one of the few people this week who were asked to look at the compositions by Leokadiya’s cousin, Elizaveta Kashperova. I went through some of Leokadiya’s piano works as well, and it was pretty clear that they were two very different composers.
'At once, Elizaveta is more inward-looking, and her piano writing is in the grand tradition of the golden era of Russian Romantic pianism. From the small number of pieces I saw by Leokadiya, by contrast, it seemed that she favoured much clearer textures and lighter expressions.
'The interesting works by Elizaveta I recorded for this programme were both written as the accompaniment for poem recitation. The febrile symbolist poems of Konstantin Balmont are provided with a vivid musical-commentary in both works. They are so eloquent that they work perfectly as solo piano pieces.
'I’m happy that Leokadiya is finally getting this well-deserved recognition, and I hope it will be one day extended to her wonderful cousin Elizaveta!'
The Gould Piano Trio
'Kashperova's Piano Trio is a large-scale work in the traditional form, with four contrasting movements. There is a great undercurrent of energy driving the first movement: this is followed by an innocent, childlike slow movement, a crystalline scherzo with a particularly Russian central section, and an almost Germanic last movement.
'It was exciting to discover Kashperova’s unique harmonic language. This seems to have both feet in the 19th century, but sometimes it's taken to a place of discomfort, looking for the resolutions the ear craves.'
Anastasia Kobekina, cello
'I remember when Graham Griffiths, a researcher with a passion for Kashperova's music, approached me with the idea of recording a piece by this incredible composer.
'I began looking for a courageous pianist with whom to record Kashperova's fantastic Second Cello Sonata. Courageous, because Kashperova seemed to be an incredibly virtuosic pianist herself (her piano writing is almost unplayable). I was lucky to collaborate on this project with an amazing musician: London-based Georgian pianist Luka Okros. Together we dived into this undiscovered world of Kashperova's music.
'It is incredible how mature her works are, considering her age. Both Cello Sonatas were composed when she was only 23, and a new graduate of St. Petersburg's Conservatory.
'The Second Cello Sonata is full of different facets. It has gorgeous tunes in all four movements, that you find yourself singing for days after hearing them. Her writing is also very lyrical, with dreamlike, almost fairytale themes.
'However, you can sense a strong will and a passionate personality, right from the piece's opening. The second movement is like a miniature pastoral, with simple folk-like melodies: time seems to slow down after the stormy first movement, and the Trio is a very charming waltz.
'Making the first recording of this sonata more than 120 years after it was written is very symbolic. I hope her music will become known to a broader audience, inspiring a new generation to create more beautiful music.'
For more info on the Composer of the Week series on Leokadiya Kashperova, visit the BBC's Composer of the Week.
Top pic courtesy of The Russian National Museum of Music, Moscow, with thanks to Mikhail Bryzgalov and Olga Kuzina.
Steve has been an avid listener of classical music since childhood, and now contributes a variety of features to BBC Music’s magazine and website. He started writing about music as Arts Editor of an Oxford University student newspaper and has continued ever since, serving as Arts Editor on various magazines.