Chaminade Concertino

Concertino by Chaminade is standard repertoire for the flute. Most of you probably played it at contest at some point in high school or maybe for a college audition or recital. Everyone plays this piece at some point.

Imagine my surprise (and embarrassment) when I sat down to research Concertino and learned that the composer was a woman! I consider myself a knowledgeable flutist. How is it that I never picked up on something as obvious as composer gender for such an important piece of flute music? In my own defense, my copy of Concertino lists the composer as C. Chaminade, gender neutral. I knew that the composer’s first name was Cécile, the feminine form of Cécil, but my French is pretty rudimentary. I just didn’t pick up on that subtlety. At any rate, discovering a major female composer of the late 19th early 20th century was exciting and makes for an interesting story. I had more fun learning about Cécile than I would have had she been a man.

Young Cécile grew up in an excellent situation for an aspiring musician, with amateur musicians for parents and a successful opera composer, Georges Bizet for a neighbor. She took her early piano lessons from her mother and performed in her church. As a girl she composed some of her first works for church services. With some encouragement from her famous neighbor, she met Félix Le Couppey who encouraged her to study with him at the Paris Conservatory. It was considered unseemly at that time for a young woman to attend the Conservatory, but clearly her talents were recognized. Her parents arranged for her to work privately with Conservatory faculty. She studied piano, music theory and composition. Given the role of women during this epoch, Mademoiselle Chaminade must have displayed exceptional talent to be granted these concessions.

Cécile began her professional career as a pianist/composer in the late 1870’s. During the following three decades she enjoyed great popularity throughout Europe, performing her own compositions on piano and in small ensembles. Her works number over 400 and include the opera La Sévillane, the ballet Callirhoë and the orchestral work Concertstück. But she’s best known for her lyrical piano pieces. These works did not always win with the critics, but they were big hits with the public. She was well loved throughout France, Great Britain and even the United States. Her popularity in the United States was so great that it led to the formation of Chaminade Clubs.

Chaminade Clubs were groups of amateur female musicians that got together in each other’s homes to share live music. These clubs were such a fad at the turn of the century that there were an estimated 200 in existence. To this day several of these clubs survive, although they are no longer the sole domain of women. A meeting of the local Club must have been an interesting event. Imagine a group of intelligent, cultured women getting together during the height of the suffrage movement to share music under the name of a successful female composer. Some truly fascinating conversations must have taken place. I wonder if Alice Paul or Lucy Burns ever attended.

Concertino for Flute is perhaps the composer’s most enduring success and has been accepted as a standard in the flute repertoire. It’s flashy and fiery yet completely playable by an intermediate level player. There’s a lot of ink on the page, but the sixteenth and thirty-second note runs all lay comfortably on the flute. It’s easy to see why this has been on contest lists for decades. If you’ve never played Concertino, it’s available in a number of collections. There are several stand alone versions available as well. For those of us who haven’t played this piece in a decade or two, pull it out, dust it off and give it a run through. You’ll love it all over again.

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