The Society of Women Organists and Royal College of Organists encourage communities across the world to celebrate women composers of organ and liturgical music.
Women Composer Sunday
March 5, 2023
Christ Church Beechworth marks Women Composer Sunday on March 5, 2023, when music director Sandra Williams plays two organ works by a prolific French composer barely recognised in the twenty-first century.
Sandra performs on the church’s heritage-listed William Anderson pipe organ Mélanie Hélène Bonis’ Pastorale in G to introduce morning service, and Toccata in G minor to end it, honouring women composers ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8.
Volunteers from the UK Society of Women Organists and Royal College of Organists worked together in 2020 pandemic lockdowns to create a repertoire list of organ and liturgical compositions by women. They identified 300 works ranging from a doxology by Kassia, an Eastern Empire composer in what is now Greece and Turkey in the early ninth century, to music by Armenian Karina Arakelyan, born in 1994, and seven Australians.
Inspired by what they found, including many compositions largely unknown today, the society and college launched Women Composer Sunday on March 7, 2021, encouraging organists at regular church and cathedral services across the world to honour these women, play works from the list, and post recordings of their performances on the web and social media.
Mélanie Bonis was born in Paris in 1858 to staunchly Catholic parents. She composed from the age of seven and at 16 met renowned organist César Franck who encouraged her, against her family’s wishes, to study at the Conservatoire de Paris. She afterwards began to use Mel as her first name to disguise her identity as a female composer at a time when professional pursuits by women were discouraged. Her parents later refused her proposed marriage to Amédée Hettich, a contemporary poet and music critic, and arranged for her to wed a much older businessman.
A few years later she met Hettich again. The pair had an intense affair, which led to the birth of Madeleine, their daughter, whom Mel was unable to acknowledge publicly for many years.
Yet despite this awful circumstance, she continued composing, creating more than 300 works, and became secretary of France’s Société des compositeurs de musique, often interacting with famed composers Gabriel Fauré, Jules Massenet and Camille Saint-Saëns.
The two Mel Bonis pieces to be played by Sandra were published in 1933, four years before this gifted composer died.
Sandra has led music from the organ keyboard at Christ Church for 15 years, continuing a tradition started by Frances Manton who played from 1887, when the organ was installed, until 1892 or 1893. Her daughter, also named Frances, followed, playing the organ for 50 years until her death in 1944.
The Mantons’ skills and dedication were memorialised in 1946 with a window depicting Cecilia, patron saint of music, created by Melbourne stained glass makers Mathieson and Gibson and put up by public subscription in the nave next to the organ case.