The Savo Music Society: Our agenda and activities
Updated: Apr 18
by Petteri Nieminen
The Savo Music Society is a non-profit organization that aims to change the history of classical music by preparing performance editions of forgotten works by neglected composers.
To be more precise, the Society was established as an organization that salvages, studies, digitalizes and sometimes performs large-scale orchestral and choral works that no-one alive has ever heard. Since 2017, the Society has prepared several performance editions from manuscripts and digitalized preliminarily more than twenty large-scale works principally by Nordic composers, especially women. Why women and not all forgotten composers? Because the neglect and dismissal of woman composers was more or less systematic during the 19th and early 20th centuries, their large-scale works were never performed or performed only once, often with inadequate rehearsals, and because the music we have discovered is of a quality that merits its rediscovery—or its first performance ever.
The proportion of works by women in the standard concert repertoire is vanishingly small when it comes to large scale works, especially regarding the "principal number" of a concert. In 2009 in Finland (Mattila & Nieminen unpublished), professional orchestras performed 299 symphonies, of which none were composed by women, despite the availability of repertoire by several woman composers, such as Louise Farrenc, Emilie Maier, Ethel Smyth, Alice Mary Smith, Amy Beach, Florence Price, Ruth Gipps, Mary Williams, Elsa Barraine, Nina Makarova, Johanna Senfter, Dora Pejacevic, Mirrie Hill etc. When the concert programs of 15 world-leading orchestras were examined, only 2.3 % or the performed compositions were by women (Di Laccio 2018). In Sweden, between 2014–2015 the proportion was 3,8 % (Larsson & Flyg 2015). Mostly, the works by women were modern compositions. This is an example of the classical music canon: the "standard repertoire" consists of selected works (by men) and other composers are mostly represented by small-scale works (Öhrström 1999). This tradition is carried on by handbooks that list the most "significant" composers (Dubal 2003).
Recently, there have been more and more demands to include works by women into symphony concerts. However, this demand remains unrealistic. Easily accessible data (such as Wikipedia) often list dozens of large-scale works by women, including symphonies, concertos, symphonic poems, etc., and this leads to the impression that these works would actually be available in performance-ready editions. They are not. Demanding that an orchestra play the 1st symphony by Elfrida Andrée is unfair, as there is no performance material left. In many cases, only a handwritten score remains. There are no instrument parts and the score is barely legible. The symphony exists but it is not in a form that would be useful.
This is where we intervene.
As digital databases of manuscripts have become easily available, it is now possible to browse world libraries and institutions for existing material. It is easy to contact the relevant staff and ask for scanned digital copies of the works. The staff is usually eager to help.
Then comes the labor-intensive part of deciphering the manuscript and turning it into digital notes. Then comes the labor-intensive part of proofreading the digitalized version. Here modern notation software is very useful, as one can listen to the score with reasonably authentic sounds and locate false notes—If the work is tonal and, in our case, it usually is. Then comes the labor-intensive part of preparing a pleasing layout for the score. This is followed by the labor-intensive part of more proofreading. Then comes the labor-intensive part of preparing the instrument parts with a pleasing layout followed by the labor-intensive part of proofreading. Then comes the labor-intensive part of preparing critical editorial comments about the process of turning a manuscript into a score with a pleasing layout. After this, less and less errors persists but they do. Hence, we need our musicians.
The Society's orchestra then rehearses the work and performs it and more and more errors are found and corrected. Lately, quite a few professional orchestras, such as the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Gothenburg Philharmonic, the Wegelius Chamber Orchestra and the Saimaa Sinfonietta have joined us in this pivotal part of the research project that ultimately produces a performance edition that can be offered to worldwide distribution.
Then and only then can the demand to include a particular large-scale work in a concert program be met. We do not strive for quotas, but simply aim to provide an actual choice to perform a piece of music that can then be assessed and reviewed by the musicians, the critics, and the public.
We started the project by trying to assess beforehand if a work was worth digitalizing. We no longer do that, as we have noticed that all the scores we've seen are at least good, solid, interesting and sometimes superb music, and occasionally the best we've heard but we are biased, as the labor-intensive process makes one fall in love with the works.
Who are we? Petteri is the chairperson and takes care of the digitalization and works with the orchestra. Jussi is the layout guy and knows his choirs. Linda keeps us in order. Our musicians come to rehearsals armed with pencils and erasers and mercilessly mark the mistakes and make them fewer. When we hear the music, we all understand that this is a privilege. There's something wrong in the history books and by each note, we are correcting it.
Cohen AI 1987. International encyclopedia of women composers: Volume 2. Books & Music, USA.
Di Laccio G 2018. Inequality in music: women composers by numbers. http://www.drama-musica.com/stories/2018_2019_orchestra_seasons.html.
Dubal D 2003: The Essential Canon of Classical Music. North Point Press.
Larsson MQ, Flyg ML 2015. Repertoarstatistik över arton orkestrar och fem operahusi i Sverige spelåret 2014/15. http://kvast.org/wp-content/uploads/fst_rapport_a4_SMALLFILE.pdf
Öhrström E (1999) Elfrida Andrée: Ett levnadsöde. Prisma, Stockholm.