Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Recital shines a long overdue light on female Canadian composers

Show features the works of nine women composers spanning the past century
shifting composition Clarisse Tonigussi will sing a selection of works composed by Canadian women at The Point Artist-Run Centre on Sunday, Jan. 28. PHOTO submitted

For her graduating recital at the University of Toronto, vocalist Clarisse Tonigussi was tasked with developing a program that ran through the history of Canadian classical music.

The 25-year-old was happy with the final lineup, until she noticed something was missing from the bill.

"It dawned on my after I looked at my program that there wasn't one female composer on it, so I realized I had to change that," Tonigussi says from her Toronto home.

At the 11th hour, she scrapped the entire recital, swapping each piece out with a work by a female composer. It was an education for Tonigussi, who, like a lot of average listeners, wasn't all that familiar with the names of Canadian women composers. Since then, she's made it her mission to change that, launching the Canadian Women Composers Project as a way to shine a light on the contributions women have and continue to make to classical music.

"There's just a lot more recordings of music written by men; it's more accessible," notes Tonigussi. "Compared to male composers, women composers in Canada are often in the minority."

Tonigussi will be exposing The Point audience to some of these pioneering female composers at a recital this weekend alongside Vancouver pianist Matthew Li. The show will take listeners on a tour through the last century of classical composition, from the groundbreaking work of Gena Branscombe to a piece written exclusively for this show by contemporary composer Rebekah Cummings.

"I wanted to give the audience something to grab onto and something to structure the recital around," says Tonigussi of the chronological format of the show.

Tonigussi approached the Canadian Music Centre, which promotes the music of Canadian composers domestically and around the world, for help curating the recital. They sent her back 90 works by female composers, which was just the tip of the iceberg.

"I learned there are a lot of female composers," she says. "And what they sent were just the popular ones!"

Even still, there were noticeable gaps in the timeline. Branscombe, who studied at the Chicago Musical College and won two gold medals for composition, worked primarily in the early 1900s. The next work by a female composer in Tonigussi's recital was written in the 1960s.

"I wanted to show this huge gap between the early 1900s and the 1960s," she explains. "Before the 1960s, the Canadian Music Centre was — and I'm quoting someone who works there — 'a boys' club.'

"If you weren't part of that club, you couldn't really have your music promoted as well as if you were on your own."

Outside of Li, the recital will be an all-women affair, with lyrics written by Canadian female poets, while the elegant gown Tonigussi wears for every show was designed and sewn by Toronto fashion designer Carly Cumpson.

"It just added another element to the project, and it was important to give opportunities to other Canadian female artists," Tonigussi says.

She has already performed as part of the Canadian Women Composers Project in the Maritimes, Quebec, Ontario and Saskatchewan. She feels audiences are particularly primed for the show in the current cultural climate.

"People are open, especially now, to coming to a concert to support Canadian women. There are a lot of women, particularly elderly women, who are really excited about it because in their time they weren't able to hear women composers," Tonigussi says.

The Canadian Women Composers Project recital lands at The Point Artist-Run Centre on Sunday, Jan. 28 at 5 p.m. Doors and cash bar at 4 p.m. Tickets are $20, or $10 for students, available at or at Armchair Books.