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Polytechnic peoples palace mandoline guitar band 1899 crystal palace

Female composer Clara Ross’ overlooked success

What were the first musical instruments to be regularly played in public concerts by entire orchestras of British women? The answer may surprise you. From the mid-1880s until the First World War, hundreds of “Ladies’ Guitar and Mandolin Bands” flourished throughout Britain, including several consisting entirely of female members of the aristocracy. Their performances (often in the country’s most prestigious concert halls) were enthusiastically reviewed in the press, their repertoire included symphonies, orchestral overtures, and operatic excerpts, and the largest bands often had more than fifty members, sometimes more than a hundred. Yet the very existence of these female bands has been entirely ignored by most music historians.

These orchestras mostly played music by male composers, and usually had male conductors, but there was one notable exception: “Miss Clara Ross’ Ladies’ Mandolin and Guitar Band”, which performed music composed by its leader, and appeared at many of London’s most fashionable music venues during the 1890s. Clara’s formidable body of original and melodious compositions has, until now, been entirely overlooked by musicologists, so here are ten facts about the life and work of this successful and versatile composer, which should help to put her back on the musical map.

  1. Clara Louisa Ross was born on 1 July 1858 into a prosperous family of shopkeepers at 129, St James’s Street, Brighton (where lettering reading “Ross & Sons, Hosiers, Outfitters” can still be seen on the first-floor window). She studied piano and singing as a child, and on 24 June 1877 she won a scholarship to the National Training School for Music in Kensington (London), following an audition before Sir Arthur Sullivan.
129 St James’s Street Brighton, where Clara Ross spent part of her childhood. Image via author’s personal collection.
  1. Clara entered the NTSM (which later became the Royal College of Music) on 24 September 1877, to study singing, piano, harmony, and composition. She left at Easter 1882 “with the highest honour” in singing, “with honour” in piano, and “with great credit” in harmony.
  1. She remained in Kensington to embark upon a career as a composer and music teacher, publishing her first song for voice and piano in 1885, and describing her occupation as “composer of music” in the 1891 census. Here is a performance of one of her songs, “An Old Sorrow” (1901).
  1. When the mandolin started to become popular amongst British women in the 1880s, she quickly mastered the instrument and began to teach it in Kensington, which then (as now) was one of London’s most fashionable districts. An advertisement in The Morning Post of 8 November 1894 stated that “Miss Clara Ross’s Mandolin and Guitar Band Practises every alternate Tuesday. Lessons given in Mandolin, Piano, Singing, Harmony – White’s Music Library, 27 High Street, Kensington.”
Clara Ross, c. 1888-90. [Image Credit: Courtesy of Andrew Ross.]
Clara Ross, c. 1888-90. Image courtesy of Andrew Ross.
  1. During the 1890s, Clara composed and published about fifty pieces for mandolin (several are marked “mandolin or violin”) and piano (usually with an alternative guitar accompaniment), mostly through the publishing company of John Alvey Turner. These works possess a musical depth and sophistication that set them apart from the vast quantity of mostly trivial mandolin music being composed in Britain at this time, and proved popular with the British public, being widely performed by other mandolin ensembles (as well as by Clara’s own band), and by other soloists.
Front cover and first page of “Sicilienne” by Clara Ross, published in 1893. Image via author’s personal collection.
  1. Her band regularly performed these pieces in London’s concert halls. The Musical Standard (16 December 1893) reviewed one of these concerts at Queen’s Gate Hall, and noted that “Amongst other pieces they performed some clever compositions of Miss Clara Ross, one of which, ‘Sicilienne’, is brilliant, melodious, and excellently suited to the capability of the instruments.” On 4 July 1893, The Times reported that her band had performed the previous day before royalty at Westminster Town Hall. Here is a performance of Clara Ross’s exhilarating, Spanish-tinged “Air de Ballet”:
  1. Despite her growing success as a mandolinist and composer in London, Clara emigrated to the United States in 1895, to marry an Irish operatic bass who she had first met at music college: Richard Atkins Griffin, now pursuing a singing career in the Pittsburgh area under the name of Riccardo Ricci.
  1. The couple settled in Wheeling, West Virginia, where Clara put the mandolin aside, and became a successful singing teacher (under her married name of Clara Ross-Ricci). She continued to compose songs for female voice and piano, as well as trios for women’s voices and piano, including this fine setting of Shakespeare: “Orpheus with his Lute”.
  1. After the First World War (and her husband’s death), Clara returned to the UK and to her native Brighton. She was now a fairly wealthy woman (thanks to some shrewd investments, as well as her successful career as a composer and teacher), and lived comfortably in retirement in Brighton until her death in 1954.
  1. With more than seventy published works of a consistently high quality to her name, it’s high time that Clara’s beautiful music was brought to a wider audience, and that this pioneering woman composer of songs, vocal trios, and instrumental music was given the recognition she deserves.
Clara Ross c. 1900. [Image credit: Author’s Collection.]
Clara Ross c. 1900. Image via author’s personal collection.

Headline Image: Polytechnic Peoples Palace Mandoline Guitar Band in 1899 at the Crystal Palace. via Wikimedia Commons

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