Bach, Mozart, Beethoven: most people are familiar with these composers’ names. Other composers that may be a favourite to those following the Western art tradition are Frédéric Chopin, Franz Schubert, and Felix Mendelssohn. If you dabble in electronic music, you may even be familiar with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis. However, name your favourite female composer. Just one… Are you drawing a blank?
If so, you are not alone. The interest in women in music has been lacking for centuries. It has been a particular annoyance in the area of music composition. When was the last time you encountered a performance on a Lili Boulanger’s work? I have yet to find a concert programme on Fanny Mendelssohn’s compositions. Have you? However, your next classical concert will be enriched with the sounds of Bach, Schubert, or Gustav Mahler. Sprinkle a few more concerts with a dash of Richard Wagner, Robert Schumann, or Hector Berlioz and the crowds are sent home thinking they have experienced the pinnacle of Western art music.
Luckily, the recent movement towards a more inclusive and accepting society has given rise to research on the contributions of “the other” – historically marginalised peoples in mainstream society, or members outside of it. If you are looking to learn more about women in music, let this be your primer into the little known world of female composers. Yes, we have existed for centuries, but have been obscured not only by a lack of interest but also by a culture that has held limited beliefs on women’s musical (and technological) abilities and what their ‘proper’ roles in society should entail.
This is a 3-part series introducing nine women who followed their passion for composing music despite societal conventions, some defying expectations while others succumbing to it.
Hildegard von Bingen
In Hildegard’s times, only those that were part of the church had access to education. For women in the church, they were excluded from the priesthood – like today – and were to be silent. However, the only place that allowed women to be educated and have a voice was in a monastery. Hildegard demonstrated that not only would she be heard, but she would influence leaders of the church and state. Rare for a woman of her time, Hildegard was a polymath and wrote on matters of philosophy, zoology, botany, theology, and other subjects. She was also a mystic and chronicled her visions. Hildegard von Bingen gave the world a repertoire of monophonic chants that pushed compositional style forward, offering medieval sacred music a fresh makeover.
In 2012, the Roman Catholic Church canonized Hildegard von Bingen and named her Doctor of the Church, one of four women in all of Catholic history to be given such honour.
“Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may inspire in the Church holy and courageous women like Saint Hildegard of Bingen who, developing the gifts they have received from God, make their own special and valuable contribution to the spiritual development of our communities and of the Church in our time.” – Pope Benedict XVI
(Hildegard von Bingen = “Ordo Virtutum”, ca. 1151)
Fanny Mendelssohn was the older sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn, a pillar in the Romantic Era. Fanny showed just as much compositional talent as her brother but unfortunately was constrained by the attitudes of her day. As a lady of society, she could not pursue music as a profession, only as a hobby:
“Music will perhaps become his (Felix’s) profession, while for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing…” – Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy, father
Felix did publish some of his sister’s works under his famous Songs for Voice and Piano (Opus 8 and Opus 9). Fanny was equally supported by her husband, painter Wilhelm Hensel, who encouraged her to compose every day. Although Fanny died at a young age, she did live to see attitudes for women composers begin to change.
(Fanny Mendelssohn = “Ostersonate” (“Easter Sonata”), ca. 1828)
As time has pushed forward, Clara Wieck Schumann has become a subject of fascination and intrigue. She was one of the great pianists of her time and also took care of the business affairs of her performances and of her husband’s career, Robert Schumann, a composer of significant stature from the Romantic Era. Clara’s compositional talent was encouraged by her father, a notable piano teacher, and her husband. Clara Wieck’s middle-class position allowed her as a woman to work as a musician and publish her compositions under her name, unlike Fanny Mendelssohn, who was restricted because of her social status. Although Clara enjoyed over a 60-year career as a performer and piano teacher, her career as a composer ended at the age of 36. Women’s compositions were considered moody and not considered note-worthy. Three years after Robert Schumann’s death, Clara abandoned composing:
“I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea, a woman must not desire to compose – there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?” – Clara Schumann
(Clara Schumann = “3 Romances, Op.22”, ca. 1853)
To learn more about these composers, please check out my Spotify list containing some of their works. Next time, stay tuned for three more women composers whose works and importance are being re-discovered.