There is a saying in the classical music world that "Anonymous was a woman," the implication being that many works attributed only to "Anon." may indeed have been composed by females during centuries in which a woman's place was not ...
There is a saying in the classical music world that "Anonymous was a woman," the implication being that many works attributed only to "Anon." may indeed have been composed by females during centuries in which a woman's place was not thought to be at the piano, composing.
Practically no classical music is attributed to women before the 1800s, when Robert Schumann's wife Clara and Felix Mendelssohn's sister Fanny wrote some excellent piano pieces.
Even the Mendelssohn family, so educated, so broad minded, so open to new ideas, repressed Fanny Mendelssohn's talents. This is not in doubt, because the repression was sometimes done in writing and the letters survive. Her father said music could be Felix's profession "but for you it can and must be an ornament only." Felix himself said publishing under her own name would disrupt her duties as a housewife "and I can't say I approve."
Clara Schumann may be said to have repressed her own compositions to a degree because she devoted herself to promoting her husband's music, especially after he died - and she lived 40 years past that tragedy. Only a few works by Clara and Fanny are readily available but in both cases it is immediately evident that these were authentic voices. (Clara's music doesn't sound like Robert's and Fanny's doesn't sound like Felix's.)
Amy Beach, who was in her thirties when the 20th century began, was a child prodigy who married a prominent Boston surgeon. This gifted pianist thereafter gave a single concert annually, always for charity, and otherwise composed, with her husband's support. She called herself Mrs. H.H.A. Beach and saw her works performed and praised. Her much older husband died in 1910 and she sailed to Europe, concertizing there for three years before returning. She enjoyed, if not equal treatment in the modern sense, at least recognition and praise for her compositions for 30 more years.
In the Roaring Twenties, Paris became congenial to a few female composers. Germaine Tailleferre was one of Les Six, with Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric and Louis Durey. Ravel befriended and mentored her. She lived alternately in France and America and continued to compose until her death in 1983, and each new recording whets the appetite for more of her work.
Lili Boulanger, a contemporary of Tailleferre but one who died in her twenties, was the sister of Nadia Boulanger who taught so many American composers. Her limited output includes some excellent pieces. If you like Impressionist music it will please you, but that's a poor attempt to describe her particular brand of music.
This week on my public radio show I'll feature pieces by all of these composers, along with Meredith Monk, Lucie Vallere, Pamela Harrison, Rebecca Clarke, Joan Tower, Sofia Gubaidulina and other composers who have to be women.
"Howard's Day Off" airs live 5am-7am HST Saturdays on KHPR Honolulu, KKUA Wailuku (Maui) and KANO Hilo (Big Island) and streams live on www.hawaiipublicradio.org . Max Cacas posts these essays on the Day Off page on Facebook.
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