My Year of Women Composers

Things I wonder about: did Fanny meekly accept her father’s pronouncement? Or did she seethe with rage at the unfairness of it?

By Miranda Wilson

I made a New Year’s Resolution today. 2019 is going to be the year that I explore, learn, perform, teach, and promote music by women composers.

I’ve always known women could be composers, because my late great-aunt, Dorothy Freed, was one of New Zealand’s first. “The grandmother of us all,” she often said proudly.

This being the case, I find it hard to explain why I haven’t actually played a lot of music by women before. My weak excuse is that I…didn’t think of it.

Once, aged about 18 and filled with newfound enthusiasm for feminism, I asked Dorothy if she had ever faced sexist discrimination in the music profession. “No,” she said immediately, “it was hard to get your music heard, whoever you were.”

“Would you describe yourself as a feminist?” I persisted.

“A what?”

“You know, a women’s libber,” I said.

“Heavens, no! Bunch of silly women,” came the dismissive reply. Then she was silent for a minute. “There was this one time, though,” she said thoughtfully. “I applied for a postgraduate scholarship to study in Italy, and the head of music [at Victoria University of Wellington] said ‘Dorothy has a husband and children. If she wants to go to Italy, let him pay for it.’ Never mind that we were on the brink of divorce.”

Dorothy never let anything stop her, and she went to study in Europe anyway — with Elisabeth Lutyens and Peter Racine Fricker, among others — but had to self-finance her studies by working as a secretary and librarian. While her male contemporaries got comfortable incomes from university teaching positions (for which they were often hired on a handshake) and had helpmeet spouses at home to take care of their laundry and their dinner, Dorothy enjoyed none of these privileges. Nothing stopped her from composing, but her output is much smaller than it might have been had she had the support that male composers of her generation took for granted.

I have long wanted to honour Dorothy’s memory, and have started to do so with the publication of a major research project in the New Zealand literary journal Ka Mate Ka Ora. But I wanted to do more. Hence my Year of Women Composers.

Some recent events were all the inspiration I needed. Throughout 2017 and 2018, I followed the progress of the Composer Diversity Database, which sought to increase the visibility and accessibility of groups that have historically been underrepresented in the field. Around the same time, a cellist friend compiled a widely-circulated Google spreadsheet of cello pieces by women composers. I no longer had any excuse for not performing more music by women.

I’ve only partly explained why I’m doing this. Let me put it this way: whenever you get into a discussion with People Who Are Wrong On The Internet on the subject of women composers, someone always butts in to say “Why should we care if the composer is a woman? Why not choose repertoire that’s just good music?” This person, by the way, always considers themself an objective, impartial arbiter of what music is good and what isn’t, and — surprise! — their default idea of who’s a good composer usually looks like a man. A white man.

This is deeply, deeply irritating to me. These people (let’s call them PWAWOTI) have seldom stopped to consider the obstacles women in music have been up against. If they weren’t barred from conservatories and universities, they were talked down to, patronized, infantilized, forbidden from the concert stage, assumed to be non-serious. Their oppressors and dismissers weren’t always anti-feminist ogres: even the so-called feminist Camille Paglia notoriously wrote in Sexual Personae (1990): “There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.”

After finishing Anna Beer’s Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, I read biographies of Clara Schumann and Fanny Hensel that explained a lot about why there hadn’t been a female Mozart. Consider this letter to Hensel from her father, Abraham Mendelssohn — who had, by this stage, uncomplainingly paid massive amounts of money for the education of his brilliant children:

“Music will perhaps become [Felix Mendelssohn’s] profession, whilst for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing.”

Musical training is expensive to acquire, but Hensel’s high social status might, paradoxically, be the reason she wasn’t supposed to become professional. Such a thing would reflect poorly on a wealthy family — the idea of a woman having to earn money might make it look like they couldn’t support her.

Clara Schumann, who came from a lower social class than Fanny Hensel, was trained by her father Friedrich Wieck (the original helicopter parent/tiger father…or is that Leopold Mozart?), to become professional from an early age. She had no choice about whether to earn money from music. She had to, since she had a sick husband and seven children to support. Even so, her money had to come from her gifts as a pianist, and she barely had time to compose a thing after early middle age.

To my shame, I really hadn’t heard much of Clara Schumann’s music until 2018, when my pianist colleague Yoon-Wha Roh suggested that we learn the Piano Trio in G Minor Op. 17 to commemorate her bicentenary in 2019.

Well, I fell in love. What an incredible piece — a darkly passionate first movement, a Mendelssohnian (Felix or Fanny!) scherzo, an utterly gorgeous slow movement that tears my heart in two every time, and a finale that I can only describe as wildly exciting. I suddenly remembered that the musicology professor who supervised my doctoral dissertation at the University of Texas had often opined that Clara Schumann was a better composer than her husband, but for some reason I never believed it until now. This amazing trio reminded me instantly of Robert Schumann’s three trios — but I didn’t realize until reading Judith Chernaik’s recent biography of Schumann a couple of weeks ago that Clara’s trio actually predates them. What an influence she must have been on him!

OK, that was it — no more excuses, it was time to seek out the music of women composers, learn it, perform it, assign it to my students, programme it everywhere.

To start with, I thought of the “template” I’d usually use for a cello-piano or solo cello recital: begin with something splashy that I know I can play well so I can work my nerves off on it; follow it with a substantial piece by a living or at least relatively modern composer; intermission; then a second half that features a romantic warhorse that will ensure the audience won’t go home at intermission.

Then I figured out how I could substitute compositions by women for all the ones by men that comprise the cellistic canon. Here’s what I came up with. It’s incomplete, but it’s a start:

Instead of Barber’s cello sonata, play Rebecca Clarke’s own transcription for cello of her viola sonata.

Instead of a Beethoven sonata, play Louise Farrenc’s sonata.

Instead of one of Beethoven’s two sets of variations on themes by Mozart, play Helene Liebmann’s sonata, whose last movement is a set of variations on La ci darem.

Instead of Brahms’ E minor sonata, play Ethel Smyth’s A minor sonata.

Instead of a Britten cello suite, play Elizabeth Maconchy’s Variations on a Theme from Vaughan Williams’ Job or Imogen Holst’s The Fall of the Leaf.

Instead of Fauré’s Sicilenne, play Maria Theresia von Paradis’ Sicilienne. (There’s some doubt about its authorship, but play it anyway, because it’s a gorgeous piece.)

Instead of Franck’s sonata, play Mélanie Bonis’ sonata.

Instead of Ligeti’s solo sonata, play Sofia Gubaidulina’s Ten Preludes.

Instead of Felix Mendelssohn’s D major sonata, play Luise Le Beau’s D major sonata.

Instead of Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, play Fanny Hensel’s Fantasie and Capriccio.

Instead of Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies in English Folksong, play Rebecca Clarke’s Passacaglia.

I realize I’ve only included one living composer here, and that’s kind of deliberate because in many ways it’s easier to access the music of someone whose music is in print and who may be contactable. I’m always looking for fantastic new pieces by living women, and am currently practising some works by Augusta Read Thomas, Graciane Finzi, and my colleague Ruby Fulton for upcoming performances.

For the forgotten women composers of the past, however, it’s actually quite hard to get hold of their scores, since they’re often long out of print. I tried unsuccessfully to buy Imogen Holst’s The Fall of the Leaf and ended up having to perform it from an interlibrary loan score. Thanks to IMSLP, some women composers of longer ago, including some I’d never heard of such as Bonis and Liebmann, have become available to us. But the old editions can be hard to read, and even modern printings — such as Hildegard Press’s “edition” (really a reprint from the original nineteenth-century plates) of the Farrenc sonata — aren’t much better. Will someone make some more accessible scholarly performing editions of these forgotten treasures before they’re lost forever as footnotes in the history of composition?

I’m no editor, so this task shouldn’t fall to me, but I can and will perform their wonderful music, and hope to record much of it. Stay tuned for more. Happy New Year, everyone.


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