The women who changed music

BBC

BBC Culture
COUNTERPOINT| 14 November 2014

(Corbis)(Corbis)

A historian claims Bach’s wife wrote some of his works. That’s up for debate, but these 10 female composers deserve recognition, Clemency Burton-Hill argues.

Scandal threatened to rock the classical music world recently when a music historian named Professor Martin Jarvis reasserted his explosive theory that some of JS Bach’s music was in fact written by his second wife, Anna Magdalena. His new documentary, Written By Mrs Bach, is described on its distributor’s website as a “300 year old mystery and detective story”, which incurs the “wrath of scholars worldwide” as it “challenges and confronts the myths surrounding Johann Sebastian Bach”. Supported by “stunning visual forensic evidence”, it claims that the handwriting in some of the original Bach manuscripts was not that of a mere transcriber or copyist, as we had previously understood Anna Magdalena to be, but bears the hallmarks of a mind in the act of creation.

Over the years, plenty of minor works by JS Bach have been reattributed to others, with little furore. So why is this causing such a stir? Not only are the pieces in question some of Bach’s greatest – including some of the Cello Suites and Well-Tempered Clavier – but the suggestion they might have been written by a woman rather than another man is raising the musical patriarchy’s collective hackles. How could Anna Magdalena have written such sublime things, given she had over a dozen children to attend to, not to mention domestic duties galore? As critic Ivan Hewett notes, Bach’s wife would also “have had to defy one of the strongest prejudices of her era”, namely that “Woman, a lesser sort of being made from Adam’s spare rib, couldn’t possibly be creative. She could sing and play music, but only men could do the serious intellectual business of writing the stuff.” If Professor Jarvis’ thesis turns out to be true, Hewett muses, it “puts a bomb right at the heart of the old patriarchal view of the Western tradition”.

Ever since Hildegard von Bingen in the 12th Century, women – as in other art forms – have made a significant contribution to classical music which has often been overlooked. This is not just a great injustice on an individual level to those creative and brilliant humans, but a shame for music history in general. Whether Anna Magdalena was the ‘real’ Bach behind some of that glorious music or not, let’s hope Professor Jarvis’ arguments can inspire and empower classical-music-inclined females to slip out from their male counterparts’ shadows. Because goodness knows we in classical music need our Beyoncés and our Taylor Swifts more than ever. Here are 10 undersung female composers who should be recognised for their contributions to the classical canon.

1. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

The original multitasking female, Hildegard wrote over 70 musical works. Her Ordo Virtutum – which features melodies for the ‘human soul’ and 16 Virtues, but keeps the role of the devil quiet – is the oldest surviving morality play, a genre which went on to grip the imaginations of generations of leading male writers including Nicolas de la Chesnaye. Hildegard was also a writer, philosopher, mystic, visionary and a Benedictine abbess who founded two monasteries. One busy, and mightily impressive, medieval lady.

2. Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)

In 2014, women in classical music, just as in almost every other industry you could care to name, are still generally paid less than their male counterparts. Perhaps the situation would have been even more iniquitous, though, had it not been for the fight put up by Louise Farrenc. A pianist so talented that some of the leading musical lights of the day wanted to teach her – including the composers Moscheles and Hummel – her own compositions were also widely celebrated. Star performers such as virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim were eager to perform her works in public. Farrenc was a brilliant performer, yet for a decade she was paid less than her male counterparts. She continued to demand equal pay: a fight for basic equality on which she never gave up.

3. Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)

Fanny composed almost 500 works, many of which are intimate little masterpieces, including her chamber music, piano works and gorgeous song settings. She also had a talented brother. And guess what? Many of her works were originally published under Felix’s name. It’s assumed that Felix essentially created the ‘song without words’ genre, but some historians assert that Fanny came up with the idea.

4. Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

The piano-store owner, critic and musician Friedrich Wieck was enlightened enough to teach his young daughter Clara piano and composition. She wrote her first piano concerto at the age of 14, when most of her peers would have been being primed for marriage and childbearing. She went on to become one of the most distinguished performing artists of her day, with a career spanning more than six decades, but lost confidence in herself as a composer. Could this have been because by then she was firmly in the shadow of her more famous husband, Robert Schumann? “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea,” she said. “A woman must not desire to compose – there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?” To which I, for one, find myself bellowing back through the centuries: yes, Clara, yes, you should have expected precisely that, and it is our loss that you gave up hope!

5. Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)

As in other genres – literature, art, engineering, physics – I dream of a day in which we no longer need to describe anyone as a ‘Female [insert profession name]’. The leading composer Ambroise Thomas was an early trail-blazer of this idea when he said of Cécile Chaminade: “This is not a woman who composes, but a composer who is a woman.” She was a prodigious talent, playing some of her music to Georges Bizet when she was just eight, and went onto produce piano music, songs, ballet music and impressive orchestral works – all of which have been largely ignored since.

6. Amy Beach (1867-1944)

Imagine if Beyoncé, after tying the knot with Jay-Z, had said, “Okay, Jay, now that I’m married, I promise to limit myself to just one charity performance per year.” Amy Beach was an accomplished pianist before her marriage forced her back inside the domestic realm.  After her husband’s death, she returned to the keyboard and toured Europe and America, playing her own compositions to huge acclaim. Her music includes a terrific Mass in E-flat major, a violin sonata, and the ‘Gaelic’ Symphony, which tapped into the rich contemporary heritage of Irish-American music.

7. Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)

There is an amazing picture of Tailleferre standing amid a group of male composers including Francis Poulenc and Maurice Ravel. The only woman in the group of French composers known as Les Six, she blithely ignored any prejudice against her gender and kept composing interesting music – including piano concertos, a harp concertino and some magnificent ballet music – throughout the 20th Century’s many shifts in style. She was still writing and playing the piano until the day she died at age 91.

8. Lili & Nadia Boulanger (1893-1918; 1887-1979)

Gabriel Fauré discovered little Lili had perfect pitch when she was two years old. At 19 she won the coveted Prix de Rome for her composition Faust et Hélène, becoming the first female composer ever to do so. She died tragically young, and the asteroid 1181 Lilith was named in her honour. Her older sister Nadia went on to teach many of the leading (male) composers of the 20th century including Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Quincy Jones and Philip Glass, as well as conductors John Eliot Gardiner and Daniel Barenboim.  The soundscape of contemporary music would be much the poorer without her genius.

9. Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)

When conductor Thomas Beecham went to visit Ethel Smyth in Holloway Prison, where she had been jailed for two months in 1912 after breaking a window, he found her conducting a group of fellow suffragettes and prisoners with her toothbrush. An ardent feminist and tireless activist for women’s rights, her composition March of the Women became an anthem for the suffragettes. Smyth serves as a reminder that we have come far – but not far enough.

10. Judith Weir (1954-)

The title says it all: Master of the Queen’s Music. Would they change it to ‘Mistress’, I wondered earlier this year, when a woman was offered the post for the first time since it was formalised in 1626? They didn’t, and the critic David Mellor asked: “Is this a job she is capable of doing?” That’s a question I struggle to imagine anyone asking of a male composer.

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