“Freed from the shackles and tatters of the old tradition and prejudice, American and European women in music are now universally hailed as important factors in the concert and teaching fields and as … fast developing assets in the creative spheres of the profession.”
This affirmation was made in 1935 by Frédérique Petrides, the Belgian-born female violinist, conductor, teacher and publisher who was a pioneering advocate for women in music. Some 80 years on, it’s gratifying to note how her words have been rewarded with substance when browsing through the Naxos catalogue of female classical composers.
Petrides was able to look back on the foundations laid by those who were well-connected by family name, such as Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn–Hensel, and survey the crop of composers active in her own time, including Louise Talma and Amy Beach in America, Rebecca Clarke and Liza Lehmann in England, Nadia Boulanger in France and Lou Koster in Luxembourg. She could hardly have foreseen, however, the creative explosion in the latter half of the 20th century generated by a whole new raft of female composers—a happy development that continues today—nor the proliferation of female directors on the podium securing acclaimed performances from international orchestras.
This Thought for the Week, then, will be an inevitably token snapshot of the profession’s indebtedness to female composers (female performers would fill numerous editions all of their own) and, as our catalogue devoted to them carries a picture of Clara Schumann (1819–1896) on the front cover, that seems a good place to start.
A talented and well-respected pianist, Clara Schumann was also a composer who had begun composing as a child and continued through her middle years. She wrote a small number of works for orchestra and instrumental ensemble, including an early piano concerto and a later piano concertino. The greater part of her music for piano was written before her marriage. Her only sonata, however, came about as a present to her husband. After Robert Schumann’s death, she devoted herself primarily to the performance of her late husband’s works, and less on composing. Here’s an extract from the opening movement of her Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 17 (8.557552).
For many years Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805–1847) was known only as a footnote in the history of music, if she was known at all. Even now, the fame of her younger brother Felix far eclipses her own—despite the fact that she was a gifted composer in her own right. Piano pieces and songs make up the bulk of her compositions, which number around five hundred. Considered by her contemporaries to be a ‘salon’ composer, such small-scale works as these were a socially acceptable outlet for her talents. They reveal innate lyricism and a respect for traditional harmony and forms, but also a strongly individual streak, as heard in her Allegro molto agitato in D minor (8.570825).
Louise Talma (1906–1996) was the foremost American neo-classical composer. In her day she was highly acknowledged in the United States and collected numerous important awards. She was also the first American woman to have an opera performed at a major European opera house; the 1962 premiere of The Alcestiad received a twenty-minute standing ovation. Here’s the opening of her single-movement Full Circle (8.559236), written in 1985 and scored for chamber orchestra.
Amy Beach was the first American woman to succeed as a composer of large-scale musical works. The most frequently performed composer of her generation, she became famous in both the United States and Europe. Born in 1867, she was married at the age of eighteen to Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, M.D, twenty-five years her senior, who replaced her parents as the authority figure. Composition, said Henry, was to be her métier but, denied a teacher, she had to teach herself orchestration and composition, which she did with remarkable success. Here’s part of the finale from her Piano Concerto in C sharp minor (8.559139).
Two of this year’s GRAMMY Awards went to a recording of music by Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962), who is one of America’s most performed living composers. The award for Best Classical Compendium went to a programme of her music that comprised All Things Majestic, Viola Concerto and Oboe Concerto (8.559823). The Viola Concerto from that recording also received the award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. All Things Majestic is a four-movement suite which vividly captures the breathtaking beauty of the American landscape. “The third [Snake River],” Higdon explains, “represents the rapid flow and unpredictability of the rivers and streams … ever-changing and powerful, yet at times gentle.” Here it is.
Back to Europe, specifically to the UK, and the music of Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979) whose colourful, early life is well worth researching if you have the time, moulded as it was by her gender and Victorian upbringing. One of Stanford’s first female composition students at London’s Royal College of Music, her entry for a composition competition in 1919 prompted reporters to exclaim that it simply could not have been written by a woman! The work in question was her Viola Sonata (8.557934). It was awarded First Prize. Here’s the opening of the work.
Finally (it’s more difficult to know where to stop than to start with this subject) to the music of the American composer Joan Tower and music from her Triple-Whammy-Grammy disc, which won the awards for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, Best Classical Album and Best Orchestral Performance. The composition that captured so much attention was Made in America (8.559328), a fantasy on the theme of the country’s unofficial national anthem, America the Beautiful. It was commissioned by a consortium of 65 regional orchestras with the help of the American Symphony Orchestra League and the Ford Motor Company Fund. It didn’t take long for Made in America to receive performances in all fifty states, an unprecedented achievement for a brand-new composition. We’ll let the closing section play us out this week.