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Music by Women: it’s important we know and teach the truth

Some thoughts inspired by a recent experience and a great playlist

I was recently talking to a group of talented and aspiring young composers (female and male), about the great myth around 'women composers.'

They were knowledgeable and intelligent people, but knew hardly any of the prolific and great composers from my list - because all the names were female.


Being astute, they were very much aware of the subjugation and limitations that our patriarchal history has always imposed on women, and for this reason they hadn't needed to think twice about why their repertoire and music-history education was virtually all male. Makes sense, doesn't it?


But no! - That is only part of the truth.  We may have got past the once-common belief that women can't compose, and have reduced the patronisation about their 'feminine music' that they have put up with and still experience, but we perpetuate the legacy of these ideas when we presume that all women in history have been prevented from professionally composing or not been able to develop their art.

How many times have you heard that women composers before the 20th Century were invariably stifled and came to nothing? 

Certainly, it has been the overwhelmingly normal story.  The oppression and repression of women through the ages, and perhaps particularly in the 19th Century, has been really staggering in its forcefulness, passionate drive, violence, and support across all sectors of society.  Women who have managed to develop their art to a point of greatness and mastery, and to achieve a professional or even international reputation, have always had to sacrifice everything else to it and suffer.  Even then, it has demanded of them continuous grit and perseverance.  Any number of women have indeed been stopped in this way.  Even now, in our very different times, the balance of expectations tends to suppose that a woman will first and foremost commit herself to her family, even that this is in her genes, and she may be treated as a perverse anomaly if she doesn't.

However, many female composers, pushing through all this, have gained not only success in the concert hall and publishing, but also international renown and respect, through the centuries.

This is all the more amazing considering the adversity they had to battle through and what they had to sacrifice.  Barbara Strozzi, for example, along with many of her now-forgotten contemporaries, was able to compose prolifically and famously but only because she was a courtesan. This meant that she was owned by an aristocrat who could literally command over whether she live or die.

The legacy of the 19th Century

Then along came the 19th Century, the age of 'progress,' institutionalisation, systematisation, and hand-in-hand with these, the setting-in-stone of absolutist official sexism. Diverse spheres of life and commerce that had been open to women, and many that had been predominantly women's realm (such as many 'cottage industries') became men's realm because industrial, commercial and cultural activity was now to be the domain of men. Increasingly, artists were not patronised by the rich but made their own professional living, on their own terms, selling their own service - something that had become completely out of the question for women.

The 19th Century was the time when loose social classes were turned into rigid pre-set castes, not only the working, middle and upper ones but also in all the other dimensions:  vague racial ideas were set into pseudo-scientific racial theory, new knowledge of evolution was turned directly into ‘social Darwinism’ and then eugenics; it became a matter of absolutely normal belief that skull-shape indicated a person’s character and abilities; and the idea of the criminal class, and the inherently criminal person, came about.  The capacity and role of a woman were set down in just the same way. 

The 19th Century thus not only attacked women composers with really unbelievable ferocity – training otherwise-good men to believe adamantly that their art must take precedence over the womanly ideas of their wives – but also did its best to edit out women from the previous history of music.  For that was precisely the era that began the chronicling of art history –  theage that ceased to be concerned only with the fashions of the moment and to revere (sometimes even in the language of worship) those past masters whom it deemed to be ‘Great.’  Alas, it was inconceivable anyone female could have been significant – or even worthy of any note at all – in the progressive advancement and sophistication of European art which they grandly envisioned.  To many thinkers, women composers were a sort of perversion.

Thus, it has been left to us in more recent times to dig out the existence and the oeuvres of the great pre-19th-Century figures who didn’t happen to be male. 

To be sure, there are always too many composers, writers and artists for all of them to well-remembered, but the names of a multitude of so-called ‘minor’ names (composers whose works were either not pivotal or outstanding, or were excellent and very interesting but posthumously didn’t make it onto a pedestal) have been remembered all along and frequently come up in the repertoire. 

Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen, by contrast, was a star pupil of one of the music-school orphanages in Vivaldi-era Venice, and a celebrity guest at Paris’s prestigious private royal concerts, published prolifically, was received in London as a VIP, and lived a long and creative life as composer and performer – far outstripping her husband who hoped to hitch an easy ride on the back of her reputation but didn’t do well.  Yet we knew nothing of her till recently and most copies of her many published concertos, sonatas, quartets and so on are still facsimiles of the labyrinthine 18th-Century handwritten manuscripts. 

Marianna Martinez was similarly famous, composing many major works in the Classical style of her age, with people travelling from all over Europe to her salon in Vienna.  Her family lived with the librettist Metastasio, a great influence on her, and then took in the penniless young Joseph Haydn as a guest – they mutually supported each other and he was a lifelong friend.  Yet we do not know about her.  Nor, generally, about her contemporary Austrian Marie-Therèse von Paradis who did not let her blindness prevent her from a composing career, nor generally very much about Maria Szymanowska, one of the 19th Century’s first professional virtuoso pianists and one of the first to perform memorized repertoire in public (well before Liszt and Clara Schumann) – yet Szymanowska wrote the very first Concert Etudes and Nocturnes in Poland and was the inspiration in this for Chopin.


Soon after, Fanny Hensel was having to publish her works under the name of her brother, Felix Mendelssohn; internationally touring virtuoso pianist and composer Clara Schumannwas lectured by her husband Robert that the life of a composer-performer was now only for him - they had been each other's muses and fans during their passionate engagement, 'but it's different in marriage -' he wrote to her - 'because then there is the cooking to do!'  Louise Farrenc struggled against the odds to become the first woman professor (of composition) at the Paris Conservatoire... and the last, for an extremely long time.  Rebecca Clarke had to estrange herself completely from her violently furious father and leave the house with no living and no accommodation, after he sabotaged her graduation from the Royal Academy.  And yes, up till the end of the 19th Century virtually all the names I could offer you here have been from outside Britain.  It really does speak about the culture here, I belive.

“She was famous!”

One of the young composers I was talking with looked lost in thought for a long while, and then burst out ‘She was famous!’  This was about Sirmen, and I think we were all moved by the expression of pride and indignation in this realisation that we – ourselves, our own generation, even the young among us – have been taught that these careers simply couldn’t have happened.  The knowledge of the people, their sacrifice, their labour, their lifelong dedication to their art, and their wonderful music itself, has been kept from us.  It has been kept from us, and so have the names of so many composers who were black or not European, because we are still living in the shadow of that caste-bound age.  Even if we live beyond this shadow, we will always live in the age of humankind with its unending patriarchies, denigrations, hierarchies, castes, outcasts, blacklists, scapegoats, repressions and evils.

Listening recommendation

The Spotify playlist ‘Music by Women’ which is inspiring me to write all this, compiled by Natalia Williams-Wandoch, is an absolute joy to listen to.  As with any playlist, you can stop part-way through and resume at another time, or listen all the way through since it is painstakingly curated to work beautifully that way.  I found the opening incredibly compelling (what a piano concerto – surely ought to be top repertoire!) and the whole sequence kept that up.  The composers are mostly 19th-21st Century, and Natalia mentioned in her Instagram post that she hopes to expand the list and suggestions for additions to the playlist are welcome - but please listen to the playlist and specify where in it you think your proposed track should go!

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