Saturday, May 31, 2014

Ladies of Note ~ Paving the Way

The first female composer was Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) a nun who lived during the middle ages, has long been known as a mystic and author of theological works; in recent years much more attention has been paid to her compositions as well. Hildegard was a prolific writer who wrote several pieces of music. Evidence of her writings has been found and is considered the oldest of female musical compositions. Recordings of her music have become increasingly available in the last few years, and she has captured the imagination of many students of women in music as well as students of the middle ages. (More at Wikipedia)

Later in the Middle-Ages, during the 12th and 13th centuries, there were female troubadours known as trobairitz. Not much is known about these women, since many were anonymous. For the few whose names we do know, a lot of biographical details have been lost. What is interesting is that a number of their love songs were addressed to other women. Most of them still kept up the convention of having the song's "narrator" be male, but there is at least one example  the song Na Maria by Bieris de Romans  where the singer and object are both suggested to be women.

Several centuries later Venice, Italy was the center of the music world, where new genres of vocal music developed during the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods  late 16th and 17th centuries. During this time, another notable female composer, Barbara Strozzi, came onto the scene.

Unlike most women, Strozzi (1619-1677) was encouraged in her musical talents by her adopted father, Giulio Strozzi, a writer who was able to introduce her to Venice's intellectual elite. She was trained and performed as a singer and studied with important composers of the day, such as Francesco Cavalli, one of the early Venetial composers of the then-new genre known as opera. She was one of the most prolific vocal music composers of her time, writing hundreds of music in both traditional genres like madrigals and motets, and in the new genre of the cantata (Italian for "to be sung"), where she was a pioneer.

Giulio Strozzi's proto-feminist sensibilities garnered Strozzi an opportunity that would be closed to most women composers for centuries: getting published. She published eight collections of her vocal works between 1644-1664, seven of which survive. Renowned for both her poetry and her music, she was a woman far ahead of her time, as it would still be several centuries before most women could have serious careers as composers.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847), the sister of the famous composer Felix Mendelssohn, was a German pianist and composer. The two put on concerts together, and Fanny went through a mighty struggle in her life to fight convention and her own family, both of which forbade her to publish her music thinking a musical career inappropriate for a woman of her social class. Her brother praised his sister's abilities but only thought people would pay her pieces attention if he published them under his name, which he often did. 

In 1829, after a courtship of several years, Fanny married the painter Wilhelm Hensel, who was supportive of her composing. Which is why her salons  where she presented her own works, which include over 250 songs and 125 piano pieces  were able to be as influential as they were. 

Her public debut at the piano (and only known public performance) came in 1838, when she played her brother's Piano Concerto No. 1. In 1846 she decided, without consulting her brother, to publish a collection of her own songs. Among her masterpieces are Das Jahr (1841), a group of piano pieces inspired by the twelve months of the year, and her Piano Trio, op. 11, the only one of her ensemble works published in the 19th century (three years after her death.(More at Wikipedia)

Maria Anna Mozart (1751-1829), nicknamed "Nannerl", was the daughter of Leopold Mozart and Anna Maria Pertl and older sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

When she was seven years old, her father started teaching her to play the harpsichord. He took her and Wolfgang on tours of many cities to showcase their talents and, in the early days, she sometimes received top billing, noted as an excellent harpsichord player and forte pianist. However, given the views of her parents, prevalent in her society at the time, it became impossible as she grew older for her to continue her career any further. From 1769 onward she was no longer permitted to show her artistic talent on travels with her brother, as she had reached a marriageable age. In 1783 she wed Johann Baptist Franz von Berchtold zu Sonnerburg, a wealthy local magistrate, with whom she had three children.

Nannerl and Wolfgang were very close and he did not behave competitively with her. It's clear that he encouraged her to compose as there are letters from Wolfgang praising her work. Though Wolfgang was inspired to write music dedicated to his sister she existed, unappreciated, in his shadow and the voluminous correspondence of her father never mentions any of her compositions which have not survived. 

Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896) was a German musician and composer who, in the 19th century, had a fairly illustrious career. She had an ambitious father who taught her piano from an early age and had her touring Europe beginning at age nine, making her one of the era's most famous pianists and earning her the admiration of such big names in the Romantic-era piano world as Chopin and Liszt.

After her marriage to the composer, Robert Schumann, she often found her desire for a career as a touring pianist and composer at odds with her husband's lack of interest in touring himself, and his desire for a more traditional wife. But she didn't let that stop her. In fact, she used her influence as a popular concert pianist to promote her husband's compositions, and was also able to keep their finances afloat with her performing career when Robert's mental and physical health began to deteriorate.

Considered one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era, she exerted her influence over a 61-year concert career, changing the format and repertoire of the piano recital and the tastes of the listening public. She and her husband encouraged Johannes Brahms, and she was the first pianist to give public performances of some of Brahms's works, notably the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. (More at Wikipedia

While Clara was able to get a lot of public exposure for her works, the real ball toward equality for female composers didn't get rolling until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.