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Ethyl Smyth

Why Women Composers can no longer be ignored

By Diana Ambache

Classic fm Magazine, March 2001

You probably know that question about naming five famous Belgians. It can be quite hard. And here's another: can you name five women composers from the past?

Let's see now. Didn't Felix Mendelssohn have a musical sibling? (Fanny was described by Goethe in a letter to Felix as "your equally talented sister"). And wasn't Robert Schumann's wife someone quite important? (Clara was one of the most celebrated piano virtuosos of the 19th century, and she also composed.) Then there was that nun, or was she an Abbess? (Hildegard was also a diplomat, poet, and visionary.) And we mustn't forget the eccentric character who conducted the inmates of Holloway prison with a toothbrush. (Ethel Smyth was a suffragette and composed several operas.) Oh dear, we're still one short. My new web site has details of another twenty two, and the Grove Dictionary of Women Composers lists over eight hundred.

All composers need a champion - someone to perform their music and keep it in the public eye, or rather ear. You can do it for yourself while you're alive, but the trouble is when you die, the interest in your music can disappear. Even Bach's music was forgotten for a century until Mendelssohn (Felix, that is) revived it. That's one reason why I play music by women of the past. I am helping to restore an important chunk of our cultural heritage which would otherwise remain hidden.

So what would we miss out on then? A rich vein of musical expression, in my opinion. Clara Schumann wrote a very beautiful Konzertsatz for piano and orchestra, which has affinities with Robert's Piano Concerto, but is in her own unique vein of thoughtful expressiveness. There is a whole canon of excellent chamber works by Louise Farrenc (there's our fifth composer). Fanny's 400 composition's include a large number of very beautiful songs. When, on a visit to England, Felix offered a selection of songs for Queen Victoria to sing, she picked Italien, whereupon he had to admit it was written by Fanny. Felix's Piano Trio in D minor is a staple of the repertoire, and rightly so. Fanny's Trio, also in D minor, is equally good. I don't think we should miss either of them.

Marianne Martinez Women's music wasn't just for performance in salons. There were Masses, Sonatas, Symphonies, pieces of great interest and merit written in all the genres and through the ages; they aren't as numerous as those by men, since composing was discouraged in women. Marianne Martinez wrote the first classical symphony by a woman. She was a pupil of Haydn's and played duets with Mozart, so kept the best company. However, she had little opportunity to hear her music played by an orchestra, and thus didn't go on to write more. Lili Boulanger has written several works for large orchestra with consummate skill.

The world of music encompasses a huge range, and works by women are as variable as those by men. That means there are some wonderful pieces. When one thinks about what makes a good, worthwhile piece of music - something to preserve - for me it's whether it's beautiful, expressive, and adds to the myriad experiences that our art communicates. Classic fm plays a lot of gorgeous music, and I think there's a lot of equally gorgeous stuff by women that doesn't get played. This is hardly Classic fm's fault, it's because it mostly isn't recorded yet. I am sometimes asked whether there is a female Mozart, and if not why not? Well, there was only one of him, and as well as being a genius, he was brought up living and breathing music, hearing his compositions played by professionals on a daily basis. That's a very rare experience. Everest may be the highest mountain, but we still revel in the beauties of the Lake District.
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