Lots of people have hobbies like knitting, jogging, or stamp collecting. Because I am the nerdiest nerd to ever nerd, the closest thing I have to a hobby is learning about the history of women in music. It’s a topic that doesn’t get as much press as the old chestnuts like “classical music is dying” or “Stradivari’s secret varnish” or “lockouts.” Nonetheless, once in a while the mainstream media will run articles about women composers, and when they do, I enjoy reading what other people have to say on the topic.
Today a very special article ran in the conservative British magazine The Spectator. It’s called “There’s A Good Reason Why There Are No Great Women Composers.” I’m not going to link to it for reasons that will gradually become obvious to you.
Last week a 17-year-old girl forced the Edexcel exam board to change its A-level music syllabus to include the work of women composers.
Wow. A 17-year-old girl forced the Edexcel exam board to change its A-level music syllabus? How did she do this? Did she hack an extensive computer network? Did she threaten the board and then hold it hostage? Did she storm their office with firearms and issue terrifying proclamations with her foot resting upon the skulls of her enemies?
The truth is actually far more frightening: she began a change.org petition.
Little known fact: when someone issues a change.org petition, the person the petition is addressed to is forced to give in to petitioners’ demands. As we all know, that’s how 8,763 Americans managed to impeach Barack Obama.
A delicate question lies at the heart of the subject of female composers, and it’s not ‘Why are they so criminally underrepresented in the classical canon?’ It’s ‘How good is their music compared with that of male composers?’
Yes. Luckily the “goodness” of music is a totally scientific and quantifiable thing that allows no room for personal preference, bias, or interpretation. There’s a scale of goodness in music. Pretty sure it goes Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and then toward the bottom there’s Grainger and Bruckner and Lalo. Or something.
Also lucky: that the creative output of the respective two halves of humanity can be placed on this scale.
Ms McCabe told the press that ‘I’d quite like to learn about the music of Clara Schumann.’ OK, let’s start there. As I write this, I’m listening to a recording that couples the piano concertos of Mr and Mrs Schumann. In track three, I marvel yet again at Robert’s genius. The leaping melody of the finale turns into a fugue and then a waltz, enticed by the piano into modulations that never lose their power to surprise and delight.
Then comes track four, the first movement of Clara’s concerto, and within ten seconds we know it’s a dud.
For sure. I know my best insights are always gleaned from the first .007% of a piece. In fact, one of my favorite things to do is to visit iTunes and listen to a third of each track preview. passing sweeping negative judgments on entire concertos, symphonies, or song cycles based on the quality of the first ten seconds.
Plus, listen to this bullshit.
Oh, God. Oh, God, that’s terrible. Take it away!
The first phrase is a platitude: nothing good can come of it and nothing does. Throughout, the virtuoso passagework is straight out of the catalogue.
Agreed. Nothing is good in it. It is ugly, boring, tasteless, offensive, dull. It manages to be both ordinary and repulsive. It raped my ears just now.
Which brings up the question: who the f*ck agreed to conduct the premiere of this piece, anyway? Felix Mendelssohn?
Oh, it was Felix Mendelssohn?
(It was actually Felix Mendelssohn.)
Screw you, Mendelssohn!
In her defence, it’s an early piece
Woah, woah, woah, you’re being far too generous. Clara Wieck was already thirteen years old when she started writing her piano concerto, and all of the composers on the aforementioned goodness scale wrote their masterpieces by the age of ten. Little-known fact: Strauss called the Four Last Songs that because he wrote them on the eve of his fifth birthday.
her mature Piano Trio is more accomplished, though its lyrical passages could have been cut and pasted from one of her husband’s works.
Which is why we oughtn’t to listen to it, because as we established earlier in this piece, the works of Robert Schumann neither surprise nor delight.
Her G minor Piano Sonata, on the other hand, isn’t a success.
It definitely is not. And as we all know, if composers ever write something unsuccessful, we judge the rest of their output on that one piece. I’m looking at you, Beethoven. Consecration of the House Overture, what the f*ck was that? Whatever it is, it sure negates the Grosse Fugue.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call it ‘repugnant’ (Clara’s verdict on Tristan) or ‘horrible’ (her description of Bruckner’s Seventh), but it’s embarrassingly banal.
(A quick shoutout to Clara, who wrote “I Hate Bruckner” way before I got around to it. High-five, girl!)
Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix,
Woah, Felix again? He’s the reason we’ve been subjected to this dreck in the first place!
Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix, has also been suggested for the new syllabus. She, too, wrote a G minor Piano Sonata and it’s bloody awful. Whether it’s worse than Clara’s sonata I can’t say, because that would mean listening to them again.
Listening to pieces a second time has never enhanced my comprehension of them. I also find playing them a second time to be useless. All I do is sight-read. I sight-read the first ten seconds, and then I know whether I want to keep going. I usually don’t. I’m not very popular in orchestras, is what I’m saying. Or anywhere.
But we can be pretty sure that neither of them would have been recorded if they had been composed by a man.
Obscure pieces by men are not recorded. That’s why the Naxos catalogue doesn’t exist.
Clara and Fanny were not, of course, typical female composers of their day. They traded on their surnames,
Fun Factoid (and I did not know this until now): Clara Schumann wrote her works as a teenager under her future married name.
and Clara was also a world-famous virtuoso pianist. What about women who lacked these advantages? Amy Beach (1867–1944) is regarded as the first significant woman composer from the United States, though she sounds more French than American.
Amy Beach also (apparently) lacked “the advantage” of being a world-famous virtuoso pianist…despite the fact that she was a world-famous virtuoso pianist.
She’s significant mainly because she was a woman. Critics dutifully praise her but can’t resist the adjective ‘well-crafted’, meaning boring.
I have to confess… I did not know until just now that the adjective “well-crafted” is actually a coded insult. All these years when I heard people raving about how well-crafted Bach is, I had no idea they were actually dissing him. I’m sorry. I have boobs, so it’s hard for me to keep stuff straight.
In contrast, Dame Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) wrote some very badly crafted music. But her opera The Wreckers and her Mass in D — which she once sang solo, orchestral parts included, to Queen Victoria — are titanic in scale and ambition. The Wreckers has been described as a fusion of Wagner and Gilbert and Sullivan. She’s an interesting composer but not a great one.
Let me take some notes here…
Women writing well-crafted boring pieces = not great composers
Women writing badly-crafted interesting pieces = not great composers
Y’know, on second thought, let’s just simplify the equation.
Women = not great composers.
There we go!
And if there are no great women composers, that’s because creative geniuses are rare and, in the past, so few women wrote music.
In case you’re wondering, this is the reason cited in the title why women can’t write great music. I am not joking.
Unfortunately this groundbreaking article pretty much ends there. If you want more of this kind of gripping journalism, you run up against the disappointing advisory: This is an extract from this week’s magazine. Subscribe here. Unfortunately my lady brain is too small to understand the concepts at play, so I’ll pack up my vagina and go home and let the penised ones figure it all out.
Which, as you can imagine, they have in the comment section.
On a more serious note, I have to confess something. But first we have to put away the debate over if women can be great composers. For now. (They can be, but like I said: another day.)
Okay. So. Here’s my big secret. If I didn’t already know the Clara Schumann piano concerto… If you played it for me and told me it was early Robert, I’d probably believe you. I hope I’ve listened enough to be skeptical, but honestly, I doubt I would be.
That being said, you know what? My ears are more sensitive than most. Not because I’m better. Because I’ve had advantages not a ton of people have had. I was raised in an educated, musical family. My grandparents had the money to subsidize my studies. I’ve had years of lessons. I’ve been beyond lucky to live in a truly idyllic place where I can hear lots of the greatest players and conductors live. Those were advantages I was handed, that not every listener has.
If I’d have trouble telling the difference between Clara and early Robert, or between a supposedly good piano concerto and a supposedly great one… I think lots of other concertgoers would, too.
So. If the two are that difficult to tell apart, might that not be an argument for including more “merely” “good” works on programs? Especially when their inclusion encourages young girls who might want to compose? Paints a fuller picture of cultural history? Provides an illuminating context to other work? Or, y’know, interests people? Is there really no space for personal preference? Maybe I’m a terrible musician, but honestly? I’d prefer to hear the Clara Wieck concerto in concert over another Tchaikovsky first.
I’m not saying to chuck out Beethoven and Brahms. (Clara would be aghast at the idea.) But once in a while, the boys could be gentlemanly enough to slide over at the table and let the ladies sit down for a bit. I think the results would delight, inspire, and enrich the vast majority of us. And if you’re really so offended by a woman popping up here and there, even with a supposedly substandard work in tow, you could always stay home and wait until the next concert. I can guarantee you, that one will feature nothing but the works of men.