Why Are Pioneering Female Composers So Neglected?

I’m embarrassed by how late this is, but here’s a reminder announcement:

May first and May eighth, starting at 6:45pm, I’m giving a pre-concert talk at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul for the Hill House Chamber Players (most of whom are current or former Minnesota Orchestra players).

  • All the details, including ticket information, are here.
  • You can like their Facebook page, and read up on the women featured, here.

The program includes music by Lili Boulanger, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and Gabriel Fauré. Fauré and Bach are my two favorite composers, so it’s a deeply meaningful program to me, and I hope to you, too. It certainly is a beautiful one.

This season with the HHCP has been a real education for me. I’ve written three scripts for the season. Each clocks in at around 3500 words, and requires at least a solid week of thought, research, and writing. So in effect I’ve written a fifth of a book on female composers since October. I emerge from the project incredibly grateful for the opportunity, the friendship of these fabulous musicians, and my priceless new knowledge. In future, I hope to expand on some of the ideas I’ve had to articulate for the first time while writing these scripts. But if I had to give a thesis statement for the season, I’d say: I’m more convinced than ever that viewing music history through the lens of female composers sheds light on the entire field. Granted, it’s not the only angle to see things from. Nor should it be. But it’s a valuable one. For everyone. And we ignore that lens, that angle, at our peril.

One thing that has struck me while researching is how twists of fate affected these promising careers. To go in the order that I covered these women over the course of the season:

What would have happened if Amy Beach hadn’t married a man who didn’t want her studying composition with a teacher? A lot of people don’t understand the degree to which she was self-taught. What might she have done with the kind of training the Boulanger sisters received?

Clara Wieck Schumann was excited to move to a home where she would have space to compose. But then Robert tried to commit suicide and was committed…in effect leaving her a pregnant single mom. She had always composed in the context of Robert (remember, she was a little girl when they first met). After that tragedy, she drifted away from composition to focus on performing instead, and honestly, can anyone blame her? Plus, the presence of Brahms, and her awe at his burgeoning talent, no doubt played a role in her hesitation to take up her pen in a serious way again.

I’m convinced that Rebecca Clarke was paralyzed less by sexism and more by the self-loathing that clearly originated during her abusive childhood. (Although I suppose you could argue the two are inextricably entwined.) This was a sensitive girl who was told again and again and again that she was never good enough, who was forced by her father to expose her bare buttocks and lean over the quilt on his bed so he could properly whip her. He also kicked her out of his house when she told him she knew he was having an affair (this was actually one of the main reasons she pursued a performing career). What if she had been born to another father? Or what if he had died? Or hell, what if she’d had access to modern counseling? Would Clarke, somehow freed from the shackles of her self-doubt, have paved the way for a new generation of female composers?

In 1846, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel finally made the decision to become a professional composer, and even convinced her (formerly reluctant) brother to grant his blessing on her career. A few months later, in the midst of a new burst of creativity, as she was rehearsing one of his works, she had a stroke and died that night. She was 41.

Nadia Boulanger was a finalist a couple of times for the prestigious Prix de Rome, and it might have proven to be a launchpad for a starry career. It’s a long story why, although she got very close, she never actually won. (Some of that was probably her own fault, by the way.) On the other hand, if Nadia had succeeded in her initial goal of becoming a composer, she probably wouldn’t have gone into teaching. Who knows how much poorer twentieth century music would be, since she taught, y’know, everyone?

Lili Boulanger, her sister, was the impossibly gifted one who cracked the glass ceiling of the Prix de Rome. But Lili was terminally ill with Crohn’s disease. (There’s a theory that one reason for Lili’s rapid professional success was because she was dying: the largely male power structure that made or broke careers wasn’t threatened by her because they knew how sick she was.) Not only did she die at 24 in 1918, but she hadn’t been in the Villa Medici very long before World War I broke out, cutting short what might have been an even more productive last few years.


Musical wonderwomen, Lili and Nadia Boulanger

And those are just the women who were programmed at the Hill House this season.

It seems strange to me that so many of the best-known female composers ran into these cruel twists of fate that prohibited them from fulfilling their true potential, while so many of their sisters who went into performing didn’t. I’m most familiar with the stories of the careers of female violinists, so I’ll tick off a few of those names that come to mind… Maud Powell had a long and fruitful career, becoming the first American instrumentalist, male or female, to make an international career. Lady Wilhelmina Hallé died one of the most beloved violinists of her age (Joachim once said, once people have heard more of her, they’ll think less of me). Camilla Urso may have died in poverty, but she was a superstar in her day, especially in America. Marie Hall had a hugely fulfilling and glamorous career. There were dozens who were acknowledged to be the equals of men. Is this disparity because of the widespread belief that women could only possess reproductive genius, not productive genius (to use a framing initially suggested by Hans von Bülow)? Or was it all just chance? Am I just looking at the wrong women?

Here would be the paragraph I’d issue some grand proclamation, if I had one. But I don’t.

I guess I just want to say…

  • The history of women in music is rich and complex.
  • Simple sexism alone doesn’t explain our female-free canon.
  • Individual stories, seen as a whole, help.
  • The more you learn about this, the more you want to learn about this.
  • The more others learn about this, the more others want to learn about this.
  • Talk about this. Talk about it with your musical friends and colleagues, in your social media networks, at your orchestras and chamber music groups. Help us understand the complicated reasons why these artists aren’t heard. Come up with your own theories. Communicate them. Because if we decide that historical women do warrant appearing on concert programs, we need a context in which to understand how their neglect happened. We can’t fix it otherwise.

I’m so looking forward to writing more about these women and all the others, and I hope if you enjoy this topic you’ll join me every step of the way.

But in the meantime, you are most cordially invited to the majestic James J. Hill House in beautiful St. Paul, where this week we’ll be joyfully celebrating the impressive creative achievements of human beings who have been neglected for much, much too long. Really hope to see you there.

Yours, Emily

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