Category Archives: Women In Music

Adela Maddison: Forgotten Composer and Fauré’s Mistress (?)

To modern readers, the ambiguity of historical queer relationships can be frustrating. We know that same-sex relationships have occurred over the centuries, but of course details about many are scarce, and vacuums are often ripe environments for controversy. Add in the fact that many labels we take for granted today only came into broad use a generation or two ago, and it becomes extremely difficult to define historical figures’ sexualities in modern terms.

Composer Adela Maddison is one of the women who resides in the center of a diagnostic Venn diagram, crunched between circles that modern people label “straight” and “gay” and “bi” and any other number of descriptors. Observers of her life question her sexuality, but no broad consensus has been found. In 1898, one friend insisted to her diary that Adela was having an affair with a man. Fauré biographers Jean-Michel Nectoux and Robert Orledge are quite clear that they believe Adela was a bit of a lovesick hanger-on. (Nectoux went so far as to say of her, “We may imagine that Fauré found somewhat embarrassing the attentions of this ‘pupil.’” Quotation marks in the original, or at least the English translation.) Sophie Fuller in her chapter “Devoted Attention: Looking for Lesbian Musicians in Fin de Siècle Britain” in Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity clearly thinks of Adela as lesbian. (Interestingly, no historian I read entertained the idea that she might have been bisexual.)

To a modern person reading Adela’s life story and Adela’s own words, it seems clear that she was in a long-term relationship with another woman, likely marking her as, in some way, queer. As to what exactly that should mean when choosing a modern label to describe her, who knows. (It may be worth being open to an ambiguous answer.) Regardless of what labels we settle on, Adela Maddison’s willingness to follow her heart – personally and professionally – is fascinating history. Her fearless independence and her musical accomplishments ought to be celebrated.

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Maud Cuney-Hare: Musicologist and Black Activist

When she was born in Galveston in 1874, musician and musicologist Maud Cuney-Hare inherited a legacy that was rich, horrifying, and uniquely American.

Her paternal grandfather had been one of the largest slaveholders in Texas. He was a delegate to the 1848 Democratic National Convention, where he advocated for the preservation of slavery.

Her paternal grandmother was, for all intents and purposes, his concubine, and she bore her owner eight mixed-race children. Maud’s father Wright Cuney grew up in a household teeming with both full siblings and “legitimate” half-siblings. The former were slaves; the latter were free.

We have no record why (guilt? love? ego? paternalism?), but in the end, her grandfather decided to free his mixed-raced children and send them to Pittsburgh to be educated.

Despite the prejudice caused by his dark complexion, Wright Cuney grew up to become a successful entrepreneur, politician, and activist. According to Wikipedia, he secured the “highest-ranking appointed position of any African American in the late 19th-century South” when he was appointed United States Collector of Customs in Galveston in 1889.

When he was twenty-five, Wright married a gray-eyed sixteen-year-old beauty named Adelina. She too was the daughter of a white planter father and his concubine slave. She sang, played the piano, and was an activist in her church and community. Over the course of their marriage, Wright and Adelina had two children: Lloyd (named after abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison) and Maud.

Maud Cuney’s cultural inheritance was no doubt a bewildering one to come to terms with. It consisted of rape, poverty, and oppression, as well as self-determination, wealth, and privilege. Ultimately Maud Cuney chose to use that legacy, and the advantages it offered her, to promote the achievements of African musicians.

Despite a lifetime of devotion to that cause, she is almost entirely forgotten today.

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Emma Abbott: Soprano and Impresario

Emma Abbott was perhaps the closest thing that nineteenth-century America had to an operatic superhero. Her biography boasts an O. Henry-esque rags-to-riches trajectory. She ran her own grand opera company alongside her beloved husband, spending the modern equivalent of millions of dollars per season on costumes alone. She knew how to fence, how to row, how to ride horses, and even how to drum. She visited the poor, the sick, the hospitalized, and the imprisoned. She also reportedly saved two people from dying: one a girl who fell through thin ice while skating, the other a woman struggling while swimming.

And yet despite her dazzling accomplishments both professional and personal, Emma Abbott remains an enigma. Critics often derided her work or her approach to the art. Little modern research has been done on her. And yet her persistence and her personality altered the American operatic scene forever.

emma abbott 1

Emma Abbott

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Mary Cardwell Dawson: Singer, Activist, Impresario

In the 1920s, a young opera singer by the name of Mary Cardwell came face-to-face with a hard truth: the color of her skin would dictate the outcome of her career.

A National Negro Opera Company souvenir brochure from 1957 describes her realization:

During intermission, she often went back stage to really observe for herself, hoping eventually to find one of her people there. Actually, she was only to be discouraged, disappointed and finally made to wonder why the omission of her people… She thus began to wonder why even she had chosen this field for her life’s work. She found the same type of exclusion existing in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which she often attended on Fridays, as well as operas in other cities from coast to coast. Everywhere, and in every respect, she found complete discrimination or exclusion. This weighed heavily upon that young student of the Conservatory. (link)

Racism has cost classical music countless stars. Many great musicians left the field altogether, and for good reason. But Mary Cardwell Dawson chose another path. She attempted to remake the art from the inside.

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Mary Cardwell was the second of six children born to a farming family in Madison, North Carolina. Sources differ as to exactly when; some say 1894, while others indicate 1896. Around 1900, her father J.A. and her uncle moved to Pittsburgh to work at a brickyard in Homestead. In 1901, after the brothers had finally saved enough money, they sent for the rest of their family. In Mary’s new neighborhood, recently relocated African-Americans lived next door to white European immigrants. Growing up in such a place had a profound effect on her worldview.

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Theodora Cormontan: Composer, Pianist, Publisher

In 2009, a restoration in St. Anne, Illinois, took an unexpected turn when manuscripts composed by Florence Price turned up in one of the few rooms that hadn’t been ransacked by vandals or crushed by falling trees. Turns out the house had once been Price’s summer home. Remarkably, two violin concertos discovered in that fateful renovation have since been recorded.

It’s uncomfortable to think of important musical history being forgotten in attics. But it has certainly, silently happened. In fact, an eerily similar fate nearly befell works by another trailblazing composer named Theodora Cormontan.

Throughout the course of her decades-long life in music, Theodora Cormontan dealt with challenges presented by sexism (of course), emigration, geographic isolation, economic insecurity, and disability. Despite those challenges, she never stopped composing. Her persistence is awe-inspiring. But it’s only due to a series of coincidences – and some passionate advocacy – that much of her work survives today.

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Zitkála-Šá: Musician, Author, Activist

Quaker missionaries lured the little Sioux girl with tales of orchards. Come with us, they said, and we’ll bring you to school.

Her widowed mother protested. She’d lost a son to white missionaries before. But her little girl begged and begged, eager to escape to a faraway place where she might pursue knowledge and eat red apples.

Finally her mother relented. The seven-year-old boarded a train and journeyed seven hundred miles. When she arrived at the school, it was February. The air was cold and the branches of the apple trees were bare. She immediately burst into tears.

The school was White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana, and the little girl’s experiences there read like the early chapters of an American Jane Eyre. Teachers beat students. Young friends died from neglect and malnutrition. Students were forced to rise early in the day to study and do hard labor. The girl’s long black braids were forcibly cut. White’s Institute was part of an entire culture that sought to suffocate her very identity.

But she emerged clutching that identity more tightly than ever.

Gertrude Simmons, later known as Zitkála-Šá (“Red Bird”) is best known today for her activism and writing. And for good reason, too: the brutal, poetic honesty of her essays can take your breath away. But Zitkála-Šá was also renowned for her mastery of the violin, the piano, and the voice. Western art music was a tool that she used to cope with abuse, garner praise and respect, and shatter stereotypes of Native people.

In 1913 she collaborated on a groundbreaking work, The Sun Dance Opera. It is the first opera written by a Native American, and it employed elements of Native folk music. Unsurprisingly, her white male collaborator took more credit than he was likely due. He copyrighted the score under his name alone, despite citing Zitkála-Šá as a creative partner in his memoir. We don’t have any first-person account of its composition from Zitkála-Šá, and so we are forced to squint between the lines and fill in the blanks ourselves.

Doing so is worthwhile. For those interested in Western art music, the story of Zitkála-Šá is uniquely challenging and rewarding. It raises a variety of questions we still struggle with today. Is Western art music really a universal language? Might it bridge cultural chasms, or does it cause them? How might it oppress, and might it give the voiceless a voice?

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Emma Steiner: Conductor, Composer, Miner

In mid-February the Metropolitan Opera announced its 2018/19 season. None of the programmed works are by women, and every conductor will be a man.

Met Opera graph

Graph courtesy of MusicTheoryExamplesbyWomen.com, aka MTEW_com on Twitter. (Also, sad lol at the asterisk: “These are pie charts“)

Therefore, I figured it was worth casting an eye back to a more progressive time – the 1920s – to resurrect the remarkable story of Emma Steiner, who conducted her own operatic compositions at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1925.

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Emma Steiner was born on 26 February 1856 in Baltimore. Her paternal line was chock-full of military men, and her father Colonel Frederick Birely Steiner had served with distinction in the Mexican-American War. After his retirement from the military, he worked (quite successfully) as an importer of fruit.

Emma’s invalid mother Catharine was a gifted amateur pianist, and she would often prop her young daughter up in a chair to play for her. Emma grew to become an unusually quiet and observant child who never cried, mesmerized by music.

Emma later claimed that the entirety of her musical training consisted of Catharine showing her where middle C was on the keyboard. But she quickly learned to teach herself, assigning every key on the piano a number.

By seven she was composing. By nine she wrote a piano duet. And by eleven she had composed a grand opera called Aminaide. “Her father was opposed to opera on principle and refused to look at the score,” a newspaper later reported. “A musical friend, however, pronounced it correctly written.” (x) A scene from Aminaide was actually produced at the Peabody Conservatory and garnered praise from the school director. Dazzled Baltimoreans urged Frederick to send Emma to Europe to study, but he refused.

Emma chafed at his disapproval. In a 1926 interview with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, she recalls defying him as a teenager, leaving the house while he was away to conduct an opera in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, at the behest of a family friend who knew of her musical ability and therefore had recommended her for the job. Frederick was mortified and forbid her to perform in public again. Needless to say, she didn’t listen.

emma steiner

Emma Steiner

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Nora Douglas Holt: Composer, Critic, Bombshell

A mere quarter of a century after the close of the Civil War, a little girl named Lena Douglas was born to an African Methodist Episcopal Church minister and his wife in Kansas City, Kansas. The little girl was destined for dynamism. Over the course of her life she became a composer, pianist, singer, musicologist, sex symbol, club act, radio woman, and even a highly respected New York critic.

Lena Douglas (she’d later adopt the name Nora) was born in 1885 or 1890 to Rev. Calvin Douglas and his wife Gracie Brown Douglas. Like many others in the A.M.E. Church, Rev. and Mrs. Douglas were passionate about education, and African-American education in particular. Both were closely involved with the Western University of Quindaro, which had been founded in 1865 as the first all-black school west of the Mississippi.

Consequently Nora received a first-rate education. She started taking piano lessons at the age of four and later played organ in the family church. Even as a young woman, she showed an interest in composing, writing the music to the Western University school song in 1907. (Her father provided the lyrics.)

She continued her collegiate music studies at Western, which, lucky for her, boasted one of the best music schools in America. Nora distinguished herself while studying criticism and composition, graduating at the top of her class.

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Johanna Kinkel: Composer, Author, Revolutionary

Poet and playwright Emanuel Geibel wrote of Johanna Kinkel, “Generally, boundlessness is her failing, for she is so endowed with talent that she is not a genius in any one area.”

Johanna was born in Bonn on 8 July 1810 to Peter Joseph Mockel and his wife Marianna. Much to their alarm, their daughter proved to be exceptionally intelligent and musical.

She began studying under Franz Anton Ries, a violinist who had tutored Beethoven a few decades earlier. Ries’s pupils formed a group known as the Singkränzchen, or the Singers’ Circle. Johanna must have demonstrated great character and ability, because she assumed leadership of the Singkränzchen when she was just a teenager. She mined her experiences as a choral director for her op. 1, “The Birds’ Garden for Five Voices with Piano Accompaniment: A Musical Joke,” in which five birds hold a rehearsal and argue with one another over who has more talent. (A modern edition of the piece is available here.)

In 1831, Johanna met a pious Catholic bookseller and music merchant named Johann Paul Mathieux. Desperate to escape the oppressive home of her parents, she agreed to marry him. Almost instantly, she realized she’d made a terrible mistake. Mathieux had been faking his religiosity and he abused his wife. Six months after the wedding, she moved back into her parents’ house and filed for a divorce (which Mathieux refused to grant). The town gossips blamed the failure of the marriage on Johanna’s un-feminine nature. Her doctor diagnosed her with a “nervous breakdown with emaciation fever” brought on by the “abuses conveyed by [the] selected torments” of her ex. (x)

She only began to recover in the mid-1830s. To earn her keep, she taught piano and also returned as director of the Singkränzchen. She even presented and directed entire operatic acts in the musical homes of Bonn.

In 1836, she secured an introduction to Felix Mendelssohn via his spirited, strong-willed aunt, author Dorothea von Schlegel. He pronounced Johanna talented and encouraged her to move to Berlin. There she studied piano with Wilhelm Taubert and composition with Karl Böhmer, earning her living by teaching and composing.

In 1838 she published her op. 7, a volume of songs. Critic Oswalk Lorenz, writing for Robert Schumann’s Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, labeled the work “ladylike.” She wasn’t happy being pigeonholed based on her gender. To protest, when Schumann himself wrote Kinkel and asked for another of her compositions, she mailed him “my wildest drinking song for a male choir.” (x)

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Ingeborg von Bronsart: Opera Composer

Her great presence of mind as an artist was shown a little later in a concert incident, which happened in her fourteenth year, in the Michael [sic] Theater. She played the Chopin E minor concerto, with orchestra, from memory, of course – her musical memory always wonderful – when suddenly a string in the piano broke and fell upon the others, which, by their unwilling vibration, tried to defend themselves from this attack. In spite of the alarming jar, no one thought of hastening to her relief by removing the cause of the disturbance, which so distressed the continuation with the improvised accompaniment of the jarring strings; so with her energetic little right hand, the young player pulled out the “corpus delicti” with a quick jerk and threw it on the floor, without at all interrupting her left hand, and then, unhindered, continued bravely with the playing. But then the audience broke in with enthusiastic cheers, for the brave self-defence, and at the end a profusion of flowers fell at her feet. The most brilliant performance could not have been more admired than was this little incident.

That sketch of quick-thinking pianist Ingeborg von Bronsart comes from nineteenth-century author Elise Polko. An 1898 translation of Polko’s essay is one of the few English-language biographies of Ingeborg available today. It’s an unabashedly romanticized portrait, with lots of unverifiable details. But although the portrait may be incomplete, its brilliant subject is still worth studying.

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Ingeborg Lena Starck was born on 24 August 1840 in St. Petersburg. Her father Wilhelm was Swedish. He spent over four decades working in Russia, but never relinquished his Swedish citizenship. Her mother Margarethe was also Scandinavian (although sources differ as to whether her ancestry was Swedish or Finnish). Both husband and wife were amateur musicians. He played the flute and she played the violin (albeit solely by ear), and members of the household, including the help, frequently performed Swedish folksongs together.

Ingeborg had an older sister named Olivia. When Olivia began piano lessons at the age of nine, Ingeborg became desperately jealous. As Polko describes it:

And, when later, Olivia took piano lessons, Ingeborg, with tears in her big, longing eyes, stood by and begged that she might take at the same time, and her wish was granted, although unwillingly, on account of her extreme youth.

Within a matter of months, Ingeborg’s pianistic abilities had surpassed her older sister’s, and within a year, she was beginning to compose. In 1850, none other than Anton Rubinstein (who later taught Tchaikovsky) told a ten-year-old Ingeborg, “You, indeed, play very beautifully, but what especially interests me is your talent for composing.”

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