Category Archives: Women In Music

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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Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient: Soprano and Erotic Memoirist (?)

I have long maintained that the best way to ring in a new year is by profiling a female opera pioneer who rubbed shoulders with the great composers, inspired Wagner, and (allegedly) wrote a sexually explicit memoir.

Wilhelmine_Schröder-Devrient_AEhrlichSängerinnen1895

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient.

Wilhelmine Schröder was born into a theatrical family in Hamburg, Germany, on December 6th, 1804. Her father Friedrich Schröder was a singer, while her mother Sophie was later dubbed “one of Germany’s greatest tragic actresses, so far as declamation and expression are concerned.” The family moved frequently during the tumultuous Napoleonic era, but eventually they settled in Vienna, where her parents got jobs at the Burgtheater. Wilhelmine followed in their footsteps and appeared onstage for the first time at the age of five.

Her debut as an actress occurred at fifteen, when she appeared as Aricia in Schiller’s translation of Racine’s Phèdre. But even as a teenager she was creatively restless: she had her eye on mastering another art form altogether. On January 20th, 1821, she played Pamina in a Vienna Court Opera production of The Magic Flute. Her operatic debut marked the ignition of a revolutionary and uniquely Romantic career, which occurred adjacent to the greatest male composers of the mid-nineteenth-century.

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Song of the Lark 2017 Advent Calendar!

Longtime readers know I have a thing for Advent calendars. I’m not sure why. I like the ideas of winter introspecting and daily chocolate, I guess.

Anyway, the blog’s first Advent calendar was a weird lockout-related joke / year-end retrospective in December 2012. I also assembled virtual calendars in 2013, 2014, and 2015, featuring Youtube links to some of my favorite holiday pieces in all of them. I didn’t do one last year, and I missed doing it, so…

The online Advent calendar is back for 2017! But it’s at a new address and with a new twist. Instead of my favorite holiday music (because after four years of holiday music videos, I was really starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel), every day between now and Christmas Eve, I’m spotlighting a piece of music written by a woman! You can follow along at songofthelarkadventcalendar.tumblr.com. I’ll also be Tweeting the links; you can find me on Twitter here. I’ve already included pieces by Emilie Mayer, Rebecca Clarke, Lili Boulanger, and more, and there are still sixteen days left to go!

In many Christian traditions, Advent is a time of reflection, meant to prepare folks for the good that is to come. The good that I hope is to come (should we choose to reflect on it together…) is a promotion of the unjustly neglected work of women. The time feels right for their arrival in listeners’, musicians’, and music lovers’ lives.

Wishing you all a blessed winter full of unexpected beauty.

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Also, just a head’s up, I’m taking December off from my blog series on women. Readership tends to dip at this time of year anyway, and, to be totally honest, after the extravaganza of original research that occurred for the last entry, I fell behind on some other projects I want to get a handle on! So expect new entries on women starting January 3rd (I’m pretty sure we’re going to kick things off with a woman who was, along with Schoen-René, a student of Viardot), and hopefully this calendar helps tide you over in the meantime. xo

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How Anna Schoen-René Nearly Founded the Minnesota Orchestra

If you want to learn about the early life of Anna Schoen-René, check out this entry.

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In her 1941 memoir, America’s Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences, soprano Anna Schoen-René claims she originated the idea of the Minnesota Orchestra.

The orchestra was to be called the Northwestern Symphony Orchestra, and was to serve Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the surrounding cities, thereby appeasing the rivalry which traditionally existed between the first two named.

She writes she went so far as to raise $30,000 (the rough equivalent to $800k today), arranging players’ contracts and even hiring conductor Walter Rothwell (who went on to become the first music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic).

But she faced, in her words, “a good deal of opposition.” While she took her annual trip to Europe, shadowy unnamed forces conspired to raise $60,000 and poach her players. “A wealthy citizen of Minneapolis had been persuaded to give that city its own orchestra, which was not to be shared with other places,” she writes. Presumably she’s referring to Elbert L. Carpenter, the Minneapolis lumberman who organized the Minneapolis Symphony and who bestowed its first music directorship upon local conductor Emil Oberhoffer. Her insinuation here is clear: she saw herself as champion of an egalitarian ensemble belonging to all Minnesotans, in contrast to the unnamed “wealthy citizen” who saw the orchestra as a tool to advance the interests of a particular set of people.

How did a young female immigrant come so close to founding one of America’s great orchestras? Why did her efforts to do so excite such intense antipathy? And how on earth have we forgotten her so utterly? Much of the story remains buried in the archives; it will take months, if not years, of work to interpret in all its nuance. But thanks to the Minnesota Historical Society’s online newspaper archives, portions of the history are in plain sight, provided you have the interest and the time to chase them down.

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Anna Schoen-René: Soprano, Conductor, Minnesota Pioneer

Anna Schoen-René – singer, conductor, entrepreneur, author, teacher, and the godmother of the present-day Minnesota Orchestra – is like a character from a feminist fairy tale. Walter Damrosch once asked her, “Haven’t they erected a monument to you in Minneapolis yet?” That monument remains conspicuously unbuilt.

In 1941, at the age of seventy-seven, Schoen-René published a book called America’s Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences. (It’s available to read in its entirety for free here.) Because so little research has been done on her life and career, we have to listen carefully to everything she says, while simultaneously remembering that not all of it has been verified.

This is the first paragraph:

I received my first singing lessons at the age of four – odd little lessons – from our household orderly, Matinetti. He was an all-round fine fellow, always ready to help us children out of our troubles. In his room behind the kitchen, my brother Otto and I used to sit on little stools, watching while he cleaned the uniforms, shoes, and other personal equipment of our large household, and listening to his fairy tales and songs. Matinetti was of Italian descent, though a native of Coblenz, and had a great store of both Italian and German folk-songs. Under his instruction, we not only learned many of these by heart, but acted them out dramatically. After the lessons, the doors to the kitchen would be thrown open, and we would give a performance before an almost tearfully admiring domestic staff. All this was carried on with utmost secrecy – no one in the front of the house was aware of this initiation into the world of make-believe. I have always felt that this marked the beginning of my great desire for a public career as a singer. I began about that time to develop a lively imagination; and as I walked in the forests I would sing to myself and build dream castles by the hundreds – always of future triumphs as a singer.

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Anna Eugénie Schoen was born in 1864, the youngest of eight children, in Koblenz, Germany. According to her book, her father was “Royal Master of Forestry and Agriculture in the Province of the Rhineland and a Councillor at the Court of Wilhelm I, Emperor of Germany, and also an officer of the Reserve in the Honorary Battalion of the Guards.” The family was wealthy, sophisticated, and well-positioned, frequently rubbing elbows with empresses and czarinas. But her father had a strong egalitarian streak, and he insisted that his children spend at least two years in public school in order to become acquainted with children of every class.

Anna’s passion for music was obvious from the start. At an early age, she heard that singing in a choir could potentially harm the voice, so at her school chorus auditions, she “just barked, so to speak.” She succeeded in tricking the chorusmaster, but couldn’t resist singing in front of her friends. Ultimately, word of her deception got back to school officials, and to discipline her, they forced her to sing in front of all her classmates and teachers. Of course, that punishment had the exact opposite of its intended effect: “My longing for a career took a firmer hold than ever.”

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