Category Archives: Women In Music

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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Marie Jaëll: Pianist, Composer, Reclusive Workaholic

Pianist, composer, author, and pedagogue Marie Jaëll’s last words were “I still have so much to do!” Although she had spent a lifetime vigorously, obsessively studying music, she was somehow convinced it hadn’t been enough.

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Marie Jaëll was born Marie Trautmann on August 17, 1846, in the tiny town of Steinseltz in Alsace. Marie loved the countryside, and she especially loved the sounds she heard there. She was transfixed by birdsong, leaves rustling in the breeze, brooks babbling, thunder rumbling, church bells pealing. When she heard a piano for the first time, at the age of six, she became obsessed. She convinced her parents to allow her to take lessons. Luckily they were supportive (interestingly, her mother assumed the role of manager and promoter), and soon she was concertizing across Germany and Switzerland.

By the age of seven, she was taking lessons from Ignaz Moscheles, who had also taught Mendelssohn. By ten, she was a pupil of Henri Herz, who was a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1862, the year she turned sixteen, she entered the Conservatoire proper. After a mere four months, she won the First Prize of Piano. Her playing at this time was especially noted for its passion; she played like a woman possessed. One critic from Nuremberg wrote:

She vibrates with enthusiasm for her art. She forgets all her surroundings. She plays only because she is driven by an inner force… Marie Trautmann sweeps us over and stirs us up.

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Author Marie Lipsius: Because Not All Female Liszt Fans Were Shrieking Maniacs

These are the first two things we learn about Franz Liszt:

  • He was one of the most influential musicians of the nineteenth century.
  • He was a babe magnet.

Historians (the vast majority of them male) revel in describing Liszt’s fangirls, marveling at every detail of their insanity. These women were hysterical, petty, irrational. They fought over his handkerchiefs, fashioned piano strings into bracelets, and even tucked his discarded cigar butts between their boobs. Their intense reaction to his performances even inspired a new noun – Lisztomania – coined by Heinrich Heine in the 1840s. Heine asked “a physician, whose speciality is female diseases” to explain why Liszt held audiences so spellbound. Predictably, the physician declared the phenomenon to be pathological, offering as explanation self-assured mumbo-jumbo about magnetism, electricity, and even musical cantharidin, I sh*t you not.

But let’s be real: Liszt’s female fans weren’t brainless bimbos. Contrary to the stereotype, many brilliant women fell into Liszt’s orbit for intellectual, emotional, or even spiritual reasons. We’ve read about a few of his protégés already, including virtuosas Amy Fay, Adele aus der Ohe, and Sophie Menter. But one of the most important Liszt fangirls was not a professional musician at all. She was a self-taught writer and historian who made important contributions to the nascent field of musicology, and her groundbreaking work still raises timely questions even today. Her name was Marie Lipsius, pseudonym La Mara.

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Sophie Menter: Pianist, Castle Dweller, Cat Lover

Sophie Menter was a world-renowned pianist who lived in a castle and constructed chicken wire fences around her property to keep her many cats from escaping. If that sentence doesn’t intrigue you, then you’re on the wrong blog.

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Sophie Menter, seen here not having time for your bull****.

Sophie Menter was born on July 29, 1846 in Munich. Her father was a cellist named Josef and her mom was a singer named Wilhelmine Diepold, who was so musically talented that the local prince offered to pay for her education (she declined, apparently because she wasn’t interested in pursuing a career).

Josef and Wilhelmine’s life together was a string of tragedies. They had nine kids, and most of them died young, but not before the older sisters had a chance to start teaching little Sophie piano. Sophie in turn taught her younger sibling, Eugenie. Eugenie became an accomplished pianist, as well; sometimes historians don’t know which fabulous Menter sister various old reviews are referring to.

It quickly became obvious that Sophie was incredibly talented, but her musical education was put on the back burner. Josef didn’t want his young daughter studying at a conservatory, and, more pressingly, he was terminally ill. He passed away in April of 1856 at the age of 48, when Sophie was nine. According to legend, he told his wife, “Mind, wife, you look to Sophie. There’s something in that child!” So, y’know, no pressure.

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Adele aus der Ohe: Pianist, Pioneer, Carnegie Hall Opener

On February 11, 1861, one of the great pianists of her era was born in Hanover. Because sexism exists, you probably don’t know who she is. This despite the fact that she toured the world, opening fricking Carnegie Hall and giving important early performances in Minnesota, Chicago, San Francisco, and other cities. If you’re looking at the history of classical music in America, you have to look at the career of Adele aus der Ohe.

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Adelheit Johanne Auguste Hermine aus der Ohe was very much a bonus baby. Her dad was 55 when she was born; her mom was 44; and she was nine years younger than her next-youngest sibling. This family dynamic would have repercussions for Adele’s life and even her career.

Adele was unnervingly precocious. She was identifying notes on a piano before she could even pronounce the notes’ names. In 1869, her father took a position in Berlin so that his daughter could learn from the best teachers in Germany. Adele enrolled in Theodor Kullak’s massive Neue Akademie der Tonkunst (the New Academy of Musical Art), which employed a hundred teachers and taught over a thousand students. (You know a bit about Kullak if you read Amy Fay’s book.) Despite her young age, the demanding Theodor Kullak accepted Adele as one of his own personal students.

Adele’s greatest influence and inspiration, however, was Franz Liszt. She began studying with him in the summer of 1873 at the age of fricking twelve, and continued studying with him over the next decade. By the time she was sixteen, she was playing an eight-hand piano arrangement with Liszt of the brand-spanking-new Funeral March from Götterdämmerung.

In 1884, she stopped attending Liszt’s classes after her mother died. Her death came as a heavy blow to their closeknit family. Interestingly, none of the aus der Ohe siblings ever married. Adele herself opted to hire Mathilde as her lifelong cheerleader and traveling companion. In 1886, the two sisters took a risk and left Europe for America, arriving in New York just days after the dedication of the Statue of Liberty.

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Amy Fay: Pianist, Author, Piano Conversationalist

Pianist? Check.

Friend and student of Liszt’s? Check.

Bestselling author? Check.

Inventor of new educational concert formats? Check.

Co-founder of an important women’s musical organization? Check.

Largely forgotten today? A woman? *sigh* Check, check, yes, of course.

Amelia Muller Fay was born in 1844, the fifth of nine children. Her father was a Harvard-educated Episcopalian priest. Her mother was an artist, pianist, and singer who had been denied an education and encouraged to marry at sixteen. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Fay died young. Amy’s older sister Zina believed it was from overwork and thwarted ambition:

I saw her in her coffin…and I resolved to remember the woe and earthly wreck of her thwarted nature, and never to cease until I saw some better way for women than this which can so horribly waste and abuse their finest powers.

So that’s one way of dealing with grief.

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Josephine Amann Weinlich: 1870s Conductor and Lady Orchestra Founder

You’d think that a female conductor who toured the world with her own orchestra in the 1870s would be well-known, but sexism.

I’ll start off by being blunt: there aren’t many English language articles about Josephine Amann Weinlich that are easily accessible online. Maybe I’d find more if I was associated with an institution, but I’m not. So I’m using a Google translation of a German webpage to scrape together some biographical factoids for my English-speaking readers. Take everything with a grain of salt until an actual scholar can pick up the baton. (Thrillingly, I’ve heard from some via Twitter, so it’s possible we’ll hear more about Josephine in future! Stay tuned!) In the meantime, here are what appear to be the broad strokes of her story, as best as I can ascertain:

Josephine Weinlich was born around 1840 in Vienna. Her dad was a merchant and amateur musician. (I’ve found nothing about her mom, but judging by most historical records, moms were invisible throughout the nineteenth century. /sarcasm) Josephine’s passion for music-making must have been encouraged, because she played both violin and piano, and her sister Elisa Weinlich was a cellist.

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Frieda Belinfante: Cellist, Conductor, Outwitter of Nazis

In light of recent events in America, here’s an unplanned entry on Nazi-fighting cellist Frieda Belinfante.

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Heroine.

I’ve never mentioned her on the blog before; her story is so extraordinary that I wanted to save it for a big project. I still want to come back to it someday. But I thought her story – and more specifically, her own words – could bring some much-needed comfort, perspective, and inspiration in this particular moment.

Frieda Belinfante was a cellist and conductor who was born in Amsterdam on May 10, 1904. The Concertgebouw hired her to found the Het Klein Orkest in 1937, which, in the words of Wikipedia, “made her the first woman in Europe to be artistic director and conductor of an ongoing professional orchestral ensemble.” Frieda was a lesbian, and her father Jewish (although she insisted adamantly that neither her heritage nor her sexuality defined her). After barely escaping the Nazis, she emigrated to the United States in 1947 and founded the Orange County Philharmonic Orchestra. She died in the spring of 1995 in New Mexico.

The following excerpts are transcriptions from an oral history testimony she gave to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in May of 1994. You can read all 86 pages of it here, and I recommend that when you have time, you do.

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Frédérique Petrides: Music Director, Newsletter-Writer, Orchestrette-Maker

Industrialist Joseph Heinrich Mayer met Seraphine Sebrechts when he hired her to be his invalid first wife’s musical companion. After the first Mrs. Mayer died, Seraphine became the second, and in 1903, the newlyweds had a daughter named Frédérique Mayer.

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“Be glamorous AND trailblazing AND aristocratic AND badass? I believe I can do that.” – Frédérique Mayer Petrides, probably

Riki (as she was nicknamed) seized every privilege of her upbringing, throwing herself into her studies with aplomb and enrolling at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels. (She had seen how her pianist / composer / painter / photographer mother’s talents had been suppressed, and she was determined not to let her own go to waste.) In 1923 Frédérique emigrated to the United States, where she began pursuing her penchant for conducting at New York University.

A decade later, in 1933, she and her journalist husband Peter Petrides decided to found a women’s chamber orchestra: the Orchestrette Classique. Peter was named the Orchestrette’s manager and publicist, while Frédérique became its music director.

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Antonia Brico: Conductor, Trailblazer, Greenland-Melter

The most comprehensive article online about trailblazing conductor Antonia Brico is this one, and it makes her sound very scary.

“She had this stern look on her face that could have melted parts of Greenland.”

She was a “horrid prima donna.”

“She knew how to maneuver people.”

“I loved that lady tremendously, but sometimes I could have wrung her neck.”

So when I cued up Judy Collins’s Oscar-nominated 1974 documentary “Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman,” I sat back and waited for a monster to appear.

Instead, I saw a quietly self-possessed woman standing in front of a rehearsing orchestra. When she speaks, she says tyrannical things like “eight after B” and then “diminish the quarters, please.”

After watching the whole documentary, I don’t doubt the imperiousness is there. (You need imperiousness to be the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic.) But Antonia Brico was clearly more than just a frustrating (and frustrated) manipulative genius Greenland-melter. She could also be self-deprecating, brutally honest, and hilarious.

brico_cropped_courtesy_denver_philharmonic (1)

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