To a large extent, women have been written out of history. Any surviving record of female accomplishment is often trivialized or dismissed. This seems especially true in the male-dominated world of classical music. When asked to name a single female composer, many people draw a blank. This isn’t because they’re ignorant, but because women’s music has been buried and neglected for far too long. Even pioneering women composers themselves lived and worked in ignorance of their foremothers.
Clara Wieck Schumann, wife of Robert Schumann, composed her first piano concerto at the age of fourteen and wrote a significant body of work in her early life. Mother of eight children and family breadwinner, she became the foremost concert pianist of 19th century Europe. In her sixty-one-year performance career, she interpreted the work of contemporary composers such as Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Yet when it came to establishing herself as a composer in her own right, she was crippled with self-doubt. “I once believed that I had creative talent, but I have given up this idea,” she wrote in her diary in 1839. “A woman must not wish to compose—there never was one able to do it.” She was only twenty when she wrote these words that condemned her music to obscurity.
What a difference it could have made for Schumann had she only known about the women composers who had lived before her, such as Hildegard of Bingen, the first composer for whom we have a biography. A twelfth century visionary abbess, Hildegard composed seventy-seven sacred songs, as well as Ordo Virtutum, a liturgical drama set to music—a sort of proto-opera. Her soaring ethereal melodies were completely unlike the plainchant of her era—or anything composed before or since. Schumann would have also rejoiced to learn about the early Baroque composer Francesca Caccini who wrote music for the Medici court, including the first known opera by a woman. And she surely would have been inspired by the later Baroque composer Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre who composed ballet, opera, cantatas and sonatas.
But evidently Schumann knew nothing of her female forbears. This is the greatest tragedy of women’s history—namely that it keeps being erased. Each generation of creative women believe they have to reinvent the wheel all by themselves.
Schumann’s contemporary Fanny Mendelssohn composed over 460 pieces of music, and yet her identity as a composer was nearly lost to history. Her brilliance was overshadowed by her younger brother, Felix. Much of her work was published under his name—Felix refused to give her his blessing to publish in her own name. Most of her legacy was discovered posthumously and even then attributed to her brother.
Fast forward to turn-of-the-twentieth century Vienna. A new era of opportunity was dawning for women. Surely now a woman composer could make her mark. Young Alma Maria Schindler composed lieder under the guidance of her mentor and lover, Alexander von Zemlinsky. Her songs were arresting, emotional, and highly original and could be compared with the early work of Zemlinsky’s other famous student, Arnold Schoenberg. But her burgeoning career was cut short when Gustav Mahler proposed to her and demanded she give up her music to serve his greater genius. Alma, alas, reluctantly consented.
Alma Schindler Mahler
But Alma’s story of artistic self-sacrifice had a twist in it. Her adulterous affair with Walter Gropius awakened Mahler to her anguish and at last Mahler urged his wife to compose again. Alma published fourteen songs during her lifetime. Three other lieder have been discovered posthumously. Beyond these seventeen surviving lieder, nothing else remains or has been found. We do know that, according to her early diaries, Alma composed or drafted more than a hundred songs, various instrumental pieces, and the beginning of an opera. These “lost” works may have been destroyed in World War II after Alma fled Austria and left most of her belongings behind, or she may have destroyed them herself. We will never know what posterity might have lost.
Today Alma’s work is regularly performed and recorded—an outcome she could not have imagined during her lifetime. Yet even so, she is remembered more for her love affairs and sexuality than for her music, just as Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn remain footnotes in the history of the famous men in their lives. The only way to correct this is by making them the center of their stories. By remembering, performing, and recording their work. By making them part of the canon.
It is my fondest hope that a new generation of aspiring women composers will know who their foremothers are and can build on their legacy.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her novel, Ecstasy, about composer and life artist Alma Mahler, is now out in paperback. Learn more at her website. If you enjoyed this article, please sign up for Mary’s newsletter.