Missing from History: Women Composers by Mary Sharratt


 

Clara Schumann

 

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.

 

 

Fanny Mendelsohn

 

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

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Categories: Feminism, General

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9 replies

  1. Except for Hildegard I have never heard of these women. Thank you for this excellent informative essay.

    Herein lies the tragedy:”But evidently Schumann knew nothing of her female forbears. This is the greatest tragedy of women’s history—namely that it keeps being erased.”

    There is something about women being erased from history that destroys their inner self in terms of confidence… so the tragedy is a double one – erasure by “his – story” and by her…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, Mary! FAR readers, if you haven’t read it yet, do read Ecstasy, Mary’s novel about Alma Mahler and Illuminations, her novel about Hildegard–and all her other novels, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love it! And who’s heard of Mozart’s sister Nannerl (her nickname) who is said by some to have been as good as Wolfie? Or Rachel Portman (born in 1960), who writes mostly for movies like Chocolat? She wrote a wonderful children’s opera based on The Little Prince. Or Marin Alsop, a protegee of Leonard Bernstein who has conducted the New York Philharmonic and is conductor of the Baltimore Symphony and (I think) the Vienna Radio Orchestra? There are wonderful women in music who have been and are still ignored by “authorities” who think only men can write and conduct great music. Bummer!

    I’m still hoping you’ll write another novel about Alma in which Mahler will get what he deserves for being such a tyrant in their marriage.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Mozart’s sister was also a composer, and the better piano performer of the two. She was discouraged from composing and publishing her compositions by her father and brother. I remember my father telling me this when I was a young piano student. Mozart was my favorite composer, but I remember the keen disappointment I felt when I learned about his treatment of his equally talented sister.

    Liked by 4 people

    • There’s a cool mystery novel titled Mozart’s Last Aria by Matt Rees in which Nannerl, who has retired to a boring married life in the country, goes to Vienna to solve the mystery of her brother’s murder. Guess whodunnit?

      Like

    • There is also a movie about Mozart’s sister. It is a bit dated in its cinematography, but it is worth watching. There is also a truly beautiful children’s book about her, too. Every child should read it!

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  5. Thank you for writing women back into history! Your book on Hildegard was marvelous; it was part of my deep dive into her life and medieval world and I’ve been reading everything I can find on her – she even appears inspirationally in my latest novel, the second in a series about women in America who founded a web of women-led villages a hundred years ago (contemporary revisioning). By your work of showing how women IRL are disappeared by history, I’m inspired to imagine what might have been … and what could happen when we imagine a different approach to lifestyle that is not based in patriarchy.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for this post! Such an important issue – and so tragically common. Many people don’t know that John Stuart Mill really wrote his famous ideas in collaboration with Harriet Taylor – he was very clear about it, even though she was too modest to take credit! This is much more common than it is uncommon – it is not the exception, it is the norm!

    Like

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