Saturday, February 21, 2009

women in music

Until recent history, women's roles as professional musicians were limited. The classical music world is known for being a male-dominated industry. It wasn't too long ago that women with any association with music were considered to have a "loose character." I am happy that my involvement with the classical music world has more-or-less been positive on the gender front, but think that our musical education doesn't teach future musicians enough about women composers and performers. Throughout history, several female musicians held their own in an extremely sexist world and continued to practice their art despite the risk of harming their reputation. So, I dedicate this blog to the women of classical music and hope to enlighten my readers to some the composers and performers I admire.

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677)

Primarily a composer of vocal genres such as the madrigal and motet, Strozzi relied on her skills as both a composer and a singer to make a living and is well known for her collections of secular works. Because many of her songs make a play on words based on Strozzi's name, and consistently are written for a soprano with similar vocal strengths, it is hypothesized that Strozzi wrote most of her works for her own virtuosic voice.

Strozzi evidently experience a "wardrobe malfunction" as this portrait was painted.

Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729)
Badass french composer from a family of freemasons. Could it get any cooler? First woman in France to compose and opera and a virtuoso harpsichordist, it helps that de La Guerre married a fellow musician (organist Marin de Le Guerre) so she was not only allowed, but encouraged to practice her art. I'd recommend giving her "Pieces de clavessin" a listen because of their virtuosity and frequently improvisatory nature.

Painting of de La Guerre, perhaps with a newly composed work in her hand?

Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824)

Blinded between the age of two and five, von Paradis was a professional pianist who was admired by good old W.A. Mozart. Her performing career and professional contacts (memorized over 60 concertos by ear, studied with Salieri and is rumored to have had Mozarts's Piano Concerto No. 18 written for her) are remarkable. Von Paradis is also known for devising a music notation system for the blind and establishing a school of music for young girls.

Von Paradis

Maria Anna (Nannerl) Mozart (1751-1829)

Both W.A. and his big sis, Nannerl, were child prodigies. Unfortunately, Nannerl was prohibited from performing once she was old enough to be married. Many correspondences between W.A. and Nannerl reveal that Nannerl composed several works and that W.A. was Nannerl's biggest fan. Unfortunately, none of her manuscripts survive. We can thank Nannerl for aiding her contemporaries in finding some of W.A.'s lost works.

Nannerl Mozart next to some 18th century "big-note" music.

Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

The romance between Clara and Robert Schumann is something out of a soap opera. The early stages of romance deal with themes such as scandal, deceit, the law, and disowning parents. Crazy stuff. Even crazier is Clara's virtuosity and her AMAZING compositions. Schumann's musical education was unparalleled by any of her contemporaries (male or female) and included lessons in counterpoint, orchestration, theory, fugue-writing and even managed her own tours. She continued teaching and performing despite her husbands death and having *gasp* eight children. Everybody can be inspired by the tenacity and intellect of this woman.

Clara hanging out with her hubby.

Amy Beach (1867-1944)

Amy Beach was the first American composer of large-scale art music and was also a virtuoso pianist. Her popularity with Americans of all ages resulted in "Amy Beach Clubs" that celebrated her music. Beach had perfect pitch at a young age and "at the age of one she could sing 40 tunes accurately and always in the same key; before the age of two she improvised alto lines against her mother's soprano melodies; at three she taught herself to read; and at four she mentally composed her first piano pieces and later played them, and could play by ear whatever music she heard, including hymns in four-part harmony (Oxford Music Online)" Even though her formal musical education was limited she still composed large works such as a mass. Listeners should check out her Piano Trio (good stuff).

A young Amy Beach.

Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)

I had to include Ms. Clarke because she was a violist and wrote amazing viola repertoire. Her life as both a performer and a composer is surrounded by mystery. She was one of the first female musicians admitted into England's Queen Hall Orchestra and broke many barriers in the performance world on her instrument of choice: the viola. It is known that her relationship with her parents was rather turbulent, but information about the life of this composer is scarce because her family is reluctant to release her documents and papers. Check out her viola sonata!

Clarke rockin her viola.

Well, I hope this post has inspired some fellow female musicians. Look for future posts on women composers and female performers, because lord knows that I forgot some of the greats in this post (Fanny Mendelssohn, Boulanger, Crawford, Hildegard of Bingen to name a few). Thanks for reading!

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