Sunday, September 13, 2009

Women Composers

In 1966, James Brown famously crooned that “It’s a Man’s World,” and as far as the world of classical music composers is concerned, this has generally been the case. The reasons for this are many. Most obvious is simply a lack of musical education. Until the 20th century, classical education tended to limit how far a woman would go in her schooling, and the only real chance a girl had at even a basic music education was to be born into a musical family, the aristocracy, or to be sent to a nunnery.

Other reasons that historical women composers are few and far between are darker. For much of the past millennium, it was generally held that the serious study of music was for men only. In the 19th century, Abraham Mendelssohn, father to Felix and Fanny, famously wrote to his daughter, “Perhaps for Felix music will become a profession, while for you it will always remain but an ornament; never can and should it become the foundation of your existence." With such a restrictive attitude very much the cultural norm, it should come as no surprise that Clara Schumann would confide a resulting lack of self confidence in her diary. "I once thought I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose - there has never yet been one able to, and why should I expect to be the one?" Both Fanny and Clara have gone on to claim their rightful spots in history, but during their life, that was certainly not the case.

Much like Susan B. Anthony serves as the figure head of American women’s suffrage, Hildegard of Bingen may serve that role for women composers. Born in 1098, Hildegard was a Renaissance Woman 400 years before that was possible. Tithed to the church as a young girl, Hildegard’s creative and scholarly output is impressive; in addition to her composition activities, she conducted early studies in to linguistics, developed her own alphabet, was an accomplished naturalist, herbalist, poet, magistra, channeller, and founder of several spin-off monasteries. However, her place in music history is solid. While over 70 of her works survive today, her Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues) is considered the oldest morality play with music. While Ordo Virtutum tells a story of the Devil and the Virtues battling for a human soul, the genre as a whole would develop in to a European institution for the next 500 years.

While a handful of other women composers’ names are sprinkled throughout the Middle Ages, the next woman composer of significance doesn’t appear until the middle Baroque in the 1600’s. Not only unique for publishing her music in single-composer volumes, Barbara Strozzi has been called "the most prolific composer-man or woman-of printed secular vocal music in Venice in the Middle of the century." However, for every woman composer we might think to mention for the next 300 years, the general musical public could more easily produce the names of dozens of male composers. Even given the quality of output by Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, the average classical music concertgoer would be hard pressed to recall ever hearing a live performance of one of these composers’ works.

Thankfully, heading beyond 1900, that trend has very slowly begun to change. Amy Beach’s early 20th century American and European concert tours brought her music to the masses, and to this day she is the only woman included among the 87 composers listed on the Boston Pop’s “Hatch Memorial Shell.” And Nadia Boulanger, although not typically remembered for her own compositions, is considered among the greatest composition teachers ever, counting among her students Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, John Adams, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Glass, Astor Piazzolla, and hundreds of others. When asked about being the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony in 1939, she replied, "Well, I have been a woman for 50 years now and have recovered from my initial astonishment." Perhaps it is this attitude that has begun to provide parity for women composers today.

In our inaugural season, the Dallas Festival of Modern Music is proud to present ensemble-in-residence Ars Nova Dallas, who will be presenting concerts featuring two of today’s leading women composers, Joan Tower and Barbara White. Visit our Performance Calendar for a list of performances and come hear the music of these remarkable women!

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