Women have a hand in classical music

May 20, 1994|By James Roos | James Roos,Knight-Ridder News Service

"I have composed absolutely nothing this winter. What does it matter anyway? Nobody takes any notice."

Fanny Mendelssohn wrote that in 1837, and today, 147 years after her death, most of her 400 musical works remain unpublished. Even her famous brother Felix Mendelssohn insisted that his sister publish the few compositions she managed to get printed under his name.

Why? Because Fanny was a woman.

She was not alone in her despair. Throughout history, the musical talent of hundreds of women has gone unfulfilled. Novelist Virginia Woolf once compared the situation of a woman composer in the early part of this century to that of an actress in Shakespeare's day -- hopeless. Men made music, women made babies.

Even as recently as 25 years ago, compositions by women were infrequently programmed, and a female conductor was a novelty.

Today the situation has drastically changed. Women are not only present, they're in charge at almost every level on the classical music scene.

A decade ago, barely a dozen female conductors waved batons over American orchestras; in 1994, 57 women conductors in the United States led orchestras, from Oregon to Michigan to Virginia. The New York Philharmonic and Chicago's Lyric Opera (the third-largest opera company in the United States) have women as executive directors. And in the past decade, two female composers -- Florida-born Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Chicago's Shulamit Ran -- received Pulitzer Prizes.

"It was bound to happen," says Catherine French, executive director of the American Symphony Orchestra League. Women are finally taking their deserved place on podiums and in concert halls. There are an estimated 600 prominent female composers of classical music worldwide and major orchestras boast more women in their ranks than ever before. In 30 years, the St. Louis Symphony has gone from a handful of female players to 37 -- a full third of that renowned orchestra.

The changes, though, have been most dramatic in conducting and composing, and one by-product is new interest in neglected female composers of earlier days. Women's organizations like San Francisco's Women's Philharmonic and the Louisville chamber ensemble Ars Femina are digging up forgotten compositions by women.

Nineteenth and early 20th century women were encouraged to study music as a social grace. They played parlor piano, and a few, like Clara Schumann, became professional soloists. But composing was strictly man's work.

Chicago critic George Upton virtually said so in his notorious 1880 book "Woman in Music": "It does not seem that woman will ever originate music in its fullest and grandest harmonic forms. She will always be the recipient and interpreter, but there is little hope that she will be the creator."

As if to refute that, Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition showcased female composers like France's Cecile Chaminade, who wrote charmingly romantic music, and America's Amy Marcy Beach, whose scores -- especially her "Gaellic" Symphony -- are in the vein of Dvorak.

Women instrumentalists were, in fact, fairly common in the last century, as were divas at the opera. But female composers had to struggle, even though women have been writing music for nearly 400 years. Francesca Caccini, whose father Giulio created one of the first operas in history, was not only a composer but the first woman to write an opera -- "La Liberazione di Ruggiero," unveiled in Florence in 1625.

But it's only in recent years, with the rise of female performing groups, that the existence of so many 17th and 18th century female composers has become known. Nannerl Recordings, in Louisville, Ky., which records the Ars Femina Ensemble, has so far uncovered about 50 Baroque compositions by women, including several by Elizabeth-Claude Jacquet De La Guerre, a favorite of Louis XIV of France. As a child, De La Guerre improvised with the facility of a Mozart, and on her death in 1729, Louis XV struck a medal in her honor. (The Nannerl label, by the way, is named after Mozart's sister, whose talent, like Fanny Mendelssohn's, was smothered by her brother's pre-eminence.)

While there are no women counterparts to such giants as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, or to such revolutionary innovators in this century as Stravinsky and Schoenberg, women will one day have their Beethoven, says Ms. Zwilich.

In 1983 Ms. Zwilich became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in composition, for her Symphony No. 1 and she recently was inducted into the state of Florida Artists Hall of Fame in Tallahassee.

If female composers have always had trouble getting performed, female conductors have traditionally faced even more daunting odds. Conducting, even now, remains something of a male bastion, especially in Europe. The Vienna Philharmonic is still an all-male club whose bylaws officially prohibit female players, and it does not invite women conductors.

In fact, orchestras historically have been thought of as men's clubs.

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