Female composers are front and center

Critical Eye

March 25, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Mendelssohn, Schumann, Mahler -- these composers are so famous they usually go by last names alone.

Now consider this roster: Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler. How many people instantly recognize them as composers, too? To narrow the topic even more, how many people have heard their music often enough to think of it as familiar?

Welcome to the history of female composers.

It's a history well worth exploring, especially as we're in the midst of National Women's History Month -- complete with some complementary concert scheduling.

Vocal music by female composers will be the focus of a recital in Baltimore this afternoon, and vocal works by black female composers will be featured during a three-day symposium in College Park this week.

Things have certainly gotten a lot brighter since the early 19th century, when Felix Mendelssohn strongly discouraged his talented sister Fanny from publishing any of her music. That's also more or less when Clara Schumann confined her composing to off-hours, so she wouldn't disturb the concentration of her composer husband, Robert.

There has been considerable improvement, too, since 1902, when Gustav Mahler made Alma give up her promising efforts at composition as a condition of their marriage. (Eight years later, after consulting Sigmund Freud in hopes of saving that marriage, Gustav arranged for the publication of Alma's art songs, but the creativity- and confidence-damage to his wife had been done.)

For the longest time, women who became inspired to create music had to contend with prejudice, ignorance, just plain silliness or even age-old jealousy (which some analysts attribute specifically to Felix Mendelssohn).

Females usually were assumed to be inferior to the male of the composing species, or, at best, capable only of producing light musical entertainment, the aural equivalent of slender romance novels.

But, as Judith Tick writes in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "In the second half of the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st, women composing music are less hampered by ideologies of sexual difference. No style, idiom, genre or technology is beyond them."

The mere fact that Tick contributed a lengthy article about women in music to the 2001 edition of the Grove Dictionary, the musicological bible, says something. No such article informed the previous, 20-volume edition in 1980 (or any earlier one, for that matter); the topic apparently didn't seem relevant.

The very first Grove, by the way, published in 1889, only found 29 female composers to write about. In the more enlightened 1990s, the descendant of that Grove operation put out a whole separate volume devoted to women composers, with more than 900 entries.

Today, music lovers should be familiar with all of that talent, all of that variety. Concert-goers should find works by women on program after program. Since that's not the case, this week's performances can't help but stand out.

Why the relative lack of exposure for women composers?

I suspect that, in many cases, it's the result of genetically ingrained myopia. Or maybe just the old "didn't-know-it-was-there" or "never-got-around-to-it" excuses we hear about other things (like the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's ignoring of a pretty important male composer, Philip Glass, until this year -- a few decades late.)

Every time musicians and presenters shine a spotlight on the achievements of women composers, there's a chance of weakening whatever barriers have been keeping this music from the mainstream.

Soprano Esther Hardenbergh has been performing a program of repertoire by American women for three years, throughout this country and in Europe. It's the program she'll sing today at Baltimore's Second Presbyterian Church, with works ranging in style from the late-romanticism of Amy Beach to the edginess of maverick Libby Larsen.

"I love bringing this recital to people and, hopefully, opening up their eyes a little bit," Hardenbergh says. "But there is resistance in some places. When I tell people I'm singing songs by Gwyneth Walker and Nancy Wertsch, they go, 'Huh? Don't you sing any Schubert songs?'"

Once she gets her foot in the door, though, Hardenbergh says that audience response is invariably positive. The singer is already planning a sabbatical, when she'll "do more research and see about adding more women composers to the pot."

Hardenbergh's recital program includes music by two of the most distinguished African-American women composers of the 20th century, Florence Price and Margaret Bonds.

Those two will also figure on a Thursday afternoon concert that is part of "This Is Her Story ... This Is Her Song," a three-day symposium focusing on songs "by, about and through black women" at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland University. Various genres, from gospel and jazz to Motown and rap, will be explored during the symposium.

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