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The Liberation of Women Composers: Overcoming a History of Sexism in the Classical Music World


PRESENTED ON FEBRUARY 11, 2023 at the RAW Conference

(Women, Art, Freedom)

University of Texas at Dallas

Winner of 12th Annual Sherry Clarkson Prize for Best Scholarly Paper


Please find for your enjoyment my award winning paper below:





Few women composers from before the twentieth century are household names or remembered for any significant contribution to classical music. Exceptions include the first internationally acknowledged composer, Hildegard Von Bingen, and internationally recognized nineteenth century composers Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn. Many factors prevented women from pursuing careers in composition before the twentieth century, such as unequal educational opportunities, the overriding patriarchal attitudes in society that encouraged people to place men’s achievements over those of women’s during their lifetimes and in the historical record, and the greater household and family responsibilities imposed on women. Despite this, there were many talented and successful women composers that lived and worked before the twentieth century. Unfortunately, these women composers are largely forgotten because they are not included in the major music history textbooks used to educate subsequent generations of musicians and music teachers and their music is not regularly played by professional ensembles. These women are unjustly left out of the historical compositional narrative that all aspiring musicians are taught in music conservatories and colleges. This historiographical paper will suggest just a few of the many women composers that deserve a place within the dominant music history narrative. Not only did these women write great music but they fought to gain recognition in a predominately sexist field. I will end by asking whether women composers have been fully liberated or if they still face obstacles while studying in today’s classical conservatories and music departments and forming their professional careers. In recent years, enlightening articles and publications have helped erode private and public barriers to women in the classical composition world. Despite recent progress, there is much work still needed to achieve gender equality in the classical music composition field and beyond.


In 1882, a critic in the The Musical Times (a popular periodical at the time) wrote, “A woman who, when taking a pencil, pen or music-sheet, forgets what are the character and obligations of her sex, is a monster who excites disgust and repulsion…They are neither men nor women, but something which has no name and no part in life.”[1] This disparaging comment about women composers was only published 141 years ago and shows a glimpse of the challenges women composers faced just a few generations ago. Furthermore, in the music composition world, attitudes towards women composers have not improved as much as they have in other fields. Since 1994, only 2.47 percent of the Society of Music Theory conference presentations have been on music by women composers.[2] Even this statistic is misleading because half of these presentations were part of special sessions organized by the Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in 2000, 2002, and 2010.[3]


Despite many centuries of discrimination, there have always been several women composers in almost all the musical periods and much of their music is still performed today. The big-name women composers still popular today include Hildegard Von Bingen, Clara Schumann, and Fanny Mendelssohn. The main reason most people, including professional musicians, do not know these women composers’ names and music is because they are not included in the main music history textbooks and curriculum used in music conservatories and university departments. In turn, music teachers educated in these post-secondary programs do not teach their students and the greater general public about the many women composers throughout history. Researchers working on projects, such as the “Donne, Women in Music” project (https://donne-uk.org) based in the United Kingdom, are trying to bring greater recognition to women composers. The researchers leading the project are actively working on recording all the women composers, throughout history, in their online database. In this paper, I will focus on lesser-known women that were equally influential as composers during their lifetimes. Most of these women shared the following traits: they were skilled virtuosos on various keyboard instruments, they came from highly musical families, they came from middle class or upper middle-class families that could fund their musical instruction, and they were connected to prominent male composers of their time either through instruction or the virtue of their position within society.


If we look close enough at the historical record, there are successful women composers in every musical period. Many of these women can from privileged backgrounds where they had access to quality musical education. Duchess Sophie-Elisabeth of Braunschweig-Lüneburg was an important figure in German baroque music.[4] She managed the music in her husband’s court of Wolfenbüttel in Lower Saxony.[5] Celebrated composer Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672), when he was Kapellmeister at the nearby court of Dresden, also guided Sophie-Elisabeth in the running of the court’s music and her own compositional activities.[6] She produced Festspiele, which were large-scale compositions that consisted of alternating spoken text, instrumental music, dances, and vocal music.[7] These productions featured elaborate sets, staging, and costumes, much like an opera or a musical does in the present day.[8]


In France in the same time period, French composer, harpsichordist, and organist Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre (1665–1729) was the first woman to have a composition, her opera Céphale et Procris, staged at the Académie Royale de Musique, which was the renowned opera house in Paris during that time.[9] Astonishingly, Jacquet de La Guerre was not one of the first women opera composers. Women had been composing operas since the invention of opera. Francesca Caccini is arguably more famous than her father, Giulio Caccini, one of the composers credited with inventing opera.[10] Jacquet de La Guerre benefitted from growing up in a musical family and living near Versailles, during the reign of Louis XIV (The Sun King).[11] Her father, who was probably her earliest teacher, was the organist of the prestigious baroque church of Saint-Louis-en-l’Île.[12]


Josephine Lang, a romantic period composer, came from a highly musical family.[13] All four of her grandparents were professional musicians.[14] One of her grandmothers was a coloratura soprano and one of her grandfathers had been a waldhorn virtuoso in the famous Mannheim court orchestra.[15] The Mannheim orchestra is famous for revolutionizing orchestral technique in the classical period including the establishment of sonata-allegro form and orchestral crescendi and diminuendi.[16] Her father, Theobald Lang (1783–1839), was the principal waldhorn player for the Munich Court Orchestra and later the Kapellmeister.[17]


Josephine Lang was taught piano and composition by her mother from the age of three.[18] After her mother died when Josephine was twelve, she studied with other accomplished musicians such as Felix Mendelssohn.[19] Mendelssohn was impressed by Lang’s skills as a composer, but noticed she was lacking fundamental counterpoint studies, so he made that the focus of their lessons.[20] Before the twentieth century, European composers mainly learned counterpoint in boy choral schools, which were closed to women.[21] This reality put aspiring women composers at an inherent disadvantage. Strikingly, when I interviewed Tamsin Jones, a British female-identifying composer in December 2022, she explained we are still experiencing the aftermath of the legacy of all male choirs and choir schools. According to Jones, most of the directors of the most prestigious choirs in countries, such as England, are male, so it is still rare for women composed music to be performed in major cathedrals.


Ultimately, Lang and many of her female contemporaries were privately educated.[22] This lack of so-called public education (in European countries independently run fee-paying schools are referred to as public schools and one-on-one private tutoring is referred to as private education) resulted in women not having student colleagues they could collaborate with or use as important professional resources later in life.[23] In the Victorian era, women were encouraged to prioritize the rearing of children over their professional pursuits.[24] Musicologist Marian Wilson Kimber argues that the societal constraints imposed during this time made it almost impossible for women composers to have as successful careers as male composers of equal talent.[25] According to Kimber, the encouragement of individual men, such as Felix Mendelssohn who encouraged his younger sister Fanny, was not enough to overcome the oppressive patriarchal structure.[26] Arguably, Kimber is correct because it is hard to name any women composers in the nineteenth century that reached the level of fame and recognition of the highest achieving male composers, such as Wagner and Brahms.


Towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century the situation for women composers did improve. Due to societal reform, women started studying composition in the same prestigious institutions as men. For example, Nadia Boulanger, who would become one of the most famous composition teachers in history, enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire in 1896.[27] Her younger sister, Lili Boulanger, who was arguably a more talented composer, won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1913, but tragically Lili passed away at the age of 24 in 1918.[28]Conversely, her sister Nadia Boulanger went on to live a long life and become internationally influential in the composition community.


Nadia Boulanger’s teachers included famous composer and organist Gabriel Fauré, and, in addition to her studies in composition, she had a thorough education in theory and counterpoint, piano, and organ.[29] With the help of the influential community at the Paris Conservatoire she formed the Comité Franco-Américain.[30] She solidified this French-American music compositional collaboration by becoming faculty at Ecole Normale de Musique, which still welcomes American composition students every July, and founding the Conservatoire Américain at Fontainebleau in 1921.[31] Famous American composer Aaron Copland was in the inaugural class at Fontainebleau.[32] Boulanger would go on to teach some of the most prominent American composers of the twentieth century including Elliot Carter, Walter Piston, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, and David Conte. She famously rejected George Gershwin as a student, whose fame eventually eclipsed that of most of her students. The complete list of her American students can be found on her official website (https://www.nadiaboulanger.org/nb/amstudents.html). Interestingly, out of her 137 American composition students only 13 were women. That means only around 9.5% of her students were women, showing that women composers were rare in America for most of the first half and much of the second half of the twentieth century. Arguably, none of the 13 women composers who studied with Nadia Boulanger are household names or still have their music performed by major American orchestras or ensembles in contemporary times. Conversely, there are many women composers, who either are active professional composers or hold prestigious professor positions, who studied with the students of Nadia Boulanger. One prominent example is American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, who studied with Elliott Carter, who studied with Nadia Boulanger. Zwilich was famously the first woman composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. She currently teaches at Florida State University.[33] Boulanger may have not directly helped the plight of other women composers, but, indirectly, through her male students her ideas and pedagogical practices were passed down to the next generation of women composers.


Women composers in other countries were also making a name for themselves and helping other women do the same. In England, one of the women suffragists (commonly referred to as suffragettes) was the prominent composer Ethel Smyth.[34] She is most known today for her song, “The March of the Women,” which eventually became the official anthem of the suffragette movement, but she also wrote six operas, a mass, a ballet, and many chamber works.[35] She was the first woman to have an opera (Der Wald) premiered by the Metropolitan Opera of New York in 1903.[36]  The Met did not premiere another opera written by a woman until 2017.


Many would argue that women are still not treated as equal to men in the compositional world. While there are many prominent women composers, such as Jennifer Higdon, Joan Tower, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and Libby Larsen, many composition departments in America are still predominately male.[37] There are no universally agreed reasons for this gender disparity. All I can offer is my opinion, based on my personal experiences as a woman composer. When I was studying at Boston Conservatory, from 2007-2011, I was one of only two or three female composers in any given year in a department of over 30 composers. I believe this gender disparity was not due to less women applying to the program. Back in the early 2000s, women had to prove themselves to be more motivated and less distracted than their male peers to be accepted into composition programs. Many women were viewed as liabilities rather than assets for various reasons including how they supposedly influenced men around them, and they were generally discriminated against for being mothers or married. Arguably, women composers are not yet fully liberated and treated equally to male composers, so it is up to us and the greater musical community to decide why women composers have been repressed for so long.

 

Key words: classical music composition; women composers; historiography; women’s labor history; Western Art Music


[1] Linda Kouvaras, Maria Grenfell, and Natalie Williams. A Century of Composition by Women: Music Against the Odds. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022): 2.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] Ibid., 17.

[4] Cecelia Hopkins Porter, Five Lives in Music: Women Performers, Composers, and Impresarios from the Baroque to the Present. (University of Illinois Press, 2012): 10.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cecelia Hopkins Porter, Five Lives in Music: Women Performers, Composers, and Impresarios from the Baroque to the Present. (University of Illinois Press, 2012): 10.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 39.

[10] Duncan, Cheryll. Review of The Siren of Heaven—A Glimpse into the Life and Works of Francesca Caccini, by Juliet Fraser (soprano) and Jamie Akers (theorbo). Early Modern Women 12, no. 2 (2018): 218-223. doi:10.1353/emw.2018.0022.

[11] Cecelia Hopkins Porter, Five Lives in Music: Women Performers, Composers, and Impresarios from the Baroque to the Present. (University of Illinois Press, 2012): 40.

[12] Ibid., 44.

[13] Ibid., 78.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.,

[16] Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Mannheim school." Encyclopedia Britannica, February 14, 2007. https://www.britannica.com/art/Mannheim-school.

[17] Cecelia Hopkins Porter, Five Lives in Music: Women Performers, Composers, and Impresarios from the Baroque to the Present. (University of Illinois Press, 2012): 79.

[18] Ibid., 83.

[19] Ibid., 85.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 102.

[23] Cecelia Hopkins Porter, Five Lives in Music: Women Performers, Composers, and Impresarios from the Baroque to the Present. (University of Illinois Press, 2012): 102.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Jeanice Brooks, and Kimberly Francis, eds. Nadia Boulanger: Thoughts on Music. NED-New edition. (Boydell & Brewer, 2020): xx.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] “Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.” Florida State University College of Music, July 15, 2022. https://music.fsu.edu/person/ellen-taffe-zwillich/

[34] Imogen Tilden, “'She's Badass': How Brick-Throwing Suffragette Ethel Smyth Composed an Opera to Shake up Britain.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, May 19, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2022/may/19/suffragette-ethel-smyth-opera-the-wreckers

[35] Ibid.

[36] Crystal A. Frost, “How Female Classical Composers Are Encouraging Gender Equality.” Recording Academy, April 8, 2020. https://www.grammy.com/news/how-female-classical-composers-are-encouraging-gender-equality

[37] Ibid.






Bibliography

 

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Mannheim school." Encyclopedia Britannica, February 14, 2007. https://www.britannica.com/art/Mannheim-school.

 

Brooks, Jeanice, and Kimberly Francis, eds. Nadia Boulanger: Thoughts on Music. NED-New edition. Boydell & Brewer, 2020. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvxhrmb7.

 

Duncan, Cheryll. Review of The Siren of Heaven—A Glimpse into the Life and Works of Francesca Caccini, by Juliet Fraser (soprano) and Jamie Akers (theorbo). Early Modern Women 12, no. 2 (2018): 218-223. doi:10.1353/emw.2018.0022.


“Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.” Florida State University College of Music, July 15, 2022. https://music.fsu.edu/person/ellen-taffe-zwillich/


Frost, Crystal A. “How Female Classical Composers Are Encouraging Gender Equality.” Recording Academy, April 8, 2020. https://www.grammy.com/news/how-female-classical-composers-are-encouraging-gender-equality


Kouvaras, Linda, Maria Grenfell, and Natalie Williams. A Century of Composition by Women: Music Against the Odds. (Palgrave Macmillan), 2022.

 

Porter, Cecelia Hopkins. Five Lives in Music: Women Performers, Composers, and Impresarios from the Baroque to the Present. University of Illinois Press, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt2ttds4.


Tilden, Imogen. “'She's Badass': How Brick-Throwing Suffragette Ethel Smyth Composed an Opera to Shake up Britain.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, May 19, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2022/may/19/suffragette-ethel-smyth-opera-the-wreckers

 

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