Dead White Men. That’s a pretty good description of the vast majority of 17th, 18th and 19th century composers. But Anna Beer is trying to make sure that people know a bit about the female side of history.

Classical music fans know the names Mendelssohn and Schumann. Chances are, Felix and Robert leap to mind — but Felix’s sister Fanny was also a composer, and so was Robert Schumann’s wife Clara. Those are just two composers featured in Anna Beer’s new book, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music.

Rachel Martin: Your book profiles a handful of women composers dating back to the 17th century. What was it about the sexism of the time that made it so hard for them to be recognized for the music they were composing and creating?

Anna Beer: Well, sexism, like everything, changes over time. So I think we’ve got two broad kinds of sexism working: one in the earlier period, and one which brings us right up to today. In the earlier period, there were beliefs about the appropriate spheres and appropriate behavior for women. But if you were an exceptionally talented composer, and you did produce astonishing, wonderful music, people would make a kind of exception for you. They’d say, “Your music is equal to men.”

The only thing you had to be very careful of, as a woman, was to behave. You’d have to watch out for being described as courtesan, and you had to marry who you were told to marry, and be innocent and chaste and all the rest of it. But under certain circumstances, in the right place and the right time — particularly if there’s a really powerful female monarch in place who wants somebody to justify their rule and their power, [and] might want a kind of poster girl for female talent — you could succeed. read more at npr.org