While the current Democratic frontrunner in the U.S. presidential election is a woman, the idea of glass ceilings isn’t too far from public discourse. And not just in politics.
What did it take to be a great classical composer? Genius was essential, of course. So too was a sustained education in composition. Usually, the great composer needed a professional position, whether court musician, conservatory professor, or Kapellmeister, and the authority, income and opportunities provided by that position. A great composer required access to the places where music is performed and circulated, whether cathedral, court, printers or opera house. And most, if not all, had wives, mistresses and muses, to support, stimulate and inspire their great achievements. There is, of course, a simpler answer: be born male.
The good news is that, although it might have been easier to achieve as a man, there are many painfully underappreciated female composers who were undoubtedly great. These forgotten women achieved artistic greatness despite the fact that for centuries the idea of genius has remained a male preserve; despite working in cultures which systematically denied almost all women access to advanced education in composition; despite not being able, by virtue of their sex, take up a professional position, control their own money, publish their own music, enter certain public spaces; and despite having their art reduced to simplistic formulas about male and female music — graceful girls, vigorous intellectual boys. Many of these women continued to compose, despite subscribing to their society’s beliefs as to what they were capable of as a woman, how they should live as a woman, and, crucially, what they could (and could not) compose as a woman. That’s often where their true courage lies.
SOUNDS AND SWEET AIRS reveals the hidden stories of eight remarkable composers, taking the reader on a journey from seventeenth-century Medici Florence to London in the Blitz.
Yes, women wrote music, they wrote it well, and they wrote it against the odds.
Some you may have heard of and some you likely haven’t.
What of Barbara Strozzi, who had more music in print in the 17th century than any other composer and was known and admired far beyond her native Venice?
Clara Schumann, certainly one of the great pianists of the 19th-century, silenced herself as a composer for many reasons, none of them good. The usual interpretation is that she was overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood (Clara had eight children, seven of whom survived childhood), coupled with the need to support her seriously ill husband, Robert, himself a famed composer. However, she wrote some of her greatest works (her Piano Trio, for example) during acutely stressful times as a young wife and mother, and even when Robert was slowly dying in an asylum, Clara continued the most punishing of touring schedules, spending months on the road away from her family. It was Clara herself who, after Robert’s death, stopped composing, working tirelessly instead to promote her husband’s work and creating the (male) canon that would, ironically, exclude her. The music she did write is good, sometimes great: what she was capable of we will never know.