An intriguing post popped up in my Tumblr feed recently, called “The all-white reinvention of Medieval Europe” from the blog Medieval POC. Both in this post and generally throughout the blog the author makes the point that “People of Color are not an anachronism”, and goes into great detail about the whitewashing of European medieval art, with the removal or suppression of the representation of People of Color therein by later historians.
It got me thinking about how women composers are often treated as an anachronism. Music history classes tend to jump from Hildegard von Bingen straight to Libby Larsen, and even then as a sort of afterthought. (Granted, it’s been about ten years since I’ve taken a music history course, so perhaps things have changed since then.) Coincidentally enough, it was brought to my attention not long after reading the Medieval POC post that Tuesday marks the 400th anniversary of composer Sophie Elisabeth, Duchess of Brunswick-Lüneburg’s birth. Never heard of her? Neither had I.
In her “Women in Music” article on Grove Music Online, Judith Tick writes that Sophie Elisabeth was one of the earliest documented German female composers after the Middle Ages. Born on 20 August 1613, Sophie Elisabeth was also a poet and librettist, as well as being what we today might call an arts administrator. She was responsible for the organization of the court orchestra and established a tradition of several annual performances of various types (plays, ballets, masquerades), for which she also wrote some of the music. Sophie Elisabeth worked closely with Heinrich Schütz (he was kind of a big deal back then), who started out as her musical adviser and later collaborated with her on at least one project. He called her a “uniquely accomplished princess, particularly in the worshipful calling of music.” She composed several hymn melodies, as well as four Singspiele (“sung plays”), among other works. Sadly, most of her work is either lost or very difficult to access.
As composer Kristin Kuster recently pointed out in the New York Times, “we’ve still got a long way to go” before today’s women composers are represented in equal numbers with today’s men composers on faculties and in the concert hall. Similarly, we’ve still got a long way to go before the women composers of the past are represented in a way that even comes close to the representation of the men composers of the past. It would be excellent if the music history books of the near future were woven through with women composers, instead of patching them in here and there.
As a parting gift I leave you with this 1977 documentary about the 20th century composer Nadia Boulanger commemorating her 90th birthday. It’s really more about her illustrious career as a composition teacher than as a composer, but interesting nonetheless. Bonus: you get to hear Leonard Bernstein speaking fluently in French.
- “A Suggestion for Composer of the Week — some women” on The Rambler, including three woman-composer Spotify playlists
- The Grove Music Online “Women in music” timeline (subscription required)
- Kyle Gann’s “My Favorite Women Composers of All Time” list
Or, you know, google it!