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Unheard voices: overcoming barriers in women’s music composition

Until recently, women were regularly dismissed as unable to compose music. In 1894, the French physician Havelock Ellis said, ‘There is certainly no art in which they have shown themselves more helpless’. In 1891, the music critic Eduard Hanslick stated that women were less capable than men of mental achievements. In 1940, the psychologist Carl Seashore blamed the lack of music composed by women on women’s urge to be loved and admired, rather than to achieve.

These men, and countless others like them, chose to ignore the many factors which inhibited women from composing, distributing, and hearing performances of their music. These factors included lack of education, the demands of marriage and children, societal pressures (Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in 1762 that ‘a woman outside of the home displays herself indecently’), limited opportunities for performance, difficulties in getting published, and limited archiving.

Educating women to the same level as men was unusual until relatively recently. The few who were lucky enough to receive a full education included wealthy aristocrats from artistic families, like Duchess Maria Antonia Walpurgis Symphorosa (1724-80) and those who studied privately with ambitious parents, such as Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-96). By the late 19th century, women sought training and validation at institutions, but formal studies were complicated by various challenges: Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) and Betzy Holmberg (1860-1900) both left Leipzig Conservatoire early, finding its tuition unsatisfactory. At the Paris Conservatoire, Louise Farrenc (1804-75) found that composition classes were only for men. Oxford University blocked the Bachelor of Music degree earned by Elizabeth Stirling (1819-95) on learning she was female.

Marriage further impacted women’s composing. Fortunately, the husbands of Amy Marcy Beach (1867-1944) and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) allowed them to continue composing, though they forbade them from performing. Maria Agata Szymanowska (1789-1831) divorced her husband after he objected to her career. Betzy Holmberg stopped composing after her marriage.

Robert Schumann’s wife Clara (1819-96) continued composing until his death, but Robert believed his work took precedence over hers, saying that ‘Clara herself knows that her main occupation is as a mother’. Of course, Clara Schumann’s eight children, two miscarriages, her husband’s failing mental health and her career as a virtuoso pianist considerably inhibited her freedom to compose, but her famous statement: ‘a woman must not wish to compose—there never was one able to do it’ also points to another challenge which afflicted many (most?) women composers: the internalising of society’s doubts about their ability.

Women favoured small-scale works for ‘feminine’ instruments: the violin, piano, and harp, so the scarcity of music by women for organ—long considered a ‘male’ instrument—is hardly surprising. Perhaps women yearned for more sonority, colour, and volume, as many of those small-scale pieces transcribe easily; in fact, some are more effective on the organ than on the instruments for which they were written. For example, Louise Farrenc’s ‘Fugue on Two Subjects’ greatly benefits from the organ’s sustaining power and the structural clarity that imaginative registration on two or three manuals brings. Clara Schumann’s Op. 16, No.3 states ‘for piano’, but only by playing the bass notes on the organ pedals can the player cope with the wide stretches and sustain the long pedal-points adequately.

Those of us who care about making women’s voices heard must mourn the loss of so much music from the past; much was unpublished or discarded, and the authorship of published pieces was sometimes obscured by pseudonyms or gender-neutral names. Dozens of unpublished scores by Florence Price (1887-1953) were discovered by chance in 2009 in a dilapidated house. Augusta Holmés first published under a pseudonym; Betzy Holberg published her early works as the gender-neutral ‘B.Holmberg’, and ‘Clement de Bourges’ was only recently identified as Clementine de Bourges (c1530-61).

Women composers today thankfully face far fewer challenges in being published and heard. Yet, as Sara Mohr-Pietsch claimed in a recent article for the Guardian newspaper, 40% of living composers are female, and yet only about 17% of names on music publishers’ lists are female. The balance is slowly shifting in many publishers’ catalogues, as evidenced by new works such as The Oxford Book of Organ Music by Women Composers. However, this situation will only improve if we celebrate women’s music in every way available to us: by publishing, playing, recording, and teaching their music, as well as highlighting both their historic and ongoing contribution to music history, and joining bodies which promote them, such as The Society of Women Organists.

Feature image: Organ musical instrument by Eloy-CM. Getty Images via Canva.

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