“Never Call Us Lady Composers”

The Struggle for Recognition of Great Female Composers

Comparatively little attention was given to the music of female composers before the latter half of the 20th century. The composer Marion Bauer commented on the apparent scarcity of female composers at a New York Composers’ Forum concert in 1937: “There are a great many more than you think. What many women composers need is encouragement and an opportunity to work and to be taken seriously… Just think of us as composers and never call us lady composers.” Despite opposition from a male-dominated profession, the compositions of many notable female composers throughout history show the unique contributions that women have made to the music world.

Hear Song Without Words Op. 8 No. 3, composed by Fanny Mendelssohn but originally published under Felix’s name, at 6:00 PM, Tuesday, March 8 on Classical KING FM.

Music history has largely failed to recognize the quality of the works of women for a variety of reasons. Male-dominated arts culture invented endless excuses for a woman’s supposed lack of creative ability.  Early “scholarly” discourse on the subject ranged from theories of the different fundamental urges of men and women (to “provide and achieve” vs. “be beautiful and be loved”) to theories of the natural physical behavior of male and female members of the species. One study as late as 1974 even sought to use baby monkeys to explain the creative behavior of socialized human beings, citing laboratory research where the male monkeys explored and fought each other while the female monkeys sat and watched.  This same culture maintained strict gender roles in the household until the latter half of the 20th century, and the profession of composition, indeed professional music-making in general, was discouraged in favor of traditional female work connected to family and home.

Hear Clara Schumann’s Romance in A minor at 7:44 PM, Tuesday, March 8 on Classical KING FM.

Despite the stigma against female creativity, women have been successful as both composers and performers throughout the history of music. The German Benedictine Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was one of music’s earliest documented innovators and one of the most prolific composers of the medieval period. Female singers achieved widespread fame beginning in the mid-17th century, and the role of the diva in the history of opera is not to be ignored. Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was renowned from a very young age as a solo pianist and composer in the 19th century, with concert tours rivaling Liszt and Chopin. The composer and conductor Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) would become one of the most influential pedagogues of the 20th century, premiering many works now considered standard and training many of the genre’s most important composers and performers. Her sister Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) was another female composer who possessed an incredible gift. Examples of women’s influence on the course of music history are seemingly endless.

 Top, left to right: Unsuk Chin, Judith Weir, Kaija Saariaho, Tansy Davies.
Bottom, left to right: Charlotte Bray, Rebecca Saunders, Liza Lim, Sally Beamish. Photograph: The Guardian

Marriage often required great artistic minds to curtail their musical activities. Possibly the most famous case would be that of Alma Schindler (1879-1964), a highly talented composer in her own right who was explicitly requested to stop composing upon her marriage to Gustav Mahler. Amy Beach (1867-1944) was the first successful American female composer. A pianist and child prodigy, she made her solo debut in Boston at the age of 16 and performed with the Boston Symphony at 18. Marriage cut her solo career short, as her husband asked that she focus her musical energy on composition. Nevertheless the breadth of her compositional output encompassed many masterworks for orchestra, piano, or solo voice, works full of emotional depth with a lush post-romantic aesthetic. She would later regain an international performing career after the death of her husband. A similar young piano virtuoso in Sweden, Laura Netzel (1839-1937) switched her musical focus to composition after her marriage, seeking to avoid the “lady composer” label by composing under the pseudonym Lago.

Hear Amy Beach’s Piano Trio in A minor at 8:44 AM, Tuesday, March 8 on Classical KING FM.

With the development of the feminist movement and various advancements in the rights of women in the second half of the 20th century came a broader acceptance of the work of great female composers. In the American musical canon alone, names that rose to prominence include Jennifer Higdon, Libby Larsen, Cindy McTee, Shulamit Ran, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Augusta Read Thomas, Joan Tower, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, to name a few. As a result of modern equality between male and female members of the profession, music has begun to look back to discover hidden gems of music previously overlooked by a gender-biased arts community. The beauty and power of these works is yet another reminder of how the world was tragically deprived as a result of the marginalization of female composers.

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