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Unchained melodies: the forgotten women composers of Western classical music

Sounds and Sweet Airs: the Forgotten Women of Classical Music by Anna Beer reviewed.

By Caroline Crampton

If a woman needs money and a room of her own in order to write fiction, what does she need to be able to write music? She must have musical instruction from an early age, ideally sustained over a couple of decades. She would spend her formative years exposed to the work of other contemporary composers – in the classroom, yes, but also in performance. A supportive group of musical mentors to guide and boost her would also come in handy. More than anything, she needs the cast-iron belief that she can make a living by writing music, though few women have historically managed to do so.

For the vast majority, this is an unobtainable set of conditions. To put it another way: a female composer’s room must not only be exclusively hers and come with a steady income, it must also have a good-quality piano in it.

Given the dearth of stories to tell, it would have been easy for Anna Beer’s survey of the few women composers in history to be a litany of woe – indeed, that potential is hinted at. At the start of the book, we get an account of Johanna Kinkel, who was praised by Robert Schumann and mentored by Felix Mendelssohn but ended up trapped in a marriage that required her to care full-time for an activist husband and their four children. Her life ended on the pavement outside their house in St John’s Wood in London – she fell, or threw herself, from an upper window – and her widower seemingly never got round to publishing her compositions after her death.

It would be possible to fill a whole book with stories such as this, the pages littered with the bodies of women who didn’t live to hear their music come to life. Yet Beer has a more positive objective. “I want to celebrate the achievements of the eight composers here,” she writes.

The lives of these women, laid out chronologically from Francesca Caccini in 17th-century Florence to Elizabeth Maconchy in 20th-century Britain, are the forgotten tales of Western classical music. Some are recognisable through their relationships with musical men, such as Fanny Hensel, Mendelssohn’s sister, and Clara Schumann, the wife of Robert. Where possible, Beer tries to give a sense of what the music sounds like but most of the time we are firmly in the realm of conventional biography, replete with furious fathers, faithless husbands and even the odd wayward nun – and occasionally Beer’s otherwise lucid prose lapses into melodrama.

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Although they lived in different centuries, these women faced many of the same setbacks, such as the difficulty in securing any kind of professional musical appointment. Where men could work as a church or court musician to provide a steady income between compositions, for many hundreds of years it was considered unseemly for a woman to be anything more than a talented amateur, especially if she was also a wife and mother.

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As well as these structural obstacles, Beer documents the less subtle barriers they faced. Robert Schumann, despite saying that he wanted an equal creative partnership with his composer wife, Clara, only allowed her to use the piano in their apartment when he was out. Barbara Strozzi, the 17th-century Venetian composer who had more music in print in her lifetime than any other composer of the era, was once described by a courtier in a letter to his master with the phrase: “Oh, what tits!”

Three hundred years later, the head of the Royal College of Music consoled a young Elizabeth Maconchy after she failed to win a prestigious scholarship with the sage observation: “If we’d given it to you, you’d have only got married and never written another note!”

Sexism is one reason why these women’s music is overlooked by history but far more disappointing is what happened to the legacy they left behind. Or rather, the lack of it. While the musical estates of their male contemporaries received fierce protection, too often these women’s music was allowed to disappear from view entirely, out of sight and out of print.

Even if they were celebrated in their lifetimes, in many cases their heirs saw no value in producing new editions or, later, recordings of the music after its composer was gone. In this way, even the few women who managed to compose against the odds were denied entry to the recognised canon we now adhere to and they vanished, rarely to be heard again.

Music by the composers mentioned here can be heard at:

This article appears in the 18 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster