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Musical Musings- Female Composers (or lack thereof)

(26 Posts)
Tyr Mon 05-Sep-11 17:49:49

I wasn’t sure where to post this so this seems a fair option. It is probably a question for music lovers as much as for feminists or anyone else.
I’m a musician in my spare time and have always wondered what we have missed out on through the absence of female composers over the centuries.
Obviously an important voice in music has been all but completely silent until comparatively recently. Some of, for example, the romantic flourishes of Tchaikovsky (who was gay) may be a clue as to the tone of what is missing- I don’t know- perhaps the opposite would be the case. I suppose they would have been as rich and varied as the female voice in literature.
I wonder how, for example, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony would have sounded, had it been composed by a woman.
If anyone wants to indulge my musings, I’d be genuinely interested.

mathanxiety Mon 05-Sep-11 18:21:42

It takes a bit of searching and a taste for off-the-beaten-track sort of music, but they are there and enjoying some popularity in certain circles.

I listen to a classical music station (streaming on my computer) that broadcasts from Chicago. It is by far the best classical station I have ever come across. They play a huge range of music, much more than the usual Baroque fare plus Tchaikovsky that you normally find (lovely though that is). Have learned a lot and heard some great pieces, including just recently music composed by some nuns in southern Italy during the 1600s. Can't recall their names sadly or the names of the pieces, but they were religiously inspired. It occurred to me that when religion started going out of fashion women's voices in music started to dwindle.

Tyr Mon 05-Sep-11 19:07:37

Hildegard de Bingen also composed devotional music although I thought they were a tad insipid.
Clara Schumann seems to be one of the few to have made a lasting impact (although that could be just ignorance on my part) Aside from her virtuosity which had a huge impact on the piano, she composed pieces which are being played more regularly now. She was celebrated, not just by her more famous husband, but by Lizt, Brahms (who she influenced) and the mighty Paganini who performed with her on a number of occasions.
She was seriously outspoken too, particularly about Wagner.

Tyr Mon 05-Sep-11 19:09:52

p.s. Thanks for the links, mathanxiety. I'll check them out later when I get back home

TheSmallClanger Mon 05-Sep-11 20:23:23

Fanny Mendelssohn has some pieces that are still played now.

There was a duchess or princess in the 1700s or 1800s who wrote an opera, but I can't remember who. Still on the royal theme, there are some who claim that "Greensleeves" was written by Elizabeth I.

Thea Musgrave is a modern female composer, still working today.

MrsReasonable Mon 05-Sep-11 22:26:59

Just a few (!)

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 05-Sep-11 22:37:47

What has Tchaikovsky being gay got to do with anything?

FWIW, nuns have been composing religious music for quite a long time, though how much is still extant I don't know. Certainly we know the praecentrix (head of music, essentially) would often be responsible for arranging and composing new music for pageants and plays in medieval monasteries. But much religious music is anonymous, so it is often hard to know by whom it was composed.

I suspect that, as with literature, it's not so much that women didn't compose, as that there hasn't been enough research and dissemination of research that tells us what they were composing.

MrsReasonable Mon 05-Sep-11 22:40:28

Because, LRD, a gay man is basically a woman, obviously.


LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 05-Sep-11 22:43:47

Ok, I'm glad it wasn't just me who didn't feel right with that part of the OP.

I have to say, as well, I find the idea of 'the female voice' (as opposed to 'the male voice', I guess) quite an odd idea, especially in the context of music. Presumably the 'voices' of female composers will be quite varied? I am not a musician, but certainly if we're comparing with literature, there isn't a 'female voice' in literature, IMO.

TheSmallClanger Mon 05-Sep-11 22:51:40

I think there is a lot of female-composed music languishing in anonymous collections, or published under male names and therefore invisible.
Throughout history, women have usually been allowed to learn to play musical instruments, and to teach others to do so. It's when it comes to publishing music, or public performance, that the big male foot has come down - for economic/power reasons I assume.

Tyr Mon 05-Sep-11 22:52:16

I know that both nuns and monks have been composing devotional music but that is different. I was wondering about classical, in the sense of symphonic works.
As regards Tchaikovsky, much of his music contains emotional flourishes which I suspect may have been inspired by his sexuality- as I said, I don't know but there was nothing perjorative intended. I love his music but know that some of his pieces,eg the piano concerto in b flat was derided as being cloying and over sentimental.

Katisha Mon 05-Sep-11 22:53:18

I think this is an interesting question. The problem until recently (ie 20th century) was that women were allowed to be performers to some extent - they needed singers, and there were concert pianists like Fanny Mendelssohn, Mozart's sister Nannerl, Clara Schumann. But they were pretty much all required (apart from Clara) to jack it in once married. Alma Mahler another case in point.

There are many well regarded female composers nowadays, but we hardly have anything extant from earlier periods.

Personally I do find a lot of classical music very "male" and wonder if a woman composer would have bothered with some of it. I am thinking of the massively overblown and interminable symphonies of Bruckner for example, and some of the ever so clever but hard work to listen to stuff from the early and mid 20th century. This is not to say that epic scale or intellectual working out for the sake of it has to equal male, but I wonder whether generally women want that from music.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 05-Sep-11 23:00:38

tyr - I'm sure you may be right about Tchaikovsky's sexuality having an effect on his composition ... but what does that have to do with women? I do see you're not trying to be offensive, but ... well, it is a little bit rude to imply that a gay man might be comparable to a woman in terms of being 'emotional' (for that matter, it's also pretty offensive to suggest gay men are more 'emotional!).

I assumed, since you mentioned Hildegarde, that devotional music wasn't being ruled out of the discussion ... I'd like to know more about female classical composers too, though.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 05-Sep-11 23:03:12

I would love to know how much women's ranges/the instruments they learn affects what they compose. Does anyone have any thoughts?

I know there are still some instruments that are more commonly learned by women than men, and women's voices are different ...

Tyr Mon 05-Sep-11 23:04:11

There is absolutely nothing "odd" about the concept of a female voice in music.
Music is an expressive art form and both genders will bring something unique and infinitely varied.
This can be found in folk and traditional singing and even with the discipline of classical form, it seems to me that an entire line of music is largely missing from our heritage, hence my post and question.

Tyr Mon 05-Sep-11 23:05:57


Thank you for articulating my point better than I did.

MooncupGoddess Mon 05-Sep-11 23:11:14

Fanny Mendelssohn was said by contemporaries to be as talented as her brother Felix, but whereas he had every encouragement to compose she was fobbed off; her father told her that music would just be an 'ornament' in her life. Felix did support her and publish some of her pieces under his name, though.

Interesting that writing novels and poetry was seen as pretty acceptable for women in the 19th century, but composing music wasn't. I guess that, as Clanger says, it's something to do with the public nature of musical performance, as opposed to the domestic activity that was reading and writing novels.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 05-Sep-11 23:14:08

tyr - perhaps odd was the wrong word, sorry.

What I was getting at was, how can you be sure that female composers would all have something distinctively 'female' in their style of composing, that'd give them a single, identifiable 'voice'? Or did you mean us to be discussing whether that'd happen or not, too?

Katisha Mon 05-Sep-11 23:15:31

Exactly. It was seen as accomplished for a woman to play in the domestic sphere, but very rare for them to have respectability outside the home as performers.
And I can only really think of pianists and singers. You don't hear about female violin virtuosos, or wind players. And they certainly didn't play in orchestras.
Composers were seen as lower class until around Beethoven's time - Haydn had to wear a livery. Maybe it was still seen as servant's work for a long long time. Beethoven struggled to make money not being in the service of some aristocrat and he was the first to really push that idea.

Tyr Mon 05-Sep-11 23:22:34

That is another point; that many of these composers relied on patronage and lived in poverty. Paganini was the first to really exploit his talents commercially and make and lose fortunes. Interestingly, he sometimes signed his name as "Niccola" instead of "Niccolo."
And no LRD, I wasn't suggesting that there would have been a homogenised female voice in composition, anymore than there has been a homogenised male voice.

Katisha Mon 05-Sep-11 23:25:41

I imagine only well-off women would be in a position to have a go at composition, and wouldnt expect to be paid for it.
Any other woman just wouldn't have had the opportunity to even learn an instrument.

TheSmallClanger Mon 05-Sep-11 23:29:21

Now, harpists are almost always female. Has this always been the case? You don't think of harpists, or flautists, as composers. I always associate composers with playing the piano, or the violin.

There were lots of skilled female pianists about.

There are certainly lots of paintings about from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries showing women playing violins/violas or cellos. Whether this means that they were musicians in real life I don't know.

Katisha Mon 05-Sep-11 23:30:59

They were musicians, but not paid public performers. Certain instruments were regarded as lady-like. This didn't include wind and brass!

Tyr Mon 05-Sep-11 23:37:58

Most harpists I know now are female but the most famous of all of them was O'Carolan- not quite a classical composer but he moved in those circles. On the other hand, I would have thought that percussion would be considered "unladylike" but then you have Evelyn Glennie...
Mind you, that is contemporary and doesn't really address the original question.

mathanxiety Tue 06-Sep-11 00:40:41

Irish harpists were male, and the harp playing was a family profession. Generations of male musicians played at the courts of the old Irish aristocracy.

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