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Topic Thursday

Common Myths

Challenging the Myths About Women Who Composed

Welcome to the first Topic Thursday! I thought I would start with a quick breakdown of all the things I’ve heard from people when I said I’m performing music by women. I’ve heard everything, from “Oh, how interesting” to a confused look followed by “but why?”. There are many misconceptions out there about these composers, their music, and why it’s not more regularly performed.

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1. “There isn’t enough repertoire”

This is one of my biggest pet peeves. When you ask an orchestra or an opera house why they don’t program more music by women, their excuse is often that there just isn’t enough quality repertoire available. This is categorically untrue. Women have composed music since the western classical music tradition began. From Hildegard Bingham and Isabella Leonard in the early 1600s to Maria Teresa Agnesi in the Baroque period, Pauline Viardot in the 19th century, and finally living composers like Libby Larsen, there are examples of women who composed amazing music in every era and every country.

File:RTÉ Concert Orchestra NCH 2.jpg

2. “No one will come”

This is another common refrain that many in the field of new music hear as well. While it’s true that well-known repertoire draws in crowds like nothing else, that doesn’t mean you have to fill your entire season with crowd favorites. Instead of scheduling a fourth Mozart symphony, why not present a piece by Mariana Martines? Or pair an evening of Dvorak with Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony?

I’m not saying ditch all the favorites and present a season entirely of new-to-the-audience repertoire. (Well, not that I wouldn’t love that). But, I strongly believe that if orchestras and theaters present this music alongside Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, and Wagner, people will come. And they will love it.

3. “There’s a reason it’s not in the canon”

Well, yes, you’re absolutely right. But the reason isn’t because women are inherently worse composers than men, or that their works aren’t good enough to grace our concert halls. The reason these composers are not in our classical music canon is because they were often discouraged or barred from filling traditional of responsibility and power in the music industry. Men in these positions had their pieces performed regularly and were able to publish their music. And they developed a following who preserved their pieces after death.

As we saw with composers like Martines, C Schumann, and Beach, many of these women gained recognition on a national or international scale while they were performing. However, they were usually the driving force behind their fame, and had to organize their own performances and in some cases, their own publishing outside the traditional institutions that men had access to. Once they passed, they tended to be forgotten.

Another uncomfortable fact for many is that women simply did not have access to the same opportunities as men for most of human history to compose. If a woman wanted to become a singer, often she ran the risk of tarnishing her reputation. Throughout the years, a relative constant has been the association between courtesans and performers. If a woman performed in public, she often developed a ‘reputation.’ In the late 19th century, this problem intensified, creating a situation where there was a stark divide between ‘men’s music’ and ‘women’s music.’ Men belonged on the stage, writing symphonies and operas, while women were sidelined, restricted to house concerts.

Despite all of this, women continued to compose throughout history, receiving recognition and accolades. In the 19th century, some even received the highest compliment of the time – that their music sounded manly.

So yes, there are reasons it’s not in the canon. Mainly, the patriarchy. Which, in my humble opinion, is a terrible reason to exclude fantastic music from the canon.

Wrap-Up

While these are just the top 3 things I’ve heard, there are tons of other misconceptions out there. The bottom line is that women have been composing this whole time. They just did it without the recognition that some of their male counterparts received. Instead of rehashing the same Schubert songs, why not throw in some Fanny Hensel pieces? Or if you’re looking for a new piano piece, look at the works of Cécil Chaminade. String quartets could add a Machonchy quartet to their repertoire instead of another Beethoven.

Do you have any burning questions about music by women? Or are you looking for repertoire for your next performance (or something to do in lockdown)? Comment on this page or send me a message on Instagram and I’ll answer them next blog!

By lisanewillsmith_soprano

American soprano Lisa Newill-Smith’s Despina was described by the Hastings Observer as “one of the must subtle performances I can recall, splendidly sung and totally alive to the text.” 2019/2020 highlights included a role debut as Servilia. In 2020, she transitioned to lyric soprano, studying roles like Ilia, Infantin, Marguerite, and Giulietta. In previous seasons, she has sung Despina, Echo (Ariadne auf Naxos), Gretel, Hélène (Hin und Zurück), Prima Ancella (Medea), Josephine (H.M.S. Pinafore) and Wanda (La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein). Lisa has performed in two world premieres, and is an advocate for the performance of classical music written by women. She has been a finalist in the Iuventas Canti Competition, Chicago Oratorio Award and the Opera Classica Europa competition.

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