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 everything 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.

Free Images : sheet music, text, technical drawing, line, parallel,  architecture, document, paper, classical music, illustration 5456x3632 -  Ylanite Koppens - 1548465 - Free stock photos - PxHere

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 fantastic 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 people will come if orchestras and theaters present this music alongside Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, and Wagner. 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 that women are inherently worse composers than men or that their works aren’t good enough to grace our concert halls. These composers are not in our classical music canon because they were often discouraged or barred from filling traditional positions 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, she often 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 and 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.


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!

Composer Bio

Marianna von Martines

Although the spelling of her name is debated – Marianna/Mariana/Marie Anne, Martines/Martinez – it’s clear that she was a talented and driven composer. Born in Vienna in 1744 to a wealthy Austrian mother and a Neapolitan father, she grew up with her five surviving siblings in the Michaelerhaus in the heart of Vienna next to the Michaelerkirche (St. Michael’s Church). Her compositions and singing quickly became well-known throughout the city, even reaching the attention of Empress Maria Theresa in 1761 with a performance of one of her masses at the court church.

Unlike her male contemporaries, Martines was not eligible for any paid musical positions. However, this actually worked in her favor. By her mid-forties, her brother (and, by extension, the whole family) was raised to the nobility by the Empress for his work as a tutor to the royal children. The now van Martines was not only able to but expected to turn her focus towards the arts or entertaining. Of course, Marianna took this to an extreme and worked diligently every day on her compositions and practice. In addition, because the Empress had closed theaters and concert halls, private concerts became popular. Although her music would likely not have been performed publicly, she became a popular composer for these private concerts, even hosting her own concert series, which was frequented was the Mozarts.

She quickly gained an international reputation, partly due to an older librettist who also lived in the Michaelerhaus – Metastasio. He had acquired great fame as a librettist and playwright, with composers including Hasse, Pergolesi, and Scarlatti setting his words to music. He recognized early on that Marianna had a musical gift, and he, along with a teenage Hadyn (who lived in the attic room of the house) and Nicolò Porpora, taught Marianna composition and singing.

Although she received accolades and awards for her compositions (including a mention by the Queen of Naples, and an invitation to the Accademia filarmonica in Bologna, the first woman invited since its founding in 1665), she always erred on the side of caution and conservatism. As an upper-class woman, she thought it would appear improper to travel to Naples or Bologna and chose to remain in Vienna in her world of private concerts. Because of this “propriety,” her invitation was rescinded as the Accademia required the composer to be present at the performance of their work. This conservatism also appears in her works; while they are beautiful and incredibly virtuosic, they rely on older styles and use older instruments (like the harpsichord rather than exploring innovations in piano technology).

During Martines’ lifetime, ideas about women and music were gradually changing – for the worse. By remaining so conservative, she was able to continue to have her music performed and was respected in the Viennese musical community. Some of her male counterparts, like Mozart and Haydn (and later Beethoven), were able to innovate more freely and push musical boundaries. If she had tried to do the same, it is likely that she would have been dismissed and ridiculed. Although she never wrote a symphony or an opera, she still succeeded in her own way by being a brilliant and talented composer whose works were performed all over Vienna in her lifetime.

Unfortunately, by the 1800s, the musical world was really starting to close its doors to women as new 19th-century stereotypes about gender and music came into play. (See my post on Clara Schumann for more information). Perhaps this is why her music has been slowly forgotten. She died in 1812, only two days after her last sister passed away, with no memorial.

Our livestream featured two works by Marianna – La Tempesta, a cantata set to a Metastasio libretto, and her Sonata in E Major. In La Tempesta, a shepherd boy is desperately in love with Nice, a beautiful shepherdess. He offers to help her protect her sheep from a looming storm, and by the end of the cantata, he realizes she loves him.

See below for the video of our livestream concert. Enjoy!

The information in this blog comes from Anna Beer’s absolutely fantastic book “Sounds and Sweet Airs” and the Grove Music Online article about Martines. If you want to perform La Tempesta or the Sonata, Dave has made a lovely edition from the original scores. Just shoot me a message for it.


Martines and Boetzelaer Livestream

Enjoy our livestream concert from 20 June 2020 featuring Josina van Boetzelaer and Marianna Martines! For more information on the composers, visit their bio pages.

Repertoire & Translations

Josina van Boetzelaer
Che non mi disse un di, Op. 4 (1780)
What hasn’t he already said to me? Which gods hasn’t he sworn to? And how, oh God, could he be, how could he still be so lacking in faith! I have lost everything for him; Today I lose it again. My poor feelings! This is what you give back to me, Love, This is your mercy?

Marianna Martines
Sonata in E Major (1762)

La Tempestà (1778)
As a storm approaches, a young shepherd approaches the shepherdess Nice promising that he will not try to court her again. He warns her of the storm and offers to help her guide her flock to safety. When she doesn’t respond, he eventually convinces her to hide from the storm in the caves with him.
While the storm rages outside, the shepherd remarks that Nice is shivering and afraid. He promises once again to not speak of love, and that he will leave once the sky has cleared up. He says he will protect her in the storm, and she clings to him. By her blushes and her eyes, he can see that she does in fact love him. After this realization, he wishes for the storm to never end because it has brought him the greatest joy – that of love.

Interested in the sheet music for the Martines? Send me a message!

Composer Bio

Josina van Boetzelaer

Josina Anna Petronella was born in the Hague in 1733 to the family van Aerssens, an old aristocratic family originally from Belgium. She soon became a lady-in-waiting to Princess Anna and eventually to Princess Anna’s daughter, Princess Caroline. Princess Anna, who came from England, was well-educated in music, having studied with Handel before she arrived in the Netherlands. In court, Josina was surrounded by music. She had the opportunity to hear the famous musicians of the day, including a young Mozart and later Beethoven. In addition, the Princess and her daughter hosted intimate chamber performances where it’s likely Josina participated as a singer, which explains why her works for soprano are so fiendishly difficult.

Interestingly, Josina did not marry until she was thirty-five. When she married Carl van Boetzelaer in 1768, a military man from another old aristocratic family, she was able to remain financially independent due to new inheritance laws. The couple had three children together, although only two survived into adulthood. It wasn’t until after she got married that Josina began to study composing. The records aren’t clear, but she likely started learning with Francesco Pasquale Ricci after the birth of her youngest daughter in 1775. Through him, she discovered the music of Maria Teresa Agnesi and Marianna Martines, contemporaries of hers from Milan and Vienna, respectively.

Ricci left the Netherlands in 1780 after dedicating a set of six ariettas to Josina. After his departure, Josina began to publish her works. In 1795, there was political upheaval in the Netherlands, and the family fled to IJsselstein, where Josina died at the age of 64 in 1797.

Unlike other Dutch women composers, Josina published her works, which preserved them. She published four opuses, several of which are for orchestra and voice. Unfortunately Op. 3 has been lost to time, but 1, 2, and 4 can be found in libraries in Bologna, Zurich, and Slovenia. She was also one of the few native Dutch composers of her time since the court attracted many talented foreign composers.

She set many of her arias to Metastasio libretti, which sets them apart as opera seria was not widely written in the Netherlands. She composed for relatively large-scale orchestras (for the time, at least), so it seems she was not restricted by later ideals of “women’s music,” which shackled Clara Schumann and her contemporaries to writing smaller-scale works. Although it appears that she did not organize performances of her pieces (unlike other aristocratic composers of the time – including Anna Amalia of Prussia), she received acknowledgment from critics of her own time.

Che non mi disse un di

I’ve chosen the aria Che non mi disse un di from her Op. 4 to showcase. She chose a libretto from Metastasio‘s L’Olimpiade and dedicated this whole opus to the famous librettist. This aria is not only incredibly beautiful but highly virtuosic. The anger with which the singer describes her lover’s betrayal contrasts with her deep sadness at losing him again. I performed this aria as part of our livestream mini-concert on June 20. I hope you enjoy the performance, and if you’re interested in learning the piece, you can find music at Hildegard Publishing.

It was difficult to find much information about Josina. This article owes a lot of thanks to “Women Composers: Music through the Ages” and Oxford Music Online. For more information about the composer, check out Helen Metzlaar’s biography “An Unknown 18th-Century Dutch Woman Composer: Josina Boetzelaer (1733-1797)”.


Amy Beach Mini-concert

Lisa Newill-Smith, soprano
David Wishart, pianist

Performed in Stralsund on 23 May 2020

Shakespeare Songs (1897)
1. O Mistress Mine
2. Take, O take those lips away
3. Fairy Lullaby

Nocturne for solo piano Op. 107 (1924)

3 Browning Songs (1900)
1. The Year’s at the Spring
2. Ah, Love but a day!
3. I send my heart up to thee!


Clara Schumann livestream

Mini-Concert of Clara Schumann’ Op. 13 and Amy Beach’s Ye banks and braes (Robert Burns) on 14 April 2020

Lisa Newill-Smith, soprano and David Wishart pianist

English Translation by David Wishart

Six songs op.13

1. I stood in dark dreams (Heinrich Heine)

I stood in dark dreams and gazed at her portrait,
and that beloved face furtively came alive.

Around her lips a wonderful smile appeared
and as if from melancholy tears her two eyes gleamed.

My tears also flowed down from my cheeks, and ah, I can’t believe,
that I have lost you!

2. They loved one another (Heinrich Heine)

They both loved one another, but neither
would confess it to the other.
They glared at each other so coldly,
yet wanted to die of love.

They finally separated and saw each other
only occasionally in their dreams.
They were already long dead
and hardly even knew it.

3. Love’s Spell (Emanuel Geibel)

Love sat like a nightingale
in the rose bush and sang;
the wondrous sweet sound flew
all across the green forest.

And as it sounded, there rose in a circle
perfume from a thousand flowers,
and all the treetops rustled softly,
and the air went even more quietly;

the brooks were silent, they hardly
rippled down from the heights
the little deer stood as if in a dream
and listened to the sound.

And bright and ever brighter flowed
the sun’s brilliance,
around flowers, forest and canyon
a golden red glow poured.

I however was walking along the path
and heard the sound too.
Alas! From that hour on what I sang
was just its echo.

4. the moon comes silently (Emanuel Geibel)

The moon comes silently
with its golden shine,
meanwhile in beautiful splendor
the tired earth sleeps.

And on the skies sway
from many a faithful mind
many thousand thoughts of love
over the sleepers.

And down in the valley
the windows of my beloved’s house sparkle;
I however am in the dark
silently staring out into the world.

5. I have seen in your eyes (Friedrich Rückert)

I have seen in your eyes
the shine of eternal love,
I saw on your cheeks
the roses of heaven blooming.

And though the shine in your eyes is extinguished
and though the roses are scattered,
their reflection, eternally refreshed,
has stayed in my heart,

And never will I look at your cheeks
and never gaze in your eyes,
without the roses blooming on them
without them sending the shine to me.

6. The silent lotus flower (Emanuel Geibel)

The silent lotus flower
rises from the blue lake,
the leaves flicker and flash,
the cup is white as snow.

On it the moon pours from the sky
all its golden shine,
it pours all its rays
into the flower’s bosom.

In the water around the flower
a white swan circles,
it sings so sweetly, so softly
and looks at the flower.

It sings so sweetly, so softly
and wants to perish in singing.
O flower, white flower,
can you understand the song?

Composer Bio

Amy Beach

This week’s composer is Amy Beach, née Cheney. She was a leading American composer in the late 1800s and early 1900s and wrote some incredible music.

Amy Cheney was born in New Hampshire in 1867 to an upper-class New England family. From an early age, it was clear she was a musical prodigy – she could supposedly sing 40 songs by age 1 and composed her own piano pieces by age four. Her mother, an amateur singer, encouraged her in her musical education. When she was 7, she gave her first piano concerts, including her own works.

After the family moved to Boston when she was 8, her parents were told she was good enough to study at a European conservatory. Perhaps if she had been born a man, she would have been sent to Europe, as many other American composers of the time were. However, she was a young woman, and her parents felt it was inappropriate for her to travel abroad. Her education was continued, but with private teachers. She continued to excel as a pianist and had her concert hall debut in Boston when she was only 16. At age 18, she debuted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which should have kickstarted her career as a solo pianist.


Unfortunately, Amy wasn’t allowed to continue her career as a performer. As a young upper-class woman, she was expected to marry early and well. Her parents married her off to Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a doctor 24 years her senior and well-known in the Boston upper-class circles. He declared that no wife of his would work for money and limited her to performing for charity only once or twice per year.

Although Amy had always considered herself a pianist first and foremost, she changed her focus to composition after marriage. Because she couldn’t study at a traditional conservatory, she had one year of study with a private teacher. After that, as her husband wasn’t comfortable with her studying with a man, she taught herself composition by reading books and studying the works of other composers.

Despite all of the obstacles in her path, Amy went on to become a leading composer of her day – and a prolific one. In 1896, she became the first American woman to have a symphony published. Her ‘Gaelic’ Symphony received widespread praise after its premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Traveling The World

In 1910, Amy’s husband died. Her mother followed him soon after. She decided to finally travel to Europe, where she spent the next few years performing her works. She performed in Italy and Germany, where she also attended several performances of her symphony. European critics were impressed with her music, calling her a “leading American composer.” She had to return to the United States in 1914 after the outbreak of WWI but continued her performance tour across the country. She eventually settled at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, a haven for composers and artists, where she continued composing, eventually writing nearly 300 works, half of which were art songs.

Amy’s Impact

Why am I talking about Amy Beach so early in my blog? There are many other fantastic women composers to choose from who, unlike Beach, received little to no recognition in their lifetime. I think she is important because not only did she continue to pursue music in spite of the roadblocks in her path, including her lack of musical education and her husband’s restrictions on her musical activities, she eventually became a strong and vocal proponent of women learning composition. Although her husband stopped her from teaching piano, Amy wrote many articles, including “To the girl who wants to compose.”

Amy became president and co-founder of the Society of American Women Composers, along with Ruth Crawford Seeger and 17 others, and served as president of several other national music education organizations. In addition, she actively worked to have her music performed, sending off new pieces to performers as soon as she finished them.

Aside from the fact that I absolutely love her music, I believe that her support of other young women composers is incredibly important. Even though she was quite popular in her own time, her popularity diminished as soon as she was no longer promoting herself. I had not heard of her until I started my journey into learning more about women composers. About 1/3 of her works have not yet been recorded, although that will hopefully change as more groups begin promoting and performing her music. There are no recent or widely available commercial recordings of her song “Ye banks and braes,” which you can hear below.

Beach was very interested in folk music, and many of her songs and larger works are based around that theme. One of my favorites is her reworking of the Scottish folk song “Ye Banks and Braes o’ bonnie doon” by Robert Burns. Unlike many who set folk tunes, she didn’t just write a new accompaniment to the traditional tune – she wrote an entirely new piece. I hope you all enjoy this recording of it, recorded live by David Wishart and me during our first-ever Livestream Mini-Concert. (Yes, we’re going a little stir-crazy in Quarantine – who isn’t?).

From the livestreamed Mini-Concert on 14 April 2020

Looking for more information about Amy Beach? Check out the Amy Beach Foundation. I also found information from Oxford Music Online and an article from ClassicFM and Wikipedia. Emma Kirby has recorded many of her songs, which are available on Spotify.

Looking to perform some of her music? Many of her works are available on IMSLP. Furore Verlag and Hildegard Publishing also have selected works available for purchase.

Composer Bio

Clara Schumann

Composer, Performer, Mother and Wife

Clara Schumann, née Wieck, was a complicated woman. She was a composer, a world-renowned concert pianist, a mother of 8, and a wife to the troubled composer Robert Schumann. She was born in Leipzig in 1819 to a talented musical family and received intensive training in music, languages, composing, and piano from a very early age from her father.

Perhaps because of her father’s incredibly strict and even cruel ways, she debuted at the Leipzig Gewandhaus when she was just 11 years old. Clara’s performing career continued under the stern and controlling eye of her father throughout Germany and abroad, with her first performance in Paris at the ripe age of 12.

Her father controlled every aspect of her life. He even wrote many of her diary entries. When her younger half-brother died before a performance, her father forced her to travel to Dresden the next day to perform. She became an expert at performing through illness, violence, pain, and despair. There is no question that her father’s intense and authoritarian teaching style paved the way for her to balance motherhood, performing, and taking care of Robert.

In 1828, when she was merely 8 years old, Robert Schumann entered her life as a live-in student of her father’s. By the time she was 13, they were in love. Although he became a proponent of her composing, her was also her harshest critic. He never truly believed that she was a “full artistic genius” or that she could succeed as an composer on her own. Instead, Robert insisted that Clara dedicate herself, both emotionally and musically, to him. She followed this idea completely – even going so far as to legally challenge her father for the right to marry Robert in 1840.

After her marriage, it became difficult for her to find the time to compose – or even to practice. Robert’s composition was the most important thing to him. Clara was of course responsible for raising their eight children, keeping house, and cooking. She also took on the burden of financially supporting the family. He was not happy when she went on extended tours to keep the family in the black, but it was unavoidable. Robert believed that “the creative artist had higher status than the performer” (Sounds and Sweet airs, p 225).

Despite everything, Clara continued to be a pillar of support to Robert and his music, even to the detriment of her own piano playing and composing. After his death, she dedicated herself to the interpretation of others’ music and to preserving his legacy, only composing one piece herself.

Clara found it difficult even at the best of times to compose, so perhaps it is no surprise that she did not publish much music. However, as she grew older and the societal view of women’s role in music in Germany became more close-minded, she too came to believe that women should not create music, writing that “a woman must not wish to compose – there never was one able to do it”. In my opinion, this belief that became pervasive in the 19th century was an incredibly destructive one; we have lost so much music because it was never allowed to become an idea, let alone be published. We should celebrate what little music exists today from these women – and I believe Clara Schumann’s music is worth celebrating.

Some of my favorite music of hers is from her 6 Lieder, Op. 13. Here is my recording of Liebeszauber (Love’s Magic), excerpted from our first livestream mini-concert. You can find the whole concert over in the Livestream section of the blog.


Op. 13, Clara Schumann

Lisa Newill-Smith, soprano

David Wishart, pianist

Sources I used for this blog post include Anna Beer’s Sounds and Sweet Airs, and the article on Clara Schumann in Oxford Music Online. Much of her sheet music is available on IMSLP – please go and sing and play as much of it as you can!


What’s the big deal?

Hi! I’m Lisa Newill-Smith, and I’m a classical soprano living in Germany. In the classical music world we perform a lot of music in the “canon” – works by Mozart, Bach, Strauss, Wagner, Stravinsky, etc. I love singing this music! So much of it is absolutely incredible and a joy to sing. But. (There’s always a but isn’t there?) All of this music was written by men.

I didn’t really consciously think about that until I started singing some of Libby Larsen’s song cycle “Try me Good King”. It’s an amazing cycle – go listen to it! Singing that made me think that maybe there were other composers out there I hadn’t heard of yet. So, I started actively trying to find music written by women. I started with Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler and Amy Beach. And then I read Anna Beer’s Sweet Sounds and Airs. It’s incredible informative and so well written. And it made me want to learn about even more composers. Eventually, while researching for a women-only programme of Baroque and Classical repertoire, I came across Women Composers: Music Through the Ages edited by Sylvia Glickman and Martha Furmann Schleifer. Guys, seriously this collection of books is amazing. They’ve compiled so many composers, from the 1500s through 1800s, and they even have vocal scores! The downside is that these books are only really available in libraries – and only one library here in Berlin had them.

So. Why am I writing this blog if all these resources exist?

Well. My idea for this blog is to introduce these composers to people who have no idea they exist. I’ll write a brief bio, and I’ll let you know where you can find more information if you’re interested! I will tell you where you can find the sheet music (and possibly supply some decent copies as well!) And lastly, I’m going to record selections from each composer. Two of the hardest things that I’ve found while doing my research is one: finding music, and two: finding recordings if I do manage to miraculously find the sheet music.

I will also be starting a resource page with recommended books, websites and institutes with more information.

Thanks for reading and I hope you come back for my first blog post – which will be about German composer Clara Schumann!