Women-Only Music History, part 2 (piano)

Happy International Women's Day! In celebration of the day, here's a continuation of my series of posts focusing on recognizing a missing part of music: the contribution of women composers.

I started this series in conjunction with my efforts to bring women on a level playing field in my music history class at the Boston Arts Academy. (You can support our innovative teaching methods at Boston's only public high school for the arts by making a tax-deductible donation here!)

For a substantial period of time, women composers were more or less relegated to writing vocal music or music for piano and/or small ensembles in salons.

Although they were largely limited to a smaller arena and away from the “manly” large works of orchestras and operas, the women who worked in the salons created spectacular works of art, especially for piano, which is what I'll be focusing on today. (And don't forget to sign up for the mailing list on the right sidebar for extended playlists, previews of works in progress, and more!)

Some thoughts on today's selections for the curious:

    • Marianna Martines (1744-1812) lived on the third floor of a house in Vienna, and at a young age started piano lessons with a young man who lived in the attic of the same building: Joseph Haydn. (The family who later employed him, the Esterházys, lived on the first floor.) She became such a fine player that Mozart later asked her to join him in performing duets, and she became well known as a composer in her own right, playing for Empress Maria Theresa on many occasions.

    • Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) will be returning at least one more time, but this is possibly my favorite piece of hers, a passionate, astonishingly gorgeous nocturne. She had a close relationship with her brother Felix and her family supported her music-making—but only in private. Felix was adamantly opposed to her publishing her pieces for quite a long time, almost until her premature death. Her father once wrote her that "Music will perhaps become [Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament." Just as she broke through and started a public career with her husband’s support, she died of a stroke at age 41. Her brother wrote a string quartet in her honor and died later that year at age 38.

    • Clara Schumann (1819-1896) has one of the most fascinating life stories of anyone we discuss in BAA's music history classes. For now, I'll mention her crazy love story with her husband, composer Robert Schumann. They got engaged when she was 18 and he was 27, but her father didn't approve. This led to some great drama: the couple sued her dad, he demanded she return her piano and said all kinds of crap about her, she fired back in spectacular fashion and the judge ruled in her favor. Their joy lasted a few years before Robert slowly went insane. She wrote this set of variations on a theme of Robert's for the last birthday he spent with the family before passing away. She will return to this series.

    • The Venezuelan Teresa Carreño (1853-1917) was primarily a pianist, but also composed a fair number of pieces, especially for her instrument. She gained the moniker “the Walküre of the piano” for her fiery performances and personality. As English conductor Henry Wood put it, “It is difficult to express adequately what all musicians felt about this great women who looked like a queen… and played like a goddess.” (Of course, he then “complimented” her by remarking on the “masculine vigor of [her] tone and touch,” but so we go.) Other interesting bits include her Venusian crater, her collection of piano rolls, her several lively marriages, and that one time she turned down Liszt's offer to teach her piano.

    • The American composer Florence Price (1887-1953) was largely brought up on a mix of classical music and spirituals. Her Symphony No. 1 became the first piece by an African-American woman to be played by a major orchestra in 1933 (thanks Chicago), but that'll come up later. For now, here's a kickass piano fantasia on the spiritual “Sinner, please don't let this harvest pass.”

    • Next up is May Aufderheide (1888-1972), who I know next to nothing about, other than that she wrote a bunch of rags. (Apparently, most ragtime composers in Indiana were either black men or white women.) Her first rag was actually so successful it convinced her father to start a publishing company based around her music, so there's that.

    • Tania León was born in Havana, Cuba in 1943 and moved to NYC in the 60s, where she's been since then. She is of mixed Cuban, French, Spanish, Chinese, and African heritage, so I guess New York makes a lot of sense. Her music is dense and flies wildly between exhilarating and terrifying, which makes for great listening. “Ritual” is a prime example of this style.