Where Are the Women?

Why has there never been a female Beethoven? Michael Oliver examines whether there has been a conspiracy of silence or something more sinister…

Among the cantatas of Barbara Strozzi (born 1619; no one knows when she died) is one, ‘Lagrime mie’ (My tears), which sounds to me quite startlingly personal, not an elegant impersonation of the pain of unhappy love but the direct utterance of a woman who has suffered it and knows that a woman’s grief is different from a man’s. It is magnificent music and it’s hard to think of anything quite like it in the work of a male composer. Male chauvinist piggery isn’t dead, however, even in our politically correct age. When I wrote an article not long ago, asking why there are no great women composers (and by ‘great’ I mean as great as Beethoven or Mozart – even Strozzi wasn’t that good) I received one simple reply. My own tentative answers were quite wrong. I was told: ‘The reason is that women are not clever enough.’

For most of musical history the reason is in fact obvious. Artists’ agents, orchestral managers, music publishers, virtuoso conductors and operatic producers are all comparatively recent phenomena. Until well into the nineteenth century any composer wanting to get a major work performed would have had to do most of those jobs himself. Even in our own time resentment at taking orders from a woman is not unknown. In Beethoven’s or Mozart’s day it would have been regarded as improper and unnatural if a female composer had stood up in front of an orchestra and proceeded to give them orders.

The terrible things men say
Abraham Mendelssohn was an unusually liberal father by nineteenth-century standards: he allowed his son Felix to become a composer although music was seen as a barely respectable trade in the social circles in which the Mendelssohns moved. But he told his daughter Fanny, no less gifted than her brother, ‘music may be a profession for Felix, but for you it can only be an ornament’. This was not unthinking prejudice, but rather a concerned father protecting his daughter against prejudice. By ‘prejudice’ I don’t just mean the sort of reviews that enraged Ethel Smyth at the outset of her career (one of her works was dismissed as ‘shockingly unwomanly’, another as ‘deficient in feminine charm’). I mean the prejudice of Josef Szymanowski (no relation of the composer Karol Szymanowski) who obtained a legal separation from his gifted wife Maria because she wanted to continue composing after their marriage. I mean the prejudice of Joseph Clarke, who refused to support his young daughter Rebecca, a composer of real distinction, and barred the door of his house against her. I mean the widowed mother of Augusta Holmès, who was so violently opposed to her studying music that Augusta had to wait for her to die before receiving lessons. I mean Caroline Norton, a gifted poet and song composer who, when she separated from her savagely violent husband, discovered that under English law at that time (the 1830s) she had no right to see her children, to own property or even to receive income from her work. She tried to get the laws changed, but her campaign diminished her musical output and closed the doors of society to her. Indeed, since I’ve mentioned Ethel Smyth, her parents only allowed her to study composing at the late age of 19 (her father said that he would rather see her in her coffin than at a college of music), and then only after she had gone on hunger-strike and persuaded the Smyth family that life would be more peaceful without her.

Despite all this, surprising numbers of women did succeed: the recent New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers lists no fewer than 875 of them. But until very recent times it’s noticeable that they tended to fall into one of three groups. Firstly there were women in religious communities: any such community needing music and finding that one of its membershad a musical gift would be as likely to use her talent as rely on a male composer. Secondly there were women who were also known, perhaps better known, as performers; many of these came from backgrounds in which music was the family’s trade. Finally there were composers like Queen Maria Barbara of Spain and Anna Amalia, Duchess of Saxe-Weimar – aristocrats so blue-blooded as to be proof against all prejudice.

Mixing composing with women’s things
It’s only this century, and only partially, that women have been able to practise composition as equals. The ‘only partially’, though, may explain why we haven’t had a female Beethoven yet. Beethoven never married because he knew that the demands of his profession – and his deafness – would have made him an intolerable husband. But if he had been a woman, and had married…? How many men, then or now, would take a day off work to look after the children because their wife was having trouble with the development section of a symphony? How many women could put composition before the sickness of a child? Many women composers have subjected their talents to husbands and family: Clara Schumann gave up composing when Robert Schumann died, going on extensive, exhausting concert tours to promote his music and to feed their seven children. It takes an exceptional woman, like Elisabeth Lutyens, to continue composing, and to continue developing as a composer, while bringing up a family single-handed.

So will there never be a female Beethoven? I wouldn’t be too sure. For the first time in history anyone compiling a list of the most talented composers around would have to include the names not of a token one but of several women. Among British composers now in their forties or early fifties – those with proven records and personal styles of their own – there aren’t many men who can match the achievements of Diana Burrell, Erika Fox, Julia Usher or Judith Weir. Are some of them writing music that no man could write? Why not?

Classic CD magazine, 1997


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