A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, November 28, 2003

Music to my ears - Philip in PC mode!

Now folks, this is a Friday self-indulgence and Philip in PC mode (nice unintentional pun there!). If the great Norman Geras et al. can rabbit on in their blogs about jazz and novels, etc., I think I can witter on about my love of classical music just once in a while, despite the focus of this blog being on the environment. So, while our American cousins are offline enjoying their Thanksgiving turkeys and cranberry sauce, here is my cri de coeur for women composers.....

"The song is actually by my sister, Fanny, Your Majesty!"

Fanny Mendelssohn as a young woman.DURING A visit to England in 1846-7, Felix Mendelssohn had an audience with Queen Victoria. She asked if he would listen to her sing her favourite Mendelssohn song, ‘Italien’, no. 3 from his Opus 8. As the Queen finished, Mendelssohn shamefacedly admitted that the song was not his own, but that it had been composed by his sister, Fanny. Indeed, three songs in the collection were by Fanny, as were three more in his Opus 9. Printed versions today still maintain the conceit.

The treatment of women composers, although historically understandable, remains a scandal. It is also a tragedy, because beautiful and distinctive voices are excluded from the classical canon. Of course, misogyny in music has an unworthy tradition, especially among the world’s orchestras. On January 1st, 2003, Ursula Plaichinger, who plays the viola, was the first woman, not a harpist, to perform, still only as a substitute I might add, in the Vienna Philharmonic’s legendary New Year’s Day Concert. But for women composers, the position is worse. They remain unsung shadows, mere adjuncts of their brother or husband.

Yet Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel was a genius of equal standing with her brother. Indeed, some commentators have argued that we owe much of the tradition of the ‘Lied’ to her, and not to Felix. She was also prolific. Between the ages of 15 and 16, Fanny wrote no fewer than 38 songs, 4 choral arrangements, and 11 piano works. And if you doubt her genius, try this trick. When you have musical visitors, play a rare CD of her String Quartet in E flat major, the ‘Romanze’ of which is truly spine-tingling. Then watch their faces. They recognise it is outstanding, but they can’t quite place it. At last, someone will reluctantly confess, “I should know that, but what is it?” “Oh, it’s Mendelssohn,” you respond, nonchalantly. Relief all round, until you add, “Fanny, of course.” You then witness the old Johnsonian aphorism being reformed: “Sir, a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

And what of Clara Wieck Schumann, Emilie Mayer, and Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen? We know virtually nothing of Mayer, who lived between1812 and 1883, and yet she wrote numerous sonatas for piano and violin, piano trios, and string quartets, not to mention overtures and symphonies. While musicologists spend years digging out the imitative works of minor male composers and the marginalia of the famous, she remains largely ignored, although her String Quartet Op. 14 in G minor, the only one published in her lifetime, is sheer delight.

Why then have women composers been so badly treated? In the 19th century, a woman, born into the class that supported music, was encouraged to perform, and often internationally, as with Clara Schumann, but on marriage, she was strongly discouraged from 'composition' - it was, after all, a trade. In 1820, Fanny received the following warning from her father: “Perhaps music will be his [Felix’s] profession, whereas for you it can and must be but an ornament and never the fundamental base-line of your existence and activity.” Women were meant to be 'salonières'. In addition, their compositions were deemed to be 'of the parlour', and, as with Fanny, if they were published, it was often under the name of a male relative.

Why are they still neglected? Sadly, much of their material remains unpublished, songs and symphonies languishing alike in lost archives. Their available oeuvre is thus perceived as restrictive - not enough for 'Composer of the Week' or for a full, marketable CD. Lastly, people listen to them with a pre-conceived ear, as mere curiosities.

What a joy it would be if musicologists, Radio 3 and Classic FM were to begin to redress the balance. And for my own Desert Island Disks, I would choose Fanny’s String Quartet in E flat major, along, of course, with her brother’s resurgent Octet in the same key.

Philip recommends the Erato Quartet of Basel’s CD of string quartets by women composers, which includes Fanny Mendelssohn’s masterpiece (CPO 999 679-2). Here is a critical review of the CD (Classical Music Review). Time for a Morning Coffee Concert?

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