Lisztomania: The Future is Female

There is no doubt that the modern feminist movement has been championed by women of all backgrounds. Within the last two centuries, women have provided novel ideas and thought processes to many different fields. Many women who have led movements of suffrage or who have made breakthrough contributions to science are widely recognized — and rightfully so.

However, women who have made great strides in music have often gone unrecognized. With International Women’s Day having recently passed, I thought it would be appropriate to dedicate this week’s column to women composers. Although few and far between, women represent some of the best and brightest composers to have ever lived despite many not having been given a fair chance to exercise their talents during their lifetimes.

One of the earliest known female composers is Hildegard von Bingen, a German nun born in 1098. Along with composing for her monastery, she made great contributions to science and philosophy. Composing gave nuns and monks an outlet for their emotions regarding sacred texts, and several, including Hildegard, reported to have had melodies and ideas given to them directly by God.

Hildegard’s works include a “morality play” entitled Ordo Virtutum (c. 1151) which, unlike most compositions from the medieval period, is not dominated by religious themes. It is an allegory about the struggles of Virtues and the Devil for the human soul. This work is proof of Hildegard’s strides in disciplines of both music and philosophy.

Many centuries later, during the Romantic Era of composition, several female composers, including Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, gained recognition. Fanny Mendelssohn was the older sister of famed German composer Felix Mendelssohn, and the two were said to have been extremely close. As a German woman living in the first half of the 19th century, Fanny was often deprived of opportunities to publish her work. However, her brother Felix published hundreds of Fanny’s works under the name “F. Mendelssohn,” which many of the conservative musicians of the time assumed to stand for “Felix” Mendelssohn. Although it was difficult for Fanny to achieve international fame for her compositions, she has posthumously become one of the most respected Romantic era composers. Fanny’s compositions have a unique sound that is a stark contrast to many of the heavily orchestrated works of the early Romantic Era. It is likely that the light and graceful melodies in her music stem from her femininity.

The title of this column, “The Future is Female,” is somewhat misleading. In my opinion, music is a discipline which should not be dominated by a single gender, whether that be male or female. The world works best when people of different genders, sexual orientations, races and religions all are given the opportunity to contribute to society and offer unique perspectives. The future is not female, but will involve more contributions of women in disciplines that have been historically dominated by men.

Suggested listening:

Hildegard von Bingen, “Ordo Virtutum” (c. 1151)

Fanny Mendelssohn, “Piano Trio in D minor” (1850)

Clara Schumann, “Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22” (1855)

Amy Beach, “Gaelic Symphony in E Minor” (1896)

Rebecca Clarke, “Sonata for Viola and Piano” (1919)