Classical: Can Women Compose Music? ; of Course They Can. but Why Are So Few of Them Doing It? One of Our Finest Composers, Thea Musgrave, Whose Latest Work Lamenting with Ariadne Is Premiered in Birmingham Tonight, Has Strong Views on the Subject

By Church, Michael | The Independent (London, England), January 28, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Classical: Can Women Compose Music? ; of Course They Can. but Why Are So Few of Them Doing It? One of Our Finest Composers, Thea Musgrave, Whose Latest Work Lamenting with Ariadne Is Premiered in Birmingham Tonight, Has Strong Views on the Subject


Church, Michael, The Independent (London, England)


"A woman must not wish to compose - there never was one who could do it. Am I intended to be the one? It would be arrogant to believe that. May Robert always create; that must always make me happy."

So wrote Clara Wieck on the eve of her marriage to Schumann. How good was her music? Yoshiko Iwai's Naxos recording of her piano works makes the best possible case, but the conclusion is inescapable: Clara Schumann may have spoken the same musical language as her husband, but she hadn't a shred of his genius. Her compositions were as sedate as decorum demanded. As a world-beating pianist, she was already a provocative over-achiever; she didn't dare add to the provocation with her compositions.

Her friend Fanny Mendelssohn was a different kettle of fish. Listen to her Piano Trio Op 11 and you'll recognise the musical language used by her famous brother, Felix. You may also realise something else: it's far more inventive and original than the average Mendelssohn product. Fanny's social impediment was compounded by her devotion to her brother - she actually didn't want to excel - but talent will out.

The case of Amy Beach (1867-1944) raises the issue in a different form. Why is this major American composer only now - with a Chandos recording of her magnificent chamber music - getting her due? Having started as a pianist, she turned to composition at the instigation of her rich husband, but was written off by the avant-garde as a neo- Romantic irrelevance. Would this crass judgement have been passed if she'd done a Bronte and hidden behind a masculine name?

The romantic image of the composer as an implicitly male hero lingers long after the gender studies brigade thought they'd seen it off. There are now as many women composers as painters, poets and novelists. But how many match their male counterparts in their symphonic and operatic ambitions? Very few. The leader of this select pack is due to unveil an intriguing new work with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group tonight. Lamenting with Ariadne is the first fruit of Thea Musgrave's stint as Birmingham's composer in residence, and will certainly raise the question of why this prolific creator is so underrated in her native land.

When her Songs for a Winter's Evening - settings of poems by Robert Burns - were sung by Lisa Milne at the Proms two years ago, you could sense the excited surprise in the air: what other Brit could conceive such a perfect melding of voice and orchestra, or create such bracing instrumental beauty? Music is now too internationalised for her limited recognition here to be ascribed to her American domicile: gender has to be the key.

Her view on the genetic explanation for the shortage of large- scale works by women could not be more trenchant. "It's bullshit. They tried to use that argument with blacks in America to prove that they were educationally defective."

But she's never campaigned on this platform: "I think the problem is often self-inflicted, and has to do with self-esteem. I decided early on not bother about it.

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Classical: Can Women Compose Music? ; of Course They Can. but Why Are So Few of Them Doing It? One of Our Finest Composers, Thea Musgrave, Whose Latest Work Lamenting with Ariadne Is Premiered in Birmingham Tonight, Has Strong Views on the Subject
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