Other Mahler, Other Schumanns: Women Composers Get a Hearing of Their Own

By Pamintuan, Tina | Humanities, March/April 2001 | Go to article overview

Other Mahler, Other Schumanns: Women Composers Get a Hearing of Their Own


Pamintuan, Tina, Humanities


At the age of eleven, Clara Schumann published her first musical composition. By sixteen, she was playing the piano under the direction of Mendelsohn and was known throughout Europe for her talents. In fact, her musical expertise spread the popularity of her husband Robert's compositions.

However, few today would think of Clara Schumann penning her own works. Nor does Alma Mahler, wife of the Romantic composer, Gustav Mahler, leap to mind-yet she was well known for her lieder cycles, or groups of songs with a common theme. The tradition of women creating classical music continues into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries with composers such as Lili Boulanger, Elinor Remick Warren, Rebecca Clarke, and Libby Larsen.

Three hundred years of classical music by women is the subject of "The Eternal Feminine," a new hour-long radio documentary produced and narrated by Ann Feldman. It will be broadcast nationally in March on more than one hundred stations across the country.

Based on a solo concert by Susanne Mentzer that took place last summer at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago, the program mixes clips of the mezzo-soprano's performance with audience comments and interviews with scholars.

Co-produced by Artistic Circles, a non-profit organization dedicated to women in the arts, and the Illinois Humanities Council, the concert presents a rare opportunity to hear an evening of songs by female classical composers and to engage in a question-and-answer session with scholars. Providing a forum for discussion, Kristina Valaitis of the Illinois Humanities Council explains, ensures that the audience is exposed not just to the music, but comes away with an understanding of the issues that female classical composers have faced throughout history. Many in the audience will never have heard these composers before; only in the last ten to fifteen years have women composers been admitted to the canon of great classical composers.

At a time when the annual Lilith Fair bolsters the popularity of female pop and rock songwriters, female composers of classical music are still among the genre's hidden creators. Feldman admits that she couldn't help but think of Sarah McLachlan, the Canadian singer/songwriter behind the all-female songfest, as she worked on "The Eternal Feminine" concert and documentary. "Everyone laughed at her when she came up with the idea," Feldman says, "but look what it turned into. I think the reason is that people want to hear music that speaks to their experiences."

Judith Tick, a scholar participating in "The Eternal Feminine" project and a professor at Northeastern University, agrees. She notes that she and her colleagues often find themselves defending the legitimacy of their studies. "It's been a struggle to get the voices of women out into the literature of music and into the history," she explains in the program.

Clara Schumann herself wondered whether her identity as a woman was elastic enough to include the role of artistic creator alongside that of mother, wife, and interpreter of Robert's work. …

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