Women Pianists as Composers
If you attend a classical concert in the U.S. this month there is the increased likelihood that you will hear at least one piece by a woman composer. This is not just because March has been designated as National Women’s History Month, but also due to the growing amount of scholarship about women in music, and specifically as composers. Thanks largely to the efforts of musicologists and biographers, several of whom appear in the Biographies and Autobiographies page, in the past two decades there has become a greater awareness of the hidden treasures to be found in music written by women.
Originally the emphasis was on the collection and analysis of large works: operas, symphonies, concertos, etc. The challenge had been made that women composers were not as adept as their male colleagues in manipulating the medium because they had not written as long and complex works as the men. But as historic works were uncovered, and particularly as more living women composers made notable contributions, the validity of including women’s music in major concerts alongside the “masters” became accepted.
And now that women composers have gained a level of validity it is becoming more accepted to teach and perform their smaller works, particularly piano works. Some of it is at an advanced level that concert pianists such as Cecile Chaminade, Agathe Backer Grondahl, Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach wrote for their own performances. But there are also many works of intermediate level that these, and many other composers throughout the centuries, have written and that now are gradually being brought into publication and made available for today's piano teachers to include in their student's repertoire.
To aid teachers in accessing this material the San Diego branch of the Music Teachers Association of California recently published a webpage of intermediate level piano music composed by women. Several of the composers listed were concert pianists who are also included in this website, such as: Amy Beach, Margaret Bonds, Cecile Chaminade, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Marie Jaell, Clara Schumann, and others included in anthologies, such as Teresa Carreno, Louise Farrenc, Wanda Landowska and Maria Szymanowska. As I looked through the list I remembered reading through the dissertation Jane Iverson wrote in 1993 which analyzed the intermediate level piano compositions of Agathe BackerGrondahl and her exhortation of the need to make this delightful music more available to teachers and students. Along with many piano pieces and songs written for concert performance, Grondahl also wrote music for her piano students. I knew this would not be included on the list, since the music has been out of print for over half a century, but it remains an example of the many gems written by famous pianists for their students as well as themselves.
Dozens of the historical concert pianists listed on this site can be found in reference books of women composers, such as Hixon and Hennessee’s Women in music: an encyclopedic biobibliography (Scarecrow Press, 1993), and Sadie and Samuel's The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers (MacMillan, 1994). The internet is also an excellent place to look for material on women in music, and the availability of their music. A search of the subject on the web will bring up thousands of pages devoted to women composers, including several publishers that specialize in music written by women. The largest publisher of this specialty is Hildegard Publishing which includes in their list of composers the following pianists: Josepha Auernhammer, Amy Beach, Maria Blahetka, Teresa Carreno, Louise Farrenc, Agathe Backer Grondahl, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Helen Hopekirk, Marie Jaell, Wanda Landowska, Shopie Menter, Maria Theresia von Paradis, Clara Schumann, Philippa Schuyler and Maria Szymanowska. Other publishers of women composers include ClarNan Editions,
Arsis Press and
Often we categorize individuals according to one accomplishment, but as we see this month many of the women listed on this site as concert pianists are also claimed by others as important composers. The more I read about women in music the more I am amazed at the rich variety of musical activities many of them were successfully involved in. A leading example is that of
Jeanne Louise Farrenc (1804 - 1875). Often thought of today as primarily a composer, she was also an important teacher, performer and music publisher. Her husband set out to publish the first collection of piano music through the ages, including many early composers long out of print and forgotten, and upon his death halfway through this large undertaking Jeanne Louise Farrenc took over the task and finished it a decade later, with a total of 23 volumes of music. And she accomplished it while still working full-time as professor of piano at the Paris Conservatory, where she was the highest ranking woman on the staff during the 1800's, teaching there for over 30 years. Yet personally she did not feel that successful because she was continually denied the position of teaching the highest level of men pianists, though now we can see that, nevertheless, she opened the doors for the many outstanding women pianists who were later to teach at, or graduate from this institution. If you read her biography
Louise Farrenc: 1804-1875: Composer, Performer, Scholar by Bea Friedland (Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1980) you will also discover a kind and generous person and a devoted wife and mother who nurtured her only child, Victoria, into a world class pianist, only to see her become and invalid and die in her early thirties.
Hopefully as more biographies are written and read, and more music is published and listed, like the San Diego's intermediate level piano music composed by women, musicians of all ages and abilities will be challenged to reach beyond the ordinary and to discover and share the rich treasures to be found in music written by women.
by Rose Eide-Altman
published March 7, 2002
copyright 2002 PianoWomen.com