Jennifer Stasack, professor of music at Davidson College, talks to WDAV about what it is like being a female composer in today’s age, and what female figures she used as role models to get to where she is today.
by Hannah Liberman
When you think of Mendelssohn, odds are that you’re not picturing Fanny plucking out a tune on the piano. Ask people about Mozart, and the name that comes to mind probably isn’t Maria Anna. But these women, whose brothers, fathers, and husbands enjoy legacies as classical music heroes, had noteworthy careers of their own, albeit often overshadowed by their male relatives’ successes. Here are some great female composers whose music is so magical you’ll find yourself saying “Wolfgang Amadeus who?”
Mendelssohn’s baby brother Felix might be the household name, but the German-born pianist composed over 460 pieces herself, including a number of songs published under her brother’s name. Fanny and Felix were close; her only known public performance was of his Piano Concerto No. 1 and after her death, Felix wrote his String Quartet No. 6 in her memory.
Check out the hauntingly beautiful melody of Fanny Mednelssohn’s Noturno in G Minor.
Clara was a child prodigy turned accomplished pianist who premiered several works by Johannes Brahms. Her husband was the famous composer Robert Schumann; the two were so close and so respected each other’s talents that they kept a joint musical diary. Clara composed more when she was younger, before her pianist career and married life got in the way. She wrote several piano pieces, songs, and orchestral works.
Here is Clara Schumann’s gorgeous piece Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Opus 22.
Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart was Wolfgang’s older sister and enjoyed a short-lived career as the family’s musical prodigy. Her father would take Nannerl and Wolfgang on tours across Europe to showcase their musical talents (she was incredible on the harpsichord and piano forte and even received top billing over her brother). Unfortunately, society and Nannerl’s own father dictated that she stop pursuing music once she reached a marriageable age. Wolfgang wrote letters indicating Maria Anna composed pieces herself, but no such records exist. However, you can learn more about Ms. Mozart’s life through a variety of pop culture references, including this recent play from Sylvia Milo in 2013.
Hannah Lieberman is a senior at Davidson College where she studies Political Science and Theatre. She loves her work at WDAV, where you can hear her live on Sunday mornings.
Tara Keith, associate professor of music at Davidson College and music director of the Davidson College Symphony Orchestra, spoke with WDAV about her experiences as a female conductor working in a field that has traditionally been dominated by men and about the importance of music education for girls.
For prominent composers like Clara Schumman, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Louise Farrenc, composing beautiful pieces was only half the battle in becoming successful, influential figures in the classical music canon. They also had to deal with the social inequality faced by women in music and in a variety of other professions, making their musical accomplishments even more commendable.
If these women were alive today, perhaps they’d have an easier time making names for themselves- they’re no longer required to compose whilst in rib-squeezing girdles, they can exercise their right to vote, they can get musical education just like their male contemporaries. But women still face obstacles as musicians, no matter the genre.
Fortunately, there are a handful of organizations and institutions working to combat this gender gap. Locally, Girls Rock Charlotte (GRC) works “to educate and empower girls through music, creativity, and collaboration.” The annual summer camps and workshops are part of a national organization with the same goals, the Girls Rock Camp Alliance.
At these camps, campers (most of whom have never played a musical instrument), form a 5-person band, write an original song together, learn how to play their instrument and practice all week for a community concert. New campers learn basic chords, melodies and rhythms while returning campers become increasingly sophisticated with their original songs and arrangements. The campers practice all week, learning to collaborate across diverse identities as they perfect their timing and performance.
Girls Rock Charlotte Executive Director Kelly Finley notes, “they cheer each other on and grow evermore confident as they prepare to rock the stage. In between practices and instrument instruction, campers attend workshops on leadership, confidence-building, gender equality and more. It’s a powerful mix! By the night of the concert they are in true rock star form – impressing their families and delighting the crowd. These Girls Rock Charlotte concerts are open to the community and they are the perfect, family-friendly musical event sure to inspire!”
The aforementioned female composers and their contemporaries would surely appreciate the development of such a program – one that arms young women not only with musical skill, but self-confidence, empowerment, and role models. In fact, they might go so far as to tell the girls to rock on.
You can learn more about Girls Rock Charlotte, and how to get involved, at their website here.