The presence of the underrepresented

About women composers

Article by Susanne Wosnitzka

»In many industries, women are still underrepresented today. This fact does not actually apply to music. For at no time in history has there been a lack of musical creations or cultural action by the female sex. Nevertheless, there is a whole world of misappropriated musical history that is reflected in the meagre awareness of female virtuosos. Yet one cannot avoid Emilie Mayer, for example, in the search for great female composers. But how is it that a musician who was so accomplished during her lifetime was forgotten shortly after her death, while many of her male colleagues were not? And how is it possible that her works disappeared from the concert scene within a very short time and only reappeared in the 21st century? Moved by these questions, ensemble reflektor positions Mayer exactly where she belongs: in a row with her great colleagues.«

Thus, the teaser for ensemble reflektor's eclipse program was also given at the Ludwigsburg Schlossfestspiele on 1 July. Emilie Mayer (1812-1833) is a perfect match for Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847) and Henry Purcell (~1659-1695) in this program. And judging by the magnificence of their works, in many, many other programs. It also fits the great Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy because he had a sister - Fanny (1805-1847) - who is now very well researched by feminist musicology, and who moved him to tears with her genius, technical level and brilliance on his travels through England and Scotland: In the realisation that it was probably after all the purest waste and a mistake to withhold her works from the public.

This horror also gripped the music critic Marc Blitzstein when he first heard a work by the French composer Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) on record in 1960: »When will we finally be able to hear her works regularly in our concert halls? We want to know what we have been missing all these decades!« Although she died very ill at an early age, her sister Nadia (1887-1979) tirelessly ensured that her little sister's works were performed regularly. Through this - and later also through the efforts of women's music history research - Lili's music already had a breeding ground in Paris.

In many cases, however, this breeding ground was withdrawn because gender and the associated imposed roles were either reduced (in the case of women) or hyped (in the case of men). Where did this come from? Let's take a look even further back.

If something is not there, it does not mean that it did not or could not have existed: From Sappho, the great Greek poetess who lived around 600 BCE, not only texts and textual remains have survived, but also tiny fragments of notes. There is a little more in the period from 800 A.D. onwards because that was when writing began in general: Whereas music had previously been passed on orally, especially in monastic schools and churches, this no longer worked smoothly because the music became so complicated that it had to be written down.

Patriarchal constructs - which massively influenced faith formation and faith and also destroyed older faiths - produced, among other things, this text module "mulier taceat in ecclesia" (»the woman is silent in the church meeting/community/community«, 1 Corinthians 14:34), which silenced women. Not only the spoken word but the negation of equal participation. Moreover, according to the Bible, women were created after Adam and were thus inferior to him in everything. There were also great female voices that remained relatively rare due to these role attributions. Kassia (~810-~865), who worked as an abbess in Constantinople, is considered to be officially the first female composer, of whom more extensive works are also available and are still used in the Greek Orthodox religion today. We are more familiar with Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), from whose pen the world's first known western full-length singspiel, Ordo Virtutum (The Play of Powers), has survived.

In the Renaissance, the so-called concerti delle donne emerged: women's ensembles that implemented the ideas of the Renaissance, the rebirth of Greek theatre (or what was thought to be): they brought human affects such as sadness, anger, joy, etc. to the stages and were jointly responsible for the emergence of operas and paved the way for today's pop music. Even if you as a reader have not heard a concerto delle donne, you may remember the legendary Spice Girls, who made it to number one in the charts in over 30 countries in 1996. They are descendants of these trailblazers.

The Baroque period saw an increase in the number of composing women, who received more solid musical training and had the power to shape their own courts. We know of composing princesses such as Wilhelmine of Bayreuth (1709-1758), sister of Frederick the Great (1712-1786), whose opera house is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Or Anna Amalia of Prussia (1723-1787), another sister of King Frederick the Great, who was such a great fan of Johann Sebastian Bach that she collected everything about him. Her library is the basis for why so much of Bach's music is known today.

These were all privileged women who had money and power because of their status. Their music was worth writing down, collecting and archiving. Their works were played exclusively at their (private) courts on specific occasions. Many bourgeois women with such ambition and talent did not have the luck of remaining in the world with their works. And certainly not to be performed. They were not allowed to become a Kapellmeister, who had an orchestra at her fingertips, because it was not appropriate for women to present themselves in such a public light. Emilie Mayer was one of the few who made it - because she had the support of men in appropriate positions who were enthusiastic about her abilities. Her long-lost grave is now an honorary grave of the city of Berlin.

Around 1900, psychology played a significant role in the negation of female creativity. Otto Weininger (1880-1903) in his book Geschlecht und Charakter (Vienna 1903) expressed himself as follows: »Genius already reveals itself as a kind of higher masculinity; and therefore W [can women] not be genius."

The well-known music critic Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904) did not hold back either and wrote: »Women lack creative imagination, the innate dowry and basic condition of independent musical creation."

The First World War, which brought cultural life to a standstill, also contributed to the devastating situation of women composers, as did the Nazi era, which pushed women out of the creative spheres. Women had to produce soldiers for Hitler and nothing else. It was only through the immensely tenacious, persistent and also ridiculed efforts of the Second Women's Movement from 1968 onwards, which wanted to rediscover its own history, that the work of women composers and conductors came back into focus.


Current figures on women composers in cultural institutions unfortunately still bear witness to this long tradition of exclusion: In a study by musica femina münchen and the Archiv Frau und Musik, they had a share of less than 2% in the 2018/19 season in the approximately 130 German and largely state-funded professional orchestras. The Corona pandemic caused further declines. In the USA, the current situation is much more positive, with a share of around 22.5 %. To this day, we have no parity in school music books in Germany. Female composers are at most only mentioned as »wife/lover/sister/muse of ...« in subordinate clauses, but not as independent personalities with their own outstandingly beautiful works. And yet it's all about good music.

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