Classical Music’s Glass Ceiling

Women composers of classical music shine in a new book.
Women composers of classical music shine in a new book.

By Mary Anna Violi | @MaryAnnaVioli

Years ago as a voice major at IU Bloomington, I remember in music literature and in music history classes hearing about compositions by Fanny Mendelssohn, ­­Felix’s sister. The professor lauded her talent, but said that Fanny was not as famous as her brother Felix because not much of her work had been published. The reasons behind this are explained in Anna Beer’s new book Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. NPR’s Rachel Martin had a fascinating interview with Anna Beer about her book at:

In Music Literature, I recall listening to a composition by Nadia Boulanger, the famous French composer, conductor, and champion of musicians. I do not, however, recollect any mention of her sister Lili Boulanger, a composer in her own right. Riveting in Beer’s book is the story of Barbara Strozzi, a Baroque Venetian singer and composer who took the surname of her Venetian patron/pimp because she was uncertain who her biological father was. Part of this courtesan’s performance for wealthy patrons was to sing erotic songs. At least Barbara was a prolific composer whose work was published.

Not unlike contentious elections today, there is a backlash directed towards women. Maybe men fear someone with a vagina [it’s dark “in there”] being elected to high political office [a man’s penis is more visible]. It is fine to have women on the Supreme Court, in the Senate, and in the House, but not in the White House. Yet Margaret Thatcher ran England for years; Angela Merkel has been at the helm of Germany for a lot of years, too. In classical music, Beer points out that even Clara Schumann, wife of Robert, the famous composer who went mad and ultimately committed suicide, was an accomplished pianist and composer in her own right. Brahms admired her greatly. He was rumored to have been in love with her. Neither Brahms’ supposed unrequited love, nor her husband Robert Schumann’s encouragement of her work got her well published.

It seems to be the age-old issue: Even with famous husbands and friends, women fail to receive their due. Perhaps because men and conservative women wish females to remain “angels in the kitchen” under male protection that creative women in classical music are still marginalized. They are promoted and supported, but how many females, with the exception of the late, great Beverly Sills run opera houses? Sills’ beloved New York City Opera vacated its Lincoln Center home of 50 years due to financial woes [opera is not cheap to run], and has been suffering ever since. The late Sarah Caldwell founded the Opera Company of Boston and she was both its director and its conductor for over thirty years. She was able to attract renowned singers Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, John Vickers, and Placido Domingo to perform with her Opera Company of Boston.The late Carol Fox was one of the founders of Chicago’s Lyric Opera; Ardis Krainik took over until 1997 and ran it until her death. Her successor was a man. Soprano Renée Fleming became Chicago Lyric Opera’s  first musical consultant in 2010, but she is not the manager who actually runs the show.

Classical music abounds with female performers of brilliance as conductors, composers, and performers. One of the few modern-day female conductors in the U.S. is Sebrina Maria Alfonso, Music Director of the South Florida Symphony,

Thanks to author Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women in Classical Music sheds light on intellectually brave and creative women who continued composing and performing in spite of restrictive societal roles thrust upon them. They are “forgotten women” no more.

Ciao for now.



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