March is Music in Our Schools Month and Women’s History Month, but when was the last time your child came home from school rattling high praise for his or her favorite female composer? Perhaps we should speak for ourselves, but our repertoire of  “favorite female composers” seems a bit slim when we consider how long our list of favorite male composers is.

As Virginia Woolf wrote, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

We think women need those things, sure – but to become musicians, or any other creative profession, women need education.

Since the dawn of the first musical instrument, a reed flute from 67,000 years ago, women are phantoms of musical history. There are exceptions, of course, but from the Middle Ages to the late nineteenth century, women learned basic musicianship chiefly so they could entertain and appear well mannered. Or, like the German abbess, St. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1176 C.E.), they became nuns, where study was unlimited but public performance was.

Clara Schumann via Wikipedia

At the height of the Romantic Era, women like Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, though prodigal and deserving, rose to fame primarily due to their brothers (Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn).

Robert Schumann openly admired his older sister, who became one of the most distinguished pianists of the era—one of the first to perform from memory. She was also the breadwinner for the Schumann family. It was her talents, and her perseverance, that supported the family long after her brother’s early death.

Fanny Mendelssohn via Wikipedia

Fanny Mendelssohn was also prolific, composing over 460 musical pieces in her lifetime. Still, in one letter, she wrote:

I have been composing a good deal lately, and have called my piano pieces after the names of my favourite haunts, partly because they really came into my mind at these spots, partly because our pleasant excursions were in my mind while I was writing them. They will form a delightful souvenir, a kind of second diary. But do not imagine that I give these names when playing them in society, they are for home use entirely.

And in 1820, Fanny Mendelssohn’s father wrote, “”Music will perhaps become Felix’s profession, while for you (Fanny) it can and must be only an ornament. ”

The spread of women’s suffrage in the early twentieth century stimulated enough social and economic empowerment to spawn the swath of female musicians we know today: Amy Beach, Nadia Boulanger, Cecile Cheminade, Teresa Careño, Charlotte Church, Vivian Fine – to name a few.

We’ll take a look at some of these women of note next week. Stay tuned! And in the meantime, who are some of your favorite female musicians?

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