Celebrating Women in Classical Music – how has the world changed?
Turning the hands of time back 200 years, it was proper, even expected, for a young woman of society to master instruments such as piano, harp, classical guitar or voice. Women were expected to learn to read music, entertain guests in their homes, and to instruct children in music as a domestic practice. But for a woman to perform publicly was seen as immoral and immodest, and women were not allowed to be taught at a conservatory level, because the curriculum that included composition, counterpoint and orchestration was considered too complex. A woman’s purpose in life was influenced by her family and marital status, only making a name for themselves with the support of their father or husband.
Despite the fact that women like German Benedictine mystic Hildegard von Bingen were composing back in the early 12th century, few women composers received the recognition they deserved from the musical establishment, largely due to the association of women performing and composing music for the home or “salon.”
By the mid-1800s, there was some evidence of change coming. In 1835 the Music Vale Seminary founded in Salem, Connecticut by Orramel Whittlesey, was the first music conservatory established in the U. S., specifically for the purpose of teaching women music. Women like Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Amy Beach were composing, although often with recognition only coming because of the men in their lives. Other compositions by American women often went without attribution or acknowledgment.
In the early 2000s, Canadian born pianist and Eastman School of Music professor Sylvie Beaudette conducted an experiment with her music history class, playing works from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods by both male and female composers, without revealing the gender to her students. By listening alone, students were to guess which works sounded “female” and which sounded “male.” In two-thirds of the examples, “the students guessed wrong,” said Beaudette, noting that “music is not gendered.”
That experiment was the motivation for Beaudette to organize a festival spotlighting women’s music which ran from 2005 to 2014. In 2022 ESM’s Women in Music Festival returns as part of the Eastman School of Music’s centennial celebration, after an eight-year hiatus. This year’s festival takes place March 21 through March 25 and includes five days of performances and discussions in the spirit of musical discovery, and includes a symposium on the African American composer Florence B. Price (1887-1953).
But the focus on women in classical music isn’t limited to the Eastman School of Music. Earlier this month (March 4-7, 2022), the School of Music at Nazareth College hosted its first Women in Music Festival, celebrating the artistry of women composers in workshops, panel discussions, lecture recitals and concerts. Their festival will culminate with a performance on Wednesday, March 23 at 12:10 pm on Live from Hochstein at The Hochstein School, called In the Company of Women. Members of the Nazareth College music faculty (Ryan Hardcastle, viola; Marcy Bacon, clarinet; Yoshiko Arahata, piano; Jacob Ertl, piano and Jessica Ann Best, mezzo-soprano) will perform music by composers Rebecca Clarke, Lori Laitman, Joan Tower, Margaret Bonds, Amy Beach and Libby Larsen.
WXXI Classical is committed to celebrating the achievements of women in classical music, every day in our musical presentation and on our website. You can find profiles of composers like Hildegard von Bingen, Jennifer Higdon and Valerie Coleman; conductors like JoAnn Falletta and Sarah Caldwell; performers like Hélène Grimaud, Evelyn Glennie and Kelly Hall-Tompkins; and educators and advocates like Armenta Adams Hummings Dumisani and Ruth Taiko Watanabe and many more on our Resources page.