In honor of Women’s History Month, we would like to recognize five important historical female composers who did not receive the recognition of their more famous male family members, although it was deserved. Prior to 1900, it was not uncommon to see women performing music. In fact, it was a requirement of all accomplished young ladies to play the keyboard. While performing music was encouraged, creating music was not, which is why we hear so little music by female composers before the twentieth century.
Anna Magdalena Bach (1701-1760) was the second wife of Johann Sebastian Bach. She was a professional vocalist, although not much is documented of her career. We know that she met her husband when he was the Capellmeister (a music director) in the German city of Cöthen and that she continued to sing professionally after they were married. Anna Magdalena Bach played an important role in her husband’s work, transcribing much of her husband’s music. Recent research by musicologists has suggested that several of J.S. Bach’s compositions were actually composed by his wife, including the famous Six Cello Suites.
Maria Anna Mozart (1751-1829), nicknamed Nannerl, was the Mozart family’s first prodigy. Although her music education was not begun until she was eight years old, she was masterfully playing the most difficult works in the keyboard repertoire to audiences all over Europe by the time she was twelve. While the credit for Mozart’s education is attributed to his father, Leopold, it is important to remember that his older, more experienced sister would have had knowledge and insights to share.When they were young, Nannerl transcribed Wolfgang’s first symphony. Some musicologists believe that she may not only have been the copyist, but also a collaborator. In 1769, when Nannerl was 18 and had reached a “marriageable age,” her father no longer allowed her to perform in public. During the years before she married in 1784, it is presumed that she composed music, receiving praise of her compositional prowess in a letter from her brother. Sadly, all of her compositions have been lost.
Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) has a history very similar to Nannerl Mozart. As a young child, she demonstrated prodigious skills at the piano. Four years older than her brother Felix, the pair shared in their musical education. Their piano teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, at one point believed Fanny’s abilities to surpass those of her brother and compared her to J.S. Bach.
Fanny began composing as a teenager. Like Nannerl’s father, Fanny’s father did not support her as a composer. Her brother Felix, while supportive, was not comfortable with her publishing works under her own name. In 1829, just as her brother’s career as a composer and conductor was gaining momentum, she married the painter William Hensel. Her husband was supportive of her continuing to compose and in 1837 she finally published a song in her own name. Despite the constraints on women of her time, Fanny composed over 400 works. Fortunately, many of her compositions have survived. However, they are little known and performed even less.
Clara Schumann (1819-1896) is easily the most famous of the women on this list. She is more famous for her career as a virtuoso pianist than as a composer. Like Nannerl and Fanny, she began performing publicly at an early age. As a performer, she is known for being one of the first pianists to make playing music from memory a habit. When she was twelve, she began performing the works of her future husband, Robert Schumann. While the composer would have normally performed his own works, a hand injury prevented Schumann from doing so. No wonder Clara became known as the foremost interpreter of her husband’s works.
Clara was the ultimate working mom. She and Robert had eight children, yet she still continued to perform, teach, and compose all while being her husband’s number one supporter. Robert encouraged her compositional activity, but he made it clear that his work took precedence over hers. Oddly, after her husband’s death in 1856 she ceased composing, focusing her energy on performing, teaching, and editing her husband’s works. During her life, her compositions were largely unknown. Many still remain unpublished.
Alma Mahler (1879-1964) is probably best known for her many love affairs with several artistic geniuses of the twentieth century. Known as a femme fatale, she was successively married to a composer (Gustav Mahler), an artist (Walter Gropius), and a writer (Franz Werfel).
Like Nannerl, Fanny and Clara she began playing the piano at a young age. In 1895, she began studying composition and continued until her engagement to Gustav Mahler in late 1901. Gustav strictly prohibited her from continuing her musical career, stating that it was his role to work and her role to be a supportive companion. For such a free-spirited woman, it is surprising that Alma gave in. However, she resented that her husband suppressed her creativity, causing serious marital problems, and undoubtedly leading to her affair with Gropius. After Gustav’s death in 1911, Alma began composing again. Only 17 of her songs have survived, 14 of which were published during her lifetime.
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