When we think of great composers the names of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven immediately come to mind. Though their music reflects the different time periods in which they composed, there is one glaring similarity between these great musicians: they were all men. In honor of Women’s History Month, flutist Deirdre McArdle and I have released an album of works by women composers. Often neglected in their own time, the history of these composers illustrates the role of women in music.
During the Classical Period (about 1750-1815), music was looked upon as a pastime for wealthy upper class women. Composers like Beethoven and Mozart often had teaching studios filled with female piano students. The idea that women should play music as a hobby persisted into the Romantic Period (around 1820-1880) when studios of composers like Chopin were full of daughters of the elite.
Duchess Anna Amalia fits into this category as much as she transcends it. A princess in the Prussian royal family, she received a musical education, eventually making her court into a center of art and culture. Mélanie Hélène Bonis began her formal studies at the Paris Conservatory after initially being discouraged from pursuing music by her family. Much like Chopin’s longtime companion, the author George Sand, Melanie adopted the pen name Mel in order to make her gender ambiguous. Also discouraged by her family from pursuing music, Cecile Chaminade, attended the Paris Conservatory as well, however, unlike Bonis, she did not adopt a pseudonym, but used her own name. She was the first female composer to be made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.
The classical music profession has been largely closed to women, especially composers. It wasn’t until the last quarter of the 20th century that women began to be accepted into major orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic. It is up to us as listeners and performers to look back at our history and find those women whose music may have been left by the wayside and bring it to light.