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Walking the Tightrope

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Since the time of Hildegard of Bingen, every century has had its share of exceptional female composers. So why aren’t their names and their music better  known? Anna Beer has some answers.

450 years ago, in Venice, Maddalena Casulana became the first woman to publish her own music.

She took the chance to question a ‘foolish error’: the idea that men believed they were the sole masters of the ‘high intellectual gifts’ necessary for composition. She suggested that those gifts might ‘be equally common’ among women. Today, most of us understand that there is no essential difference between male and female human beings, at least when it comes to an individual’s ability to compose music – and it is a matter of scientific record that you cannot tell the sex of a composer simply by listening to his or her music.

And yet that is all as nothing when placed against the weight of certain beliefs about women and music, beliefs which – on one level – explain but do not excuse the scarcity of women in far too many areas of the music industry, even today. The silencing began early. A statement attributed to the thirdcentury Talmudic scholar Samuel of Nehardea claimed that the sound of a woman’s voice was a sexual enticement; this was interpreted by some Jewish communities as a prohibition on hearing women sing. And that’s just performance. When it comes to women composing or conducting, these (invariably sexualised) fears of the woman in creative charge loom even larger.

These beliefs meant that a composer – like Francesca Caccini working at the court of the Medici in Florence in the early 17th century – knew that every detail of her life would be scrutinised. However, if she was virtuous, chaste, obedient, then perhaps she might not have to be silent. So long as she was
properly feminine by the standards of her time, she might get away with being a professional composer. Over the years, proper femininity has taken many different forms: Marianna von Martines’ propriety and celibacy in the Vienna of Haydn and Mozart; the relentless pregnancies of Clara Schumann in 19th-century Leipzig, Dresden and Dusseldorf; or Lili Boulanger’s careful presentation of herself as an innocent child-woman in Paris in the 1910s. All these helped to make it more acceptable to be woman and composer.

‘It was a battle against the odds, a battle that got even harder towards the end of the eighteenth century’

There were other ways to sneak under the radar. For centuries, the inextricable link between performance and composition created a space for the female composer. Virtuoso female musicians were actually expected to write music to display their own virtuosity, whether as a servant of the Church (and thus to the ultimate glory of God) or a servant to a prince (and thus to the ultimate glory of the patron) or a precocious daughter (and thus to the ultimate glory of the family). And so we have a rich, if shockingly little-known, heritage of music stretching from nun composers such as Leonora d’Este through to Barbara Strozzi and Fanny Mendelssohn.

For each woman, however, it was a battle against the odds, a battle that got even harder towards the end of the 18th century. Until then, certain exceptional women could be, and were, celebrated as proving the capability of the female sex. Composers were part of the servant class, after all. But then, the phrase ‘woman composer’ became a conceptual scandal, a self-evident absurdity, as demonstrated by musicologist Matthew Head. Now, women were deemed essentially incapable of producing music as good as their male contemporaries. Indeed, music itself was feminine or masculine. It was a sheer impossibility that even a virtuous woman could write ‘masculine’ music. No prizes for guessing which kind of music was privileged by the music world – and perhaps continues to be privileged by it. And at precisely this time, the classical canon was being formed, a canon that was and remains resolutely male. So when women composers attempted to take their sex (and sex generally) out of the equation, or to conform in elaborate ways to the expectations of their world, it was never going to be enough. A composer would come to know – painfully, at times – that her work would always be understood in terms of her sex, or rather, what her society believed her sex was capable of achieving.

That knowledge would silence many a composer. Take Rebecca Clarke, whose Viola Sonata (1919) won a prestigious prize: questions were asked – was it actually by Ernest Bloch or Maurice Ravel (under a pseudonym)? How could a woman have composed such a formally rigorous yet powerful work? Clarke was not the first, and would not be the last, to give up in the face of this kind of scepticism, because women just as much as men believed and believe the stories we tell ourselves about creative genius. As Clara Schumann wrote: ‘I once thought that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose – nor has one been able to do it, and why should I expect to?’

Clara needed Venus Unwrapped – we all do. Because there was, and is, a rich and complex body of music written by women just waiting to be explored
and enjoyed, and, even more importantly, a rich and complex body of music written by women just waiting to be composed and performed. It was Virginia Woolf who wrote, famously and contentiously, that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. For a composing woman, even more is needed, as expressed by musician and musicologist Suzanne Cusick: ‘Because music is fundamentally about movement, sociability and change, women musicians do not so much need rooms of our own, within which we can retreat from the world, as we need ways of being in the world that allow us to engage with the often immobilising and silencing effects of gender norms’. The female composer needs to be working in a community
that not only values her art, but enables it to be heard beyond the traditional spaces for women’s music, such as the nunnery or the home. These communities existed in the past, but often fleetingly: the Medici court in Italy in the 1610s, the city of Venice in the 1650s, the court of the Sun King in France in the 1690s, a mansion in Berlin in the 1830s, the Mercury Theatre in London in the 1930s. These communities allowed Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Fanny Hensel and Elizabeth Maconchy – to name but five glorious composers featured in the series – to flourish, at least for a time.

‘The female composer needs to work in a community that not only values her art, but takes it beyond the traditional spaces for women’s music, the nunnery or the home’

Today, women are creating such opportunities and communities for themselves: Julia Wolfe with Bang on a Can, Anna Meredith with her own band, Kate Whitley’s inspired work with Bold Tendencies and The Multi-Story Orchestra, bringing her own and others’ music to new audiences in unexpected places; Francesca Caccini and Barbara Strozzi would have recognised themselves in composing-singing entrepreneurial producers such as Laura Mvula, Ayanna Witter-Johnson, Josephine Stephenson, Héloïse Werner and Kerry Andrew, with her genre-busting groups Juice Vocal Ensemble and You Are Wolf. Mary Lou Williams would find kindred spirits in Nikki Yeoh, Zoe Rahman, Sarah Tandy and the trumpeter Laura Jurd, band leader of Dinosaur.

As creative women move into conducting and directing roles across the world, their agency and influence grows. Venus Unwrapped provides an opportunity to throw a spotlight on the treasures of the past, but also on the work of female creators today, across the musical spectrum.

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