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More Than Dead White Males

In his fifth classical music column Guts & Rosin, violinist Gary Levinson writes about important women composers that should be programmed more.

published Monday, January 29, 2018



When it comes to classical music programming, I feel for artistic directors and advisors. They are pulled in opposite directions by well-meaning aficionados. There is the warhorse camp. Play more Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky, they say. It’s the “classical” in classical music, get it? Then there is the academic camp. Play more living composers, not just dead white males, they say.

The “dead white males” label became mainstream in the early 1990s, though occasionally one finds it earlier in treatises mostly penned by music critics and university composition professors. Is that true and was this always the case? While I would love to note the important contributions of composers of color such as William Grant Still, Chevalier de St. George and George Bridgetower to 18th- and 19th-century composition catalogs, it is unquestionably more the exception than the rule that most of the music played in the 20th and 21st centuries was written by dead white males. Interestingly, many of them lived well into the 20th century, such as Richard Strauss, who died in 1949.

A few years ago, I was part of a large performing consortium on the chamber music side that consciously championed music by female composers. I personally performed more than a dozen of these works. Looking back on the experience, it was one of the most musically satisfying projects I have ever been a part of.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane with some of the more luminous female composers whose works are worthy of exploration.

Anna Magdalena Bach (1701-1760), J. S. Bach’s second wife, is best known for compiling two notebooks of manuscripts of her husband’s keyboard music which, for the last 300 years, has been the cornerstone of any serious piano student’s practice routine. However, there is much speculation that her serious compositions included the J. S. Bach cello suites and the famous Aria of the Goldberg Variations. Presently, it is hard to determine how much original music she composed as her note handwriting is virtually indistinguishable from her husband’s.

Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824) was an Austrian pianist who lost her sight at an early age and was reportedly Mozart’s inspiration for the B-flat Piano Concerto No. 18. Her compositional style, comprised of piano works written for her own use, is operatic and looking forward to the Romantic period, markedly different from the accepted style of her time.

Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) was one of the first virtuoso pianists born and trained in France. She was the only woman to have been hired in the 19th century by her alma mater the Paris Conservatory, in part, because she was a complete musician: a virtuoso pianist who composed symphonies and chamber music at a tremendously high level. Her music was of great inspiration to Berlioz and Beethoven.

Clara Schumann, neé Wieck (1819-1896), arguably the most towering musical figure among men and women of the 19th century, was not only the foremost interpreter of Robert Schumann’s music as the virtuoso pianist who also played violin and was trained in music theory, composition and journalism. Her personal works were relatively unknown until the latter 20th century, an unintended consequence of her remarkable performing career and her personal stewardship of Robert and one Johannes Brahms. Nonetheless, her remarkable Piano Trio and Romances are often played these days and show a composer in full bloom of her creative powers.

Lest it appear that the United States was bereft of talented female composers until the 20th century, Amy Beach (1867-1944) was a stupendously gifted concert pianist, whose compositional career started at age four, when she would compose walzes mentally, at locations such as her grandfather’s summer home where the piano was unavailable. She would write them down and play them upon her return home. Her compositional style owes a great deal to the grand Romantics like Brahms and Wagner. She composed many works which unfortunately never found a publisher because her husband, Dr. H.H.A. Beach, forbade it. Mrs. Beach did return to writing and publishing her music following her husband’s death in 1910.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Nannerl Mozart and Fanny Mendelssohn, Wolfgang’s and Felix’s sisters, respectively, contributed wonderful compositions to the repertoire as well as countless other composers. What is self-evident is the past 300 years have been very unfair to female composers in terms of marketing their music. Many of the male figures in their lives simply could not imagine their ability to compose on the same qualitative level as their male counterparts. Publishers did their part to suppress worthy compositions in favor of lesser ones produced by male counterparts.

Fortunately the past 100 years have largely corrected this glaringly untenable position. Names like Sofia Gobaidulina, Joan Tower, Kaija Saariaho and Augusta Reed Thomas have firmly entrenched their work in standard repertoire with imaginative, powerful works often reflecting the events of their time. As a professional performer, I only care about the impact the work has on the audience as well as the skill with which it was written.

One of my favorite chamber programs is an all-piano trio program, dubbed “What is in a surname?” It presents piano trios by Nannerl Mozart, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann. I encourage you to seek out these and many of our living female composers to experience the richness of their creative gifts. The aficionados needn’t worry: there is much great music beyond “dead white males.” Seek it out!


» Gary Levinson is the Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the artistic director for the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, and he helps program the salon concert series Blue Candlelight Music with his wife, pianist Baya Kakouberi, the artistic director.

» Guts & Rosin runs on the third Monday of the month on TheaterJones.



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More Than Dead White Males
In his fifth classical music column Guts & Rosin, violinist Gary Levinson writes about important women composers that should be programmed more.
by Gary Levinson

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