On Clara Schumann's Birthday, Debating the Status of Female Composers

Thursday, September 13, 2012 - 09:37 AM

Poll: Do Female Composers Get Equal Opportunity?

Clara Schumann surreptitiously used the name of her famous husband, Robert, to get her pieces performed before 19th-century audiences that thought women lacked the intellect to write music.

Most of Fanny Mendelssohn's compositions were published under the name of her brother, Felix, for the same reason.

Although many attitudes have changed since that era, women composers remain on the margins of major concert programs and recordings.

On Wednesday, WQXR asked listeners to vote for one of three pieces that would best celebrate Clara Schumann's birthday. Choices included her Piano Concerto in A minor and two pieces she was connected with. Despite her concerto leading all morning, it was Brahms's Third Symphony that won with some last-minute votes (the winning piece was played at 12 pm).

Was this a victory for old attitudes about women composers? Or is Brahms's Third simply the better work?

On Thursday, on what would have been her 193rd birthday, Clara Schumann gets some major recognition, as Google honors her with a doodle. The Doodle appears on the search engine's international sites, including those in Asia and South America.

Certainly, the emergence of feminist musicology has helped shed new light on Clara Schumann's musical legacy, which was often overshadowed by that of her husband. Still, some argue that she cannot be considered a major composer due to her relatively small output (she was occupied by maternal matters much of the time, having given birth to eight children).

There also remains a belief that the principal gifts of female composers of the 19th century were for sentimental parlor songs, not more substantive works. But others say that it's time that works like Schumann's A minor Concerto, a big, virtuosic vehicle, or her Six Lieder, Op. 13, appear on more concert programs.

What do you think? Has Clara Schumann's work achieved its rightful place in the canon? How about Fanny Mendelssohn, Amy Beach or Lili Boulanger? Take our poll and leave your comments below.


More in:

Comments [11]

ed from Kissimmee, FL

While several of the posters stated that women composer are being performer it will only be an equal world when this question is irrelevant.

I had the position as classical music coördinator and librarian on an all volunteer radio station in Provincetown, MA. One of the women DJs called her show "Listening to WOMEN and men.". Several of the women DJs in other genres feature women composer and performer. I'm twelve years remover from thee and I have to say I Don't heat nearly the amount I hard back then.

Sep. 14 2012 12:34 PM

Why should it make a difference whether the composer of a piece of music I like is a man, a woman, or a monkey banging on a piano?

Sep. 13 2012 02:58 PM
Neil Schnall

Another little question of form: "on what would have been her 193rd birthday"? Yes, had Clara lived far longer than any other humans are known to have lived (apart from our biblical forebears), and were she still alive today, this would have been her 193rd birthday. In view of the fact that she did die, today is the 193rd anniversary of her birth. In fact, it would still be OK to say today is her 193rd birthday; I sincerely doubt anyone would quibble over that.

We hear Brahms' 3rd Symphony at least once a week on this station. Anyone desperate to hear it can just stay tuned. Any work by Clara Schumann gets only rare hearing on this venue, at best.

Sep. 13 2012 02:21 PM
Mary from MN

Interesting that Clara cannot emerge from the shadow of her husband when it has been recorded over and over that she was a far superior musician and Robert would never have published anything without gaining her opinion first.
I guess it is true: "Behind every man..."

Sep. 13 2012 01:36 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

I thought it was kind of strange that you would offer only one of Clara Schumann's works on a Showdown at High Noon supposedly in honor of her birthday, and then ask the question, "Has Clara Schumann's work achieved its rightful place in the canon?" If you were so concerned, why didn't the Showdown have three of her works to choose from instead of only one? (Although I have to admit, I chose the Brahms Symphony #3 because I wanted to hear it!)

Sep. 13 2012 01:12 PM

I think that Clara Schumann's Piano Concerto in A op. 7 which I just heard is as powerful as anything her husband wrote. Remarkable.

Sep. 13 2012 01:07 PM
Mike Dutton from Mountain View

Hi Penny, there was actually a Chopin doodle in 2010. Doodles commemorating famous people happen on a one-time basis, otherwise there would be no way to draw doodles for all the other folks deserving one, including Clara Schumann. :-)

Sep. 13 2012 12:52 PM
scott from New Jersey

Yes, woman composers and performers should get more attention. Most people don't know, for example, that Louis Armstrong's pianist in his early great jazz recordings– was his first wife, Lil Armstrong. BUT PLEASE! STOP REFERRING TO WOMEN AS FEMALES! YOU DEHUMANIZE THEM. You may call a spider, a lioness, or a queen bee a female, but only a woman is human. Let's keep it that way -- and impress this on everyone you know. I'm a man, not just a male.

Sep. 13 2012 12:49 PM
penny from Miami, Fl

Clara Schumann has deservedly long been one of the most celebrated women of music long before there was a google or google doodles. The classical music community has come a long way since the 19th century and without the help of google's poststructuralist politics. I was happy to see a Clara Schumann doodle but I recall that Google omitted Chopin's birthday (there was no doodle that day). I have no doubt that was intentional.

Sep. 13 2012 12:18 PM

There are composers like Katreese Barnes that have won 2 Emmy awards and nominations in her career. Katreese in particular is in LA now working with a TV series.

http://katreese.com/welcome She knows the plight of women composers in the industry! She honors the spirit of Clara Schumann.

Sep. 13 2012 11:32 AM
Mike from New York, NY

It is certainly true that female composers did not have the same opportunities in the 19th Century. I believe Amy Beach's husband frobid her to play in public. After he died she did come into her own (sort of).

Today, I do not believe there are restrictions on female composers. If the music is good it gets performed.

Sep. 13 2012 11:29 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.


About WQXR Blog

Ignite your love of classical music every day with the articles published in the WQXR blog. Here you can find blogs about classical music, playlist selections, curated videos, and other features highlighting the joy of great music.