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

Email a Friend

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.