Magazine – Contemporary Music

Women Composers in Germany, Yesterday and Today

Portrait of Johanna Kinkel; about 1840 by an unknown painter (source: Stadtmuseum Bonn)There are great women composers. But in Germany, more men than women still study composition and make a success of their music. The reasons for this are manifold.

Germany has a rich musical tradition. Women have always been part of the musical life, whether as singing nun or medieval minstrel, as opera singer or saloniere, but rarely as composer of written and especially of published music. If we ask why this has been so, we will find an answer in the prevailing social and aesthetic ideas. Especially in Germany these often prevented women from taking off as composers. The same impeding ideas are still at work today.

Hildegard von Bingen; photo: Archive for Women and Music The only woman composer known from the Middle Ages is Hildegard of Bingen, who lived as the abbess of a convent. In her time, the twelfth century, women were still obliged to remain silent in church and, to all intents and purposes, also in most other places of public life, which amounted to a ban on composing. German woman composers are first documented again in the eighteenth century: in the days of the style galant at the Prussian court, royal princesses were permitted to learn the art of composition as part of their aesthetic education. Wilhelmine of Bayreuth, Anna Amalia of Prussia and Anna Amalia of Saxony-Weimar continued to write music as adult women.

Rigid gender roles blocked women composers

Clara Schumann, née Wieck, as a fifteen year-old; Hanover 1835 (Julius Giere; source: Robert-Schumann-Haus, Zwickau)But this did not bring about a breakthrough. In the last third of the eighteenth century, when the model of a middle class society began slowly to take shape, there also developed an ideology of rigid gender roles: men captured public positions of power, earned money and, when they composed music, were celebrated as geniuses. Women, on the other hand, particularly wives and mothers, had to restrict themselves to action in the private sphere, at home, sweet home: housework and children were seen as woman’s domains. This was hardly a climate in which women composers could flourish. Only a few women took this path. They soon had to make concessions to prevailing opinion and confine their radius mainly to music making in the home and semi-public performances. They often wrote small-scale works, as may be seen, for example, in the music of the Bonn composer Johanna Kinkel, the 200th anniversary of whose birth occurs in 2010. Most women composers came from families of artists and were in any case musicians, such as Clara Schumann. They composed, as it were, “on the side”. Only a few women composers exposed themselves to public opinion and chose music as their main profession. For example, Luise Adolpha Le Beau and Emilie Mayer succeeded in having their large-scale works performed in concert halls.

Lack of women in German composition classes

Archive for Women and Music; photo: ArchiveThe classical music scene and tradition in Germany has been accordingly strongly influenced by men. Ludwig van Beethoven in particular is still regarded as the leading figure of aesthetics of musical genius, according to which the composer is a godlike creator of masterpieces. These categories are reflected in the canon of works that still determines the contemporary concert program. “This thinking in categories of the nineteenth century continues to have an influence on whether and how many young women today decide to become composers”, says Melanie Unseld, Professor for the Cultural History of Music at the University of Oldenburg. “A girl’s career aspiration to become a composer is rarely met with open ears. In composition classes at German music universities, there are significantly fewer women than men. Most women students of composition come from abroad”. This last point is bound up, in Unseld’s view, with the fact that in other countries women composers are a matter of course. “For example, in many East Asian musical cultures, composing music is a woman’s job”, observes the specialist for musicological gender issues.

Carola Bauckholt; photo: Archive for Women and Music

Because of Germany’s rich musical life, many women composers still move to the country: the Romanian-born composers Violeta Dinescu and Adriana Hölszk, the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina and the English composer Rebecca Saunders have all made names for themselves. They live in Germany and enrich the German composer scene – as do their German-born colleagues Carola Bauckholt, Juliane Klein, Isabel Mundry, Annette Schlünz and Charlotte Seither, to name only a few.

That today women composers have more influence than in earlier centuries in shaping public musical life has to do with the second wave of the women’s movement that broke in the 1970s. Women’s history came to the fore, and so began the search for women in musical history. It was at this time that the International Study Group for Women and Music, which had been formed in 1978 at the initiative of the conductor Elke Mascha Blankenburg, founded the Archive for Women and Music. Today the Archive is based in Frankfurt am Main and is the largest of its kind in the world, with about 20,000 media items: the spectrum ranges from compositions and historical documents to sound recordings and specialist publications.

Role models for women composers today

The study of women composers of earlier centuries can strengthen the self-image of contemporary women composers because it can offer role models. “In any case, a women composer today has to position herself in some way to the fact that she is a women who composes music – whether or not she refuses to let her work be performed at separate women’s music festivals, as does Galina Ustwolskaja”, says Melanie Unseld. “In order to encourage more women to become professional composers, we need a greater presence of works by women composers in the music and media scenes.”

Dagmar Penzlin
The author is a trained musicologist and works as a music journalist, particularly for ARD Radio and Deutschlandradio.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
May 2010

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