While women composers can be found as far back as the days of ancient Greece, and probably before, it took until the twentieth century for these creators to really find recognition. Women were allowed to learn music, play it and sing it. But if they presumed to start composing it, their forwardness would be swiftly rebuked. So many women’s talent and genius have been stifled in this way. In a society governed by men, cultural works are produced by men. Maria Anna Mozart (1751-1829), affectionately nicknamed Nannerl by her brother, was not only a pianist whose talents were well-known, but also a composer who won Wolfgang’s admiration. When the latter played her pieces to their father, Leopold Mozart angrily ordered his daughter to stop writing music, because a woman could never be a composer. At the same time, he forbade her to study the violin and forced her to give piano lessons to finance her brother’s tours in Italy. Nannerl had no choice but to obey her father, and knuckled under, before sinking into a deep depression.
Such examples were sadly common in the nineteenth century, such as that of Fanny Mendelssohn, adored by a brother who nevertheless took a dim view of his sister becoming a composer. As for Clara Schumann, she continued to give concerts after her marriage because they provided the only income for the family home. Her husband rankled, however, at being relegated to the status of "pianist's husband" when he accompanied her on tour. A talented composer, Clara stopped writing in order to promote Robert's music long after her husband died. When she married Gustav Mahler in 1902, Alma Schindler, a very gifted composer, was forced by her husband to abandon all her artistic endeavours to take up the role of the genius's loving and protective wife. History is beginning to do justice to all those women whose creative drives were stopped dead by the prejudices of earlier eras. Many records today bear witness to their talent and, often, promise nipped in the bud by an unequal society. This chronological panorama proposes to highlight some of these great figures who deserve rediscovery.
Sappho of Mytilene
An ancient Greek poet and musician, Sappho of Mytilene lived in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. She left a deep imprint in the history of Greece. Her poems, often describing her attraction to young girls, made her a spokesperson for female homosexuality. There is little historical data about her, and her poetic work has come to us in the form of fragments and quotations from ancient authors who evoked her for several centuries. Sappho remains primarily known for her erotic poems, but more political writing has recently been found. Nothing remains of her music, which, according to Plutarch, was of great importance. Sappho is said to have invented one of the three main modes of ancient Greek music. The great singer of Greek origin Angelica Ionatos dedicated two very beautiful albums to her colleague from far antiquity.
Hildegarde von Bingen
Proclaimed "Doctor of the Church" by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, Hildegarde von Bingen possessed a mind of almost universal breadth. Born in Germany in 1098, she was a Benedictine nun, a woman of letters and a composer. Her medical knowledge and her gift of clairvoyance made her one of the most famous healers of her time. She left behind many writings in a very broad range of fields. As a musician, Hildegarde von Bingen left more than 70 liturgical songs, hymns and sequences. She is also the author of the sacred musical drama Ordo virtutum (Order of the Virtues) which dramatises the anguish of the human soul caught between the sacred and the profane. Musical notation being very threadbare at the time, the music of Hildegard von Bingen lends itself to all manner of interpretations. Many musicians have been attracted to this extravagant figure who continues to inspire discovery and admiration.
Born in Florence, like Francesca Caccini, into a large family of humanists and artists, Barbara Strozzi was the adopted daughter of Giulio Strozzi, a prominent poet in Venetian intellectual circles and a collaborator of Monteverdi. He not only took great care over his daughter's education but also introduced her to musical and artistic circles in a state of intense ferment. He wrote the verses for his daughter's First Book of Madrigals, which she published in 1644. A virtuoso singer, Barbara was a pupil of Francesco Cavalli. In addition to this first publication, she is credited with three collections of cantatas, ariettas and duets, the last of which has been lost. Her success piqued the interest of patrons such as the Dukes of Mantua and Gonzaga. Strozzi's music is of great dramatic intensity; she cries, she laughs, adding perfect emphasis to the words in an almost operatic way.