women in music history

“I want to show the world, as much as I can in this musical profession, the mistaken belief that only men possess the gifts of art and intellect, and that these gifts are never given to women.”

This is how strongly the composer Maddalena Casulana (1544-1583?) positioned herself in the dedication of The first book of madrigals to Isabella de’ Medici.

Certainly, at present these claims are still burning hot. The forgetting of women in the history of music and in so many other discourses about the past is an amnesia that until relatively recently was assumed to be a natural construction completely integrated into our collective memory. However, in recent decades in the field of research, it has been critically questioned whether banishing so many female voices on a routine basis was really based on any compelling reason.

Eduardo Zazo affirms in the failure glossary that “a collective condenses its own image in the set of names, characters, scenes, stories, etc., that it wishes to remember and in those that it prefers to leave aside”. Seen in another way, the omission of these women also gives us the opportunity to unravel how societies before us have configured their memory, that is, based on what criteria they have built their story.

In this sense, it is fascinating to reveal the multiplicity of factors that operate in the case of the history of music and that have led to the blurring in time –or, rather, to blurring the historical canon– of these women.

We could talk about the prioritization of the male figure, of course, but reducing the problem to this would be, perhaps, simplistic. The exaltation of musical creation, of the act of composing, has favored, for example, that many female performers were left aside. Feminist historiography itself has focused obsessively on finding women composers when there was an inordinate number of famous opera singers in their time.

In any case, and regardless of the success or failure with which historiography has managed the information, the truth is that if we observe the trajectories of female musicians from the Middle Ages onwards, there is no doubt about their abilities or their productivity, or its resilience.

Without a doubt, the subject is complex, full of edges and difficult to summarize, but… what if we try, at least, to understand how these women managed to dedicate themselves to music and how they have performed in this discipline throughout history?

What happens is convenient…

If there is something in common throughout the history of women in music, it is the flexibility of action and thought of those who sought to dedicate themselves, in one way or another, to musical work. This made it easier for these women, within the particular circumstances of each case, to get the most out of their musical skills.

We found circumstances in which access to music was certainly easy since it was considered part of their feminine and even religious education. Two examples of this are Abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) and Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-1678?). Although they were from different times, both dedicated themselves to music as part of their religious profession but knowing how to get the most out of it, becoming prolific and skilled composers.

Queen Elizabeth I of England is another good example of this. From her She had been instructed to play the virginal, the lute and other plectrum instruments, as well as sing and dance, since they were indispensable attributes for a regal figure like her. However, she knew how to redirect the general opinion around these talents (which used to be considered sensual and frivolous) so that they were seen as signs of her intelligence, rationality and mental harmony. In short: as elements that strengthen her power and authority.

A similar case is that of Princess Maria Antonia Walpurgis of Bavaria (1724-1780) who, in fact, from her privileged position, achieved a great diffusion of her works thanks to the publication of her works with the Breitkopf publishing house – which is still today one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the musical field–.

Portrait of Angeles Ottein, 1919.
BNE / Wikimedia Commons

In other cases, family circumstances or direct family environment encouraged the development of these musical gifts. Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) or Adelina Patti (1843-1919), among others, came from sagas of singers who, of course, supported their daughters in carrying out their profession as women first.

In addition, in the case of Viardot we must point out that her husband contributed a lot to her being able to dedicate herself to her trade. Louis Viardot assiduously cared for her children, as did others such as Enrique Naya, spouse of the Spanish coloratura soprano Ángeles Ottein. Undoubtedly, they were tremendously advanced for their time, since they favored the reconciliation of family and work for these singers, as well as morally supporting them in their efforts.

Unfortunately, this was not the usual thing but honorable exceptions. For example, the singer Lillian Nordica (1857-1914) had to deal with the absurdities of her husband, Frederick Gower, who even burned her sheet music books so that she could not sing.

Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944) ran into her father’s refusal to study at the Paris Conservatory, but this did not stop her initiative. She nurtured private teaching to achieve her purpose. And in 1913 she became the first female composer to be awarded the Legion of Honor in France. Certainly, these women were unstoppable.

“I am very mine, I transform myself”

Another interesting aspect of women in the history of music is the ingenuity with which they gave vent to their musical restlessness. If they weren’t performers, they were composers, if not, managers, and if not, they invented some other way to deal with what they considered a priority: music.

Isabella d’Este and Lucrezia Borgia were true organizers of musical events, as well as musical performers, in the Italian Renaissance. His celebrations at court were tremendously well known at the time. They managed the budget for these occasions and made sure that everything went as planned.

National Conservatory of Music in New York, founded by Jeanette Thurber.
Wikimedia Commons

Jeanette Thurber (1850-1946) was a highly advanced entrepreneur who founded the National Conservatory of Music in New York. In addition, she proposed scholarships so that minorities of color and other marginalized social groups could access higher music education if they had the talent to do so.

Louise Farrenc (1804-1875), composer and pianist, dedicated herself to studying the music of the 17th and 18th century for keyboard and recovering it in concerts that she organized under the name of historical sessionsa very pioneering company for the time.

Emma Carelli (1877-1928), in addition to being a famous dramatic soprano, became an operatic impresario of the Teatro Costanzi in Rome from 1912 and for fifteen years managed the theater and its bonds, sustaining its survival despite debts .

We could go on with a long list of names, but what good would that do?

The integration of these women in our collective memory does not consist in adding them to an inventory but in continuing to publicize their trajectories, in including their music in concerts (not to comply with what is politically correct, but because some of their works are really wonderful) and in avoiding justifying that his silence in history has had something to do with his intellectual or musical quality.