Musical Gals: Alma Mahler

Music Period: Romantic, 1930 – 1900 Location: Vienna Claim to Fame: Composing Lieder earlier in her life and becoming a musical inspiration for Mahler in his final years. Few realise that Alma Mahler was a composer. However, she was composing in an artistic world dominated by men where the thought of a woman composing music was ludicrous. Alma married three famous men: composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and German author Franz Werfel. All stifled her artistically, and instead, Alma had to settle for life as a high-class socialite. Alma was born in 1879 to painter Emil...

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Musical Gals: Amy Beach

Music Period: Romantic Location: New Hampshire, USA Claim to Fame: one of the few women to have found a place in mainstream histories of music. Amy Beach (neé Cheney) was an entirely self-taught composer born in New Hampshire in 1867. This incredible woman played music mainly by ear, and was composing short pieces of music by the age of four. Any’s mother encouraged her daughter to grow by giving her piano lessons three times a week. In 1875, at the age of seven, Amy made her first appearance in public performing one of her own pieces at a church concert. It was the first concerts of many...

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Musical Gals: Dame Ethel Smyth

Music Period: Romantic Location: London, United Kingdom Claim to Fame: composing the “The March of the Women” theme for the suffragette movement, and fighting for the right for women to play in orchestras. Dame Ethel Smyth was born in 1858 to an upper-class family who lived just outside of London. In 1867, the family decided to move near to Aldershot in Surrey, and it was here that Ethel became interested in music. It so happened that one of her governesses had studied music at the Conservatory in Leipzig and had captivated Ethel with her piano playing. She had entranced the little girl so...

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Musical Gals: Clara Schumann (Part 2)

Music Period: Romantic era (1830 – 1900) Location: Leipzig, Germany Claim to Fame: One of the foremost pianists and greatest performers of the nineteenth century. With audiences in raptures over her music, Clara toured extensively towards the end of the decade. She produced many new works for her programmes and several published works appeared in 1833. These included Romance variée, which she dedicated to Robert Schumann – a young student now living with the Wieck family. All her performances received thunderous applause and Clara would boast that she beat her record of thirteen...

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Musical Gals: Clara Schumann (Part 1)

Music Period: Romantic era (1830 – 1900) Location: Leipzig, Germany Claim to Fame: One of the foremost pianists and greatest performers of the nineteenth century. Clara Schumann was part of what has been described as the “greatest musical love story of the nineteenth century”. The musical partnership that developed with her husband would last twenty-six years. They shared musical ideas and sometimes quoted one another in their works. Yet, Clara faced many obstacles throughout her career and constantly battled against social ideals about women. It is perhaps because of these...

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Musical Gals: Fanny Mendelssohn

Music Period: Romantic era (1830 – 1900) Location: Berlin, Germany Claim to Fame: composing over 400 works in her lifetime, and being the only composer of the time to depict each of the twelve months of the year musically. The closest any other composer came to doing this was Antonio Vivaldi with his Four Seasons in 1725. Fanny Mendelssohn (1805 – 1847) was one of the most important composers of the Romantic era. She performed and conducted music on a regular basis, earning her a reputation as an exceptional musical talent. Berlin music critic, Ludwig Rellstab, wrote that she “had...

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Musical Gals: Barbara Strozzi

Music Period: Baroque era (1600 – 1750) Location: Venice, Italy Claim to Fame: Barbara published eight collections of her works and her music used the words with the music to portray meaning. There lies an air of mystery when looking at Barbara Strozzi (1619 – 1677). What we do know, however, brings to light an intriguing musical figure who is one of the most outstanding female composers in history. From a young age, she studied under respected musicians, and went on to publish eight collections of her music within her lifetime. This was an incredible achievement in the male-dominated world...

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Musical Gals: Francesca Caccini 

Music Period: Baroque era (1600 – 1750) Location: Florence, Italy Claim to Fame: the first woman known to have written an opera. She pushed boundaries with her book specifically written for women performers. Francesca Caccini was born on 18th September 1587 to two musicians. Her mother, Lucia di Filippo Gagnolanti, was a singer and her father, Giulio Caccini, was a renowned composer. At the time, her father was the second most highly paid composer and musician for the Medici family. Giulio was also the celebrated author of the most influential singing manual of the 1600s. Due to her...

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Musical Gals: Hildegard von Bingen

Music Period: Early Music (500 – 1400) Location: Bermersheim, Germany Claim to Fame: using repeated motifs within her music and giving religious music a freer, almost improvisatory, feel. As Maria von Trapp sings in The Sound of Music, “let’s start at the very beginning”, and discover the story of a female composer from the 1100s. We are talking of Hildegard von Bingen and today we think of her as one of the first identifiable female composers of Western music. Yet, before 1979, there was no mention of her name. You would not find her in any reference book if searching the university library...

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A Virginal and a Queen

  Do you play the piano? What about the harpsichord? Have you heard of a virginal before? If you haven’t, you’re not alone, but virginals used to be common household instruments, and anyone who was anyone had one. Virginals are in the same family of instruments as the harpsichord. And though harpsichords look very similar to pianos and are played in the same way, the way they make sounds are different. While pianos produce sound by striking the strings with a hammer, the strings in harpsichords and virginals are plucked. The placement of the keyboard determines where the...

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