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Reputation

The latest volume of the innovative Multitude of Voyces collection of sacred music by women composers is now available from Stainer & Bell. Volume 3 contains 26 mixed voiced anthems for Advent to Candlemas ranging historically from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first. Together with Volume 1, SATB Anthems, and Volume 2, Anthems for Upper Voices, it renews the challenge to engage with this corpus of music, much of it previously little known and scandalously undervalued.

Two pieces and names leapt out at me from the earlier books: Fanny Hensel’s Gebet in der Christnacht (Prayer on Christmas Eve) in the first volume, and Clara Schumann’s Let earth’s wide circle round in the second. Hensel – née Mendelssohn – and Schumann are often cited together in lists of the unjustly neglected, and even now that their names and works are rightly emerging from the shadows, it is an interesting and pertinent question to ask whether they would have appeared on our modern radar at all, were it not for the fame afforded in the one instance by a brother and, in the other, a husband.

It would have been a travesty if Fanny Hensel’s fresh and highly engaging music had been lost completely, but it would not have been entirely surprising. Contrary to common perception, her father, Abraham Mendelssohn, did not discourage Fanny from engaging with music; indeed, she was tutored side by side with Felix for numerous years, with the family freely acknowledging her remarkable talent to be the equal of her younger brother’s, and allowing her to compose (as it turned out, prolifically throughout her life). However, when Fanny reached the age of 14 Abraham instructed her by letter that she should remain ‘good and sensible in these matters’, taking her joy from the ‘praise Felix earns that proves you might, in his place, have earned equal approval’, and thereby remain true to ‘feminine conduct.’ It is not known what Fanny’s specific response was to this letter but in the face of such parental pressure and the prevailing attitudes to women in contemporary society, she would have had little choice other than to accept his judgement. Fanny’s compositional activities from that time on were destined for private, domestic consumption, and it was only in the last year of her life (eleven years after the death of her father) that she took the decision to allow some of her work to be published.

Clara Schumann’s story is even more complex. Unlike Fanny, Clara was from childhood continually encouraged (pushed?) by her father in her musical studies. Then, after her marriage, her works were championed by her husband Robert Schumann, who effected introductions to publishers on her behalf. Listening to Clara’s wonderful Piano Trio in G minor, Op.17, is more than enough to persuade me that this was no mere act of duty! However, it is apparent that Clara’s first and most enduring musical love was the piano, not composition. For several decades she toured Europe with huge success, to the point that if her reputation needs a boost today it is not only to celebrate her compositions but also to widen awareness of her impressive pianistic skills.

Indeed, in her lifetime Clara was widely accepted as the equal of any of the great 19th-century pianists, including the celebrated trio of Franz Liszt, Sigismond Thalberg and Anton Rubinstein, and famed for her beauty of tone and poetic spirit. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, ‘When I first heard Madame Schumann I recognised, before the end of the first phrase of Schubert’s impromptu, what a nobly beautiful and poetic player she was…the Holy Grail of the critic’s quest!’ She was also an innovator. One of the first performers to play from memory, Clara eschewed the practice of presenting operatic transcriptions and bravura works of the day, instead offering balanced programmes that restored the works of J. S. Bach, Scarlatti and even Beethoven and Schubert to the concert hall. 

Which brings me full circle. It is simply not enough to ‘name-check’ women composers or performers and feel that this addresses even some of the inequalities of the past and present. We need to learn about, talk about, and sing about these great musicians continually, and I therefore salute Louise Stewart and her Multitude of Voyces team for their excellent work.

Angus Smith, Choral Ambassador, Stainer & Bell

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