Breaking free of the angel

'Great Women Composers' concert celebrates Women's History Month


The 4th annual Great Women Composers concert celebrates Women's History Month with a program of classical music, all performed and composed by women.

The concert, organized by musicologist and pianist Claire Detels, includes pieces composed by Cecile Chamanade, Rebecca Clarke, Clara Schumann, Leokadie Kashperova, Fanny Hensel, Lili Boulanger and Dame Ethel Smyth. These composers all lived in the 19th century and in some cases the 20th century as well.

The Great Women Composers concert is Sunday (March 11), 3 p.m., at St. James Episcopal Church, 208 Camino de Santiago.

"The 19th century is the era of Romanticism. It's the era in which composers came out from under the patronage system, where they tended to work as servants to aristocrats of the upper class, or they worked for the church," Detels said. "In the 19th century composers mainly moved out of that status and made their living on concerts and publications of their music… or they taught in conservatories, and their status was much more middle class, and sometimes even elite, because their genius was being worshiped, e.g., Beethoven."

"It was negative in two senses for women," stated Detels. "The whole ideology of Romantic genius was rather masculine and favored an image of a wild and crazy masculine genius. It made it more difficult for women to compete within that framework. The image for women was that she was the angel or goddess of the household."

"In addition," Detels continued, "it was difficult for all musicians to make a living outside of the patronage system … Also, in the 19th century the main ways that composers made their living was in the conservatory, and that was discriminating against women. In some cases, they couldn't be students at all. In others they were allowed but with restrictions … It wasn't easy to break through as a woman in that era."

Despite these setbacks, women of the 19th century did compose musical works. Most of them came from families that were highly musical, Detels explained.

For example, she said Clara Schumann's father was a piano teacher. He didn't have a son, so he took his daughter under his wing.

Fanny Hensel's maiden name was Fanny Mendelssohn. She was the sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn, and they came from a very wealthy, musically oriented family. Lili Boulanger was another woman who came from a musical family. Her father won the Prix de Rome, which Lili Boulanger went on to win herself. The Prix de Rome was one of Europe's most coveted musical prizes.

Some women composers were well-known in their own day as composers and performers but have been forgotten by history. Cecile Chaminade is one example.

"Cecile Chaminade is really a major figure," Detels said. "She published hundreds of songs and piano pieces, and her music was taught at the Paris Conservatory. She is a key example of someone known and admired in the day and neglected by historians later. She's been denigrated by historians as composing mostly salon music, but that's what she had access to … She wrote mainly piano and vocal music and the main performance venue for that type of music were in salons, small, house concerts."

"It's denigrated as salon music, which has been a way to put down women," added Detels. "But, it's very beautiful music."

The program begins with four movements of the six-movement "Pieces Romantiques" by Chaminade. The four-hand piano piece is performed by Kim Bakkum and Claire Detels. "It's a travelogue of images and places," Detels said. "It's great fun to play. We always have a fun time with it."

Next on the program is "Passacaglia" by Rebecca Clarke, performed by Suzie Schwartz on viola and Martha Shepp on piano. "Clarke was a violist, so some of her most known and performed works are for viola. This is just a beautiful work," Detels said.

Clara Schumann's "Sonata in G Minor," performed by pianist Kim Bakkum, finishes the first half of the program. "This sonata of Clara Schumann is her greatest work," Detels said. "It stands next to any of Beethoven's. It's absolutely stunning."

Following an intermission, the program continues with two movements of "Sonata 2 in E Minor" by Leokadie Kashperova, performed by Rebecca Caron on cello and Claire Detels on piano. According to Detels, Kashperova is a "barely known" Russian composer, whose music has just begun to be made available to a wider audience.

Next, are four lieders (German songs set to poetry) that are composed by Fanny Hensel, Rebecca Clarke, Lili Boulanger and Cecile Chaminade. They are performed by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Calvert and pianist Claire Detels. The poets whose words have been set to music for these pieces are Heinrich Heine, William Butler Yeats, Maurice Maeterlinck and Pierre Ronsard.

The program ends with the crowd-pleaser, "March of the Women" by Dame Ethel Smyth. The piece was written as an anthem for the suffrage movement in England.

Tickets are $15; $10 for students, seniors and veterans; and free for children of ages 12 and under. Proceeds from the concert support Taos Soundscapes. For more information call (575) 779-9889.