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Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. (Wikimedia)

“Equal to men”

Mendelssohn, Schumann, and the other forgotten women composers of classical music

By WITW Staff on May 30, 2016

Felix Mendelssohn composed some of the baroque period’s most enduring, famous music. But it was Felix’s older sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, who first showed talent composing, and whose genius in composition was thwarted throughout her life by her brother and father who thought Fanny should be a wife, mother, and private individual — not a public composer. At 40, Fanny Mendelssohn finally told her brother that she was going to stand up to him and wanted to publish her music, but she died shortly after. She is just one of a handful of female composers of the classical period who were “forgotten,” according to a new book by Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music.

“In the earlier period, there were beliefs about the appropriate spheres and appropriate behavior for women. But if you were an exceptionally talented composer, and you did produce astonishing, wonderful music, people would make a kind of exception for you. They’d say, ‘Your music is equal to men,’” Beer told NPR.

What women had to be careful of, Beer noted, was behaving. The closely-linked relationships between women and music, and women and prostitution, led female composers to walk a fine line to have their music shared publicly while not being seen as a courtesan. Clara Schumann, wife of famous composer Robert Schumann, lamented in a letter she wrote in the 1800s, ‘I can’t be a composer; there haven’t been any female composers. Why do I even try?’ —  a notion that Beers says wasn’t true then and isn’t true today.

“And you think, ‘Of course there are! There’s 300, 400, 500 years of women writing before you, Clara. You can do it,’” Beers said.

Read the full story at NPR.


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