By Anna Wentlent
Most music educators can wax poetic on the lineage of male composers from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. Even elementary school students have enough knowledge of classical music to offer up interesting facts about the famous men in music history, such as Beethoven’s deafness or Mozart’s mysterious death. Yet, how many of us can even name more than one or two female figures from the history of classical music? Hildegard von Bingen, Clara Schumann . . . the list often stops there. And with good reason: the history of classical music is the history of Europe and North America, and within those societies women have traditionally stayed at home, out of the spotlight.
That history makes the accomplishments of female professional musicians all the more remarkable. These were women who defied tradition and familial pressure in order to lead rich lives as teachers, composers, conductors, and performers. Despite being denied the educational and performance opportunities given to their male counterparts, they persevered. Until the eighteenth century, women were not allowed to sing the female roles in operas. And it is only during the last 100 years that women have been admitted to symphony orchestras. Even as that imbalance has gradually improved, little progress has been made on the conductor’s podium. There are very few female orchestra conductors. In 2007, Marin Alsop became the first woman to lead a major American orchestra when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra hired her.
Simply achieving some level of professional success would be admirable enough, but many female musicians have made real and vital contributions to their respective fields. Consider the innovations of Hildegard von Bingen, a Medieval nun who wrote the earliest-known musical drama, or Maud Powell, a professional violinist who made the first recording of a solo instrument. Weigh the impact of Nadia Boulanger, a teacher who molded many of the great composers of the twentieth century, or Patsy Cline, a modern-day country singer who set the tone for an entire genre of music.
In the course of researching The Women of Western Music , I made the wonderful discovery that many female musicians have made a point of supporting each other’s careers. Marian Anderson performed the songs of Florence Beatrice Price at her concerts. Amy Beach wrote a piece specifically for Maud Powell to perform at a conference for female musicians. Germaine Tailleferre studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday were known to be friendly competitors.
In recent years, contemporary music historians have rediscovered the contributions of these women and begun to give them their proper due. But historical articles and biographies are not enough. For these and other female musicians to truly receive their proper due, they must be introduced to the masses by inclusion in K–12 general music curriculums. We owe it to these women for the sake of historical accuracy, and we owe it to our students for the sake of the future women of western music. My hope is that my young female students will see themselves in the lives of the musicians they study.
Anna Wentlent is an educator, music editor, music education author, and piano accompanist. She attended the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, York St. John College, and Boston University. Over the course of her career, Ms. Wentlent has worked as a choral and classroom music editor for Alfred Music and taught choral and general music in both New York and Massachusetts.