Friday, April 10, 2015

A really tiny little blow for gender equality

A while back I was reviewing the pianonoise listening archive and noticed there were practically no compositions by women. This is not an easy bias to correct, however. Most of musical history has been dominated by men, as in every professional field. Until the last century there have really been only a handful of women given enough opportunity to make any sort of mark, and often their compositions are pretty slight.

This does not excuse the assertion of men that there could never be a female Beethoven because women just aren't up to it. That's nonsense. But it happens to require the talents of many individuals over a great deal of time and with the encouragement of the society around them to allow even one great musical mind to develop, and a mere fistful of persons allowed to practice in a field, and then only privately, or until they married, is not very promising as a condition to produce a great practitioner. Even so, there have been some notable women composers. Perhaps no great ones, but at least as gifted as the scores of lesser male talents who were contemporaries of the men who got busts made of them to adorn our pianos. And, once society is determined to stunt one gender's compositional growth so aggressively, can we really be sure that one of them couldn't have been great, given the chance?

By the 20th century, some of them were fighting for a chance. And here we see what prejudice is really made of. It's not rational, though that is exactly what it claims to be. One woman was finally given a chance to study at the prestigious Leipzig conservatory. Some of her works were shown to Brahms. Brahms was impressed. At the same time, he was quite sure that she couldn't have written them, because he was quite sure that no woman could write compositions of such quality. Then publishers refused to publish her because, after all, there wasn't much of a market for her works--obviously, no one was interested in her stuff. Did it occur to them that that wouldn't happen unless they published her music? she asked. I imagine she was rather irritated by this point, but if she had shown it, well, you know how that would have gone down. Just like a woman, all emotional and no head on her shoulders. yukyukyuk.

That woman's name was Ethel Smyth, and this week I'll be playing a chorale prelude of hers. It will join the pianonoise catalog next to the only other woman on the page, Evelyn Stell, an organist living in  Scotland.

This piece is fairly short, and I don't expect it to impress the average listener, but it shows she had a high command of counterpoint and compositional technique. Smyth's handful of chorale preludes for the organ are not flashy, but there is a good reason Brahms would have been impressed by them--they are not dissimilar, either in approach, or, frankly, in quality.

Smyth: Erscheinen ist der herrlich Tag   (The Glorious Day has Come)

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