Challenging Mozart and men’s dominance in music

Did you say feminine? © Charles Thibo

Wolfgang must be mad at me. He always was and always will be a jealous guy. I had scheduled for this spring two posts on Mozart’s music and now I have replaced them with texts on Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Wieck. But let Mozart be mad, women will feature more prominently on this blog. So many were or are either excellent composers or performing artists or both and have a right to be heard and praised. Mozart is immortal, he has no reason to complain.

Clara Wieck has shown up already on this blog, albeit not in her own right, but rather as  the wife of Robert Schumann and the muse of Johannes Brahms. Between 1853 and 1855 she composed a set of three songs without words called “Three Romances” (Op. 21) that testifies of her talent as a composer. The three pieces are written in A minor, F major and G minor and of great musical expressiveness. Unfortunately the set was also one of the last compositions that Clara Wieck wrote. Robert had died in 1856 and after that date she essentially stopped composing. The three romances are dedicated to Brahms.

Robert in the limelight

The set was published in 1862, however it would appear that Clara Wieck was not too enthusiastic to promote her own compositions when performing as a concert pianist. She considered it her duty to perform her husband’s works which raises a couple of questions. Did she consider her own works inferior to those of Schumann? Did she see in composition rather an outlet for her creativity, a challenging pastime and less a professional vocation? Why would she step back and put her husband in the limelight? Out of conformity?

I have no answers so far, but then again I haven’t read Dieter Kühn’s revised biography “Clara Schumann, Klavier” yet. And since we will return to Clara Wieck this year, I hopefully will solve these riddles in a future post. For the time being I will enjoy the “Three romances”, beautifully recorded by Claudio Colombo.

Bending to expectations

“[Wieck’s] blending of Classical and Romantic aesthetics in her Drei Romanzen, op. 21, no. 1, provides an excellent example of how a female composer might negotiate her own musical preferences and ideas with society’s expectations of her music”, writes the researcher Katie Lakner in her thesis “Formal and harmonic considerations in Clara Schumann’s Drei Romanzen”, submitted in 2015. “As expected of a female composer, this romance is a small character piece for the piano, so it conforms to society’s expectations in terms of genre. The lyrical melody lends the piece enough ‘femininity’ to be appropriate for a female composer, and its lack of virtuosic show keeps it from being considered ‘too feminine.'”

According to Lakner, the use of classical formal units, especially in the first romance’s outer sections, aligns with Wieck’s preference for musical restraint and apparently increased the likelihood that the piece would be taken seriously by critics. By keeping the formal structures of the piece more conservative, she would have been able to be more courageous in her use of harmony.

Women’s vicious circle

Voluntary restraint in order to be taken seriously – does that sound familiar? Is this the beginning of the vicious circle that trapped women then and traps them today? Mozart did take pride in offending anyone on anything, pleasing the Vienna society and rebelling against it at the same time. He made himself many enemies. But did it dent his reputation? No, it didn’t. Mythos surrounds him until today, never mind his narcistic traits, his treacherous character, his non-conformity.

To Clara Wieck’s defense I must add that the  second piece op Op. 21 is very different form the first, less accommodating, more daring, close to some smaller piano pieces that Pyotr Tchaikovsky would write some 20 years later – I recall one from the “Children’s Album” (Op. 39) that emphasizes staccato notes. Romance no. 2 is still rooted in the classical tradition, but it has nothing feminine, nothing Romantic, no it is a pretty forceful and straightforward piece. The third piece, replacing an earlier one composed in 1853, has a fast melodious theme echoing her husband’s language that dominates for example the “Kreisleriana”.

So where does that leave us? Three pieces, very different from each other, one being the negation of the other, reflecting perhaps a life ripe with contradictions and a personal dilemma about a woman’s position in society. Clara Wieck, we need to talk!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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5 thoughts on “Challenging Mozart and men’s dominance in music”

  1. Thanks for focusing on female composers. There were earlier female composing masters, going back as early as to the 17th century. I would love to see them (Caccini, Strozzi, Leonarda, Jaquet de la Guerre) featuring more (and also Baroque music in general).

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