I remember the first warm days of the year: I was anticipating a sunny spring, I looked forward to spend a lot of time outside, I even got the garden furniture ready! April passed with plenty of fair weather, nature exploded in a thousand colours and all looked well. And now – this! First week of May – the Germans call it “Wonnemonat” (month of bliss) – low, grey clouds chasing each other, icy wind gusts, showers that drench you from tip to toe. Dreadful. Of course I knew that the sun would be back, but until then, I settled for a little nostalgia with the German composer Emilie Mayer (1812-1883) and her Piano Quartet No. 1 in E-flat major.
Mayer really got that quartet right. It has all the hallmarks of an exquisite piece of Romantic chamber music, following the path that Robert Schumann had shown with his piano quartet some 15 years earlier. Mayer wrote this piece at the end of the 1850s. She had established herself as a composer in Berlin and enjoyed the recognition of Berlin’s artistic circles. The fact that she had inherited a considerable sum of money from her father, a wealthy pharmacist, made her life as a composer a lot easier. She was a financially independent woman, not necessarily a common fate in the 19th century. She still had to fight the prejudices against female composers shared by both the critics and the editors.
If, as it unfortunately happened, Emilie was quickly forgotten after her death, today she is on her way to become an icon for the self-assertiveness of women in the field of composing. “The Norwegians have their Grieg, the Finns their Sibelius, the Poles have their Chopin. And WE have Emilie Mayer – we just didn’t know it until now!” This statement apparently was published by a German newspaper in May 2012, when the Neubrandenburger Philharmonie celebrated the 200th anniversary of Emilie Mayer’s birth. Who is we? The editors? The conductors? The program directors?
A festival had been organised to honour Mayer’s creativity in Germany and I found several blogs dealing with female composers, all featuring Emilie Mayer, along with Fanny Hensel, Clara Wieck, Lili Boulanger and others. Somebody has written a scientific book about her, which I have purchased at a prohibitive prize and not yet received. Affirmative action in favour of female composers seems to be all the rage, which I welcome. Provided it extends to living composers and does not apply to dead ones only.
Emilie Mayer’s Piano Quartet has been recorded by the Mariani Klavierquartett.