Thursday, August 27, 2015

An Interview with Hilary Hahn

Violinist Hilary Hahn was in town this past April to perform at the Constella Festival. While in Cincinnati, we had the pleasure of visiting with her in the WGUC studios and came to find out who she considers to be her favorite woman composer:

Hahn told us that Jennifer Higdon has been a major influence in her life due to the situation in which they first met. Higdon taught Hahn’s 20th-century music history class when she was a student at the Curtis Institute of Music! This class introduced her to the idea of how to listen to contemporary music. She went on to tell us that Higdon was the first composer with whom she worked where she did a reading session of a commissioned concerto, allowing her to experience the editing process.

Before wrapping up our chat on women composers, Hahn mentioned that, while many women do compose, very few are represented in the media. She also stated that men and women do not write differently from one another and that each individual person has their own musical voice.

Now that we discussed Hilary Hahn’s favorite woman composer I’m curious…who is your favorite? 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Life and Work of Ruth Crawford Seeger

We’ll wrap up our topic this month by looking at Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901–1953). There are certainly many more talented women composers that we did not look at this month so if you have a favorite who was not mentioned, let me know and I will consider them for a future month’s discussion!

Ruth Crawford Seeger: Courtesy of 

Though born in Ohio, Ruth Crawford Seeger spent most of her childhood in Florida, receiving her early music training at the School of Musical Art. In 1920 she moved to Chicago to study at the American Conservatory with multiple teachers including theorist Adolf Weidig and pianist Djane Lavoie Herz. Ruth often attended social gatherings at the Herz home where she met many significant people including Henry Cowell, Dane Rudhyar, and Carl Sandburg. She later would use Sandburg’s poetry in her music.

In 1929, Ruth decided to move to New York where she studied with Charles Seeger, whom she later married. During this time, she became the first woman to win the Guggenheim Fellowship in music, giving her the opportunity to study in Berlin and Paris.

Ruth had a passion for preserving folk music, spending a large part of her life editing field recordings in the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. She sought to be true to the original tune in all of her published transcriptions. Ruth also enjoyed spending her time teaching children about music.

Below you can listen to Ruth’s String Quartet from 1931. She was known as a modernist composer, creating atonal, dissonant works.

Next time, join me as I relay violinist Hilary Hahn’s thoughts on her favorite woman composer!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Amy Beach's Gaelic Symphony

Last time we discussed Amy Beach and her impact on women composers to follow her lead. Living during a time when women were thought to be incapable of creating large-scale works, Amy sought to prove the theory wrong by writing many large-scale works including one we will look at today, her Gaelic Symphony (1896).

Finding inspiration in Dvorak’s New World Symphony, which used plantation songs and Native American melodies, Amy decided to write something drawing from her Celtic heritage. The Gaelic Symphony contains four traditional Irish tunes as themes. Can you hear them?

In total, Amy Beach wrote over 300 works, also including many songs and piano works. Do you have a favorite? Next time, we’ll wrap up our discussion this month by looking at early 20th-century composer Ruth Crawford Seeger.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Amy Beach: Overcoming Obstacles

Amy Beach (1867–1944) grew up in Boston during an era when women were just starting to gain a few rights including the right to attend college and hold a public job. That being said, it was still quite difficult for her to break through in the music world, despite her incredible talents. 

Amy Beach: Courtesy of 

Amy Beach was a child prodigy who studied privately early on and taught herself how to compose. By the time she turned 18, Amy was appearing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and publishing her early compositions. After marrying a wealthy doctor, however, she gave up her concert appearances due to his view that it was not respectable for a woman to hold such a position. He did encourage her to focus her efforts on composition, which led to a period of many outstanding works. Following his death in 1910, Amy took up touring again, performing her own works.

At the time when Amy lived, women were thought to be incapable of composing larger works (such as symphonies or concertos). Amy decided to prove this theory wrong by writing quite a few major works including her Mass in E-flat, Gaelic Symphony, Piano Concerto, and Piano Quintet. She ended up being an inspiration for many women to follow in her footsteps. Next time, we’ll look at one of her major works, the Gaelic Symphony. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Piano Trio by Clara Schumann

Clara Wieck Schumann was a virtuosic pianist and talented woman composer during the nineteenth century. Unlike Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Clara was a public figure who also published her music during her lifetime. Why do you think Fanny faced more suppression than Clara when it came to their music pursuits?

Clara’s Piano Trio in G minor is written for violin, cello, and piano. It combines Baroque, Classical, and Romantic elements including song-like themes, development through fragmentation and imitation, fugue, and more. Despite Clara’s public success during her lifetime, her work was essentially forgotten until the late twentieth century when she was re-discovered by a generation that would come to value her undeniable talent.

Below you can listen to Clara’s Piano Trio in G minor. What do you think?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Clara Schumann's Public Fame

Last week we looked at Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, the talented sister of Felix Mendelssohn whose music was performed in private, domestic settings. Clara Wieck Schumann (1819–1896) was another woman musician during the nineteenth century only, unlike Fanny, Clara was a very public figure.

Clara Wieck Schumann was the daughter of Friedrich Wieck who may have been instrumental in his daughter’s success, encouraging her as a virtuosic pianist from an early age. Her first public performance was at the age of nine and she was recognized as a leading pianist in Europe by the age of twenty. Unlike many performers at the time, Clara focused more on being true to the composer’s work rather than simply giving a showy performance.

Robert Schumann met Clara when he began taking piano lessons from her father. Early on, she was actually the better known of the two! They were eventually married despite objections from Clara’s father. Amazingly, the talented Clara was able to continue to perform and compose while managing her eight children. After Robert passed away, she quit composing and focused on teaching and performing, promoting her late husband’s work.

Clara Schumann-Courtesy of

Next time we’ll take a look at one of Clara’s famous works.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Piano Trio by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

This week we are looking at Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, the lesser-known but equally talented sister to Felix Mendelssohn. Fanny has over 400 compositions to her credit, many of them written for small-group settings and ideal for the salon performances in her home. Because she never really received the opportunity to perform publicly or publish during her lifetime, Fanny’s work did not gain a full appreciation until the late twentieth century when she was re-discovered.

Her Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 11 is a beautiful work composed in 1846 for her sister Rebecka’s birthday. It was not published until 1850. This piece shows Fanny’s skill and understanding of the piano, violin, and cello. She writes in an expressive manner, developing ideas and creating a conversation between the three instruments as they alternate taking the lead. You can listen to Fanny’s lovely piece below:

Join me next time as we look at another musically-gifted woman of the nineteenth century, Clara Wieck Schumann.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Felix Mendelssohn's Talented Sister

It seems in music history that we often tend to hear about male composers and their work, but did you know there are many prominent women composers as well? Some were known during their lifetime while others gained appreciation generations following their deaths. This month, let’s look at a few talented female composers, some living during the nineteenth century and some in the early twentieth.

Did you know that Felix Mendelssohn had a sister who was a skilled pianist and composer? Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805–1847) studied piano, theory, and composition from a young age and was considered to be equal in ability to her more famous sibling, Felix. Because of the era in which she lived, Fanny was discouraged from a career in music by both her father and brother, who believed it inappropriate for a woman of her wealth and class to hold such a position.  Felix even published some of her compositions under his own name in order to keep her name out of the public eye.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel
Courtesy of

Painter Wilhelm Hensel supported Fanny’s musicality and, following their marriage, allowed her to hold a salon in their home. A salon is a domestic gathering of friends to hear performances. Fanny had a music room in her home that held up to 200 people and would often invite many well-to-do people to hear her present many of her own works and perform on piano. Fellow musicians were known to drop in including Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann (who we will look at next week!) Hensel supported the publication of his wife’s works but unfortunately, Fanny did not receive much of an opportunity to pursue this avenue. She died suddenly of a stroke right after the publication of her first opus.

Join me next time as we take a look at a famous work by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel!