The Concerto (Part 1)
There are few genres of music more exciting than the concerto. A soloist, pitted against the strength of an orchestra, performing a dazzling virtuosic showpiece, exploring the highs and lows of what is possible on their instrument. Throughout history, a concerto performance could be what made or broke a musician's career, leading to new performing opportunities and patrons.
Yet, despite the large number of women who wrote and performed concertos (often early life), these life-altering opportunities were often denied to them. The history of classical music is rife with instances of composers being overlooked for their gender, pushed to the sidelines due to widely prevalent sexist attitudes and societal pressures to keep women in the home.
Over the coming month, almost 200 concertos to the A Seat at the Piano will be added to the database. To celebrate, we will be highlighting six concertos by women composers that span the breadth of classical music history: Marianna Martines, Clara Schumann, Amy Beach, Nadia Boulanger, Florence Price, and Unsuk Chin.
The Austrian composer Marianna Martines (1744–1812) grew up surrounded by cultural royalty. Due to her father's position in the Austrian court as a majordomo, their apartment in the Michaelerplatz had them living next to the vocalist Nicola Porpora, the poet Metastasio, and the composer Franz Joseph Haydn. She became a favorite of the Imperial Court, and found her compositions performed across Europe until 1764—the year Emperor Joseph II banned works by women from being performed in churches. Despite this setback, she persevered in the ways she could, including hosting musical soirées that included guests such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Her music, though largely considered out of fashion by the end of her life, took many influences from Italian opera, and embraced the emfindsamer stil ideals popular in the mid-18thC. You can hear each of these influences in her Harpsichord Concerto in A Major, a piece likely written for her own performances sometime between 1760 and 1782. This piece is a excellent example of that cross section of Baroque and Classical styles found in the mid-1700s, and bares stylistic similarities to Haydn's own concerto (with whom Martines studied with as a youth).
Arguably one of the great pianists of her time, the German composer Clara Schumann, née Wieck, (1819–96) began touring when she was just 11 years old, and continued to tour throughout her life. She championed the works of her husband Robert, who was unable to perform after permanently injuring his hand in an ill-fated attempt to strengthen it, and worked with many of the leading musicians of the 19thC, including the violinist Josef Joachim and the composer Johannes Brahms.
Like many women composers, most of her own compositions date from early in her career. Schumann would later lament to friends that she felt like she had to give up her compositional career in order to take care of her family. Given the beauty of her Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 7, we are left to wonder what her music would have been like with a lifetime of experience behind it.
Her concerto is a highly virtuosic showpiece, written for herself (at only 14 years old!) to perform during her concert tours. Both Robert and Edvard Grieg's concertos would later share the same key of A minor—there is a known connection between Robert and Grieg's concerto, and you cannot help but hear a similar connection with Schumann's earlier piece. The three-movement piece was premiered with Felix Mendelssohn conducting, and features a very unusual key structure of Am, Abm, and a return to Am.
Amy Beach (1867–1944) is widely considered to be the first successful American women composer, despite facing hardships in her career due to both sexism and the anti-Americanism attitudes commonly found in European musicians at the time. Having studied piano with Carl Baermann (a student of Franz Liszt), she had to teach herself to compose, and her marriage in 1885 led to several restrictions on her development. She was not able to teach nor study with a teacher, and was forced to limit the number and scope of her performances.
Despite these conditions, Beach's compositions were finding success in the United States. The success of her Mass in E-flat Major led to both her Symphony No. 1 becoming the first symphony by a women composer to be performed in the U.S.A. and to her piano concerto.
Her Piano Concerto in C# minor, Op. 45 was the first piano concerto by an American women composer, dedicated to the Venezuelan virtuoso Teresa Carreño and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Two of the fours movements of the concerto are based on her own songs, and despite the paucity of performances of the piece during her lifetime, it is now regarded as an overlooked masterpiece.