The forgotten women of classical music

I’ve been listening to the nineteenth-century composer Fanny Hensel’s solitary String Quartet (which remained in manuscript until the 1980s – hang on to that fact for later) performed with raw intensity by the Quatuor Ébène. Hensel is known, when she is known, as Felix Mendelssohn’s big sister.

First up, hats off to the Ébène quartet. Yes, in 2016 it is still brave to record women’s music, and apparently it still needs defending. In the liner notes we are reassured that the quartet is ‘worth hearing’ – phew, what a relief, I haven’t wasted nearly twenty minutes of my life on something worthless! With all this in mind, I wanted to find out why a young, all-male quartet with quite an edgy image chose to play this woman’s work.
Quatuor Ébène

My research for the book I’ve just published, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music should have prepared me for what I found – a way of writing about female composers which patronises, dismisses, misrepresents or ignores their work, and always ends up comparing a female composer to her male counterparts.

But I’m an optimist. I can’t stop myself from feeling thrilled when I find that the Ébène quartet won a BBC Music Magazine award for their interpretation of Hensel’s quartet, or that they were praised and rewarded as advocates of her music – it felt like progress.

But then it all goes horribly wrong. Here is some of the promotional material for the album:

‘Felix’s quartets speak with intimacy, but are not devoid of violent, stormy emotion,’ says Ébène cellist Raphaël Merlin. Although Fanny’s sole contribution to the genre is lesser known and undoubtedly less accomplished than her brother’s, the group simply ‘Fell in love with her String Quartet’ and with sublime, spirited playing made a compelling case for the rarely recorded work.’

No, no, no. What does ‘undoubtedly less accomplished’ actually mean? No matter: whoever wrote this sees it as a given, and doesn’t need to justify it with any rational, let alone musically-based, argument. Yes, the quartet is less well-known. Would it not be interesting to ask why that is? How that happened? Might it not have something to do with being hidden away in an archive for 150 years? (I told you to make a note of that.) But instead, we are simply encouraged to make the lazy causal jump from ‘less accomplished’ to ‘lesser known’.

Fanny HenselThere’s not enough space here to share my thoughts on the thirteen minutes of promotional video footage in which the quartet talk about their approach. Suffice to say Hensel’s quartet is not mentioned. In a final kick in the teeth, the only female voice that is heard is off camera at the start of the film, and she is the recipient of what could at best be called banter, including a closing joke about the male players’ preventing her having an orgasm.

Occasional throwaway lines in reviews of my book further challenge to my optimism. Hensel is, for example, dismissed as second-rate (ie undoubtedly less accomplished) in a review that is in general thoroughly positive -– but on what basis? Is she second-rate simply because she is a woman? Is she second-rate because she did not change the course of music history or because she did not challenge musical orthodoxy?

Let’s face it, it’s hard to change the course of music history when you are systematically denied a musical platform in your own lifetime, and then your music languishes in the archive for 150 years. The ‘second-rate’ female composer becomes, implicitly, a failed contestant in a race that she was never invited to join in the first place. As for being challenging, Hensel was actually musically more adventurous than her little brother – but, of necessity, those challenges were made in the smaller-scale genres, and on a semi-private stage, so that only a very small circle could appreciate them.

Sounds and Sweet AirsAnd while I’m at it, let’s stop referring to Fanny Hensel as Fanny Mendelssohn. Is calling her that all about reassuring people of her pedigree? Is it an attempt to trick naïve buyers into consuming women’s music, sweetening the bitter pill? Surely the composer deserves to be judged in her own right, rather than always being linked with her brother, the same brother who – for reasons that made absolute sense to him, and much of the Mendelssohn family, together with much of elite Berlin society – worked tirelessly to ensure that she would have no career as a composer.

The bottom line is this: I am eternally grateful to the Ébène quartet for making this music live again, and in awe of their ability to do so. It’s a small step towards making Hensel and her fellow female composers mainstream. The music speaks for itself: I defy you to think the quartet is ‘second-rate’, whether you like or dislike it. But what we need a new way of speaking about the music, and for female composers to be respected in their own right and judged on their own merit.

Anna Beer is an affiliated scholar in the Faculty of English at Oxford University. Her book Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music is published by Oneworld Publications and available to buy on Amazon.