Filed under: activism, composers, popular culture. Tagged as: Clara Schumann, Dame Ethel Smyth, Hildegard of Bingen, Nadia Boulanger, Wendy Carlos.
NPR’s Deceptive Cadence picked up on a twitter feed recently questioning which composer is the “biggest badass”, with qualifications to include drugs, sex, guts and politics.
The list of composers included (surprise!!!) no women. Though the list, which was compiled here, did include Carlo Gesualdo, a late Renaissance composer who is remembered for his madrigals, chromaticism, and having murdered his wife and her lover and placing their bodies on display. (Interesting that instead of being remembered as a murderer he is praised as being “badass”…)
But this omission of women must have been an oversight – especially considering all of the badass women composers that have lived. My short list includes:
Hildegard von Bingen (who was included in the comments on the NPR story – thanks to Christine Beard)
She was an abbess, mystic and prophet who stood up to every authority in the Medieval Church, including the Pope himself, and lived to tell about it. She was also the first composer to so fastidiously document their work and sign their name to it – unheard of for even men at the time.
Dame Ethel Smyth
How much more badass can you get than being arrested for the cause you are fighting for (British women’s suffrage) – and continue to lead your followers even from behind prison bars? (Who doesn’t know the story of Smyth conducing her “March for Woman” from her cell window with a toothbrush??)
Forced to work at a young age due to the death of her father, Nadia took on jobs performing and teaching music to support her family. She took on the Prix de Rome by force and ruffled feathers along the way. Though she didn’t win (second place isn’t shabby either), she certainly paved the way for other women, including sister Lili. Nadia was also the first woman to conduct the BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Her students included Aaron Copland and Astor Piazzola, and seemingly countless others, and her work continues to live on through the next generations.
Wendy’s work with the Moog synthesizer, most notably her album Switched-On Bach re-introduced classical music to the masses. That album, first released in 1968, was one of the first classical LPs to sell 500,000 copies – eventually going gold and platinum. The album also brought home three Grammy awards: Album of the Year (Classical), Best Classical Performance, and Best Engineered Recording (Classical).
Clara Wieck Schumann
A child prodigy who defied her father to marry Robert, Clara also completely changed the format and standard repertoire of piano recitals. She took care of an often-ailing Robert and raised seven children while traveling and performing to make sure that they and continuing to travel and perform to share Robert’s music and bring home a paycheck. She out lived four of her eight children (one died in infancy) as well as her husband, and cared for her grandchildren when necessary. She continued to advocate for Robert’s works, including taking the lead roles of editor and interpreter until her death.
But this is just five of certainly dozens of women composers and musicians who fought the odds and managed to make a place in history for themselves (even if it is often forgotten in text books and in online polls).
Who else should be on this list???