My women composers lecture at the Wiener Festwochen (June 8th 2024)

[Ich danke Merle Krafeld und Gesine Garz sehr herzlich für das Lektorat des folgenden Textes.]


I had my first piano lessons at the age of six. I started with the usual children’s pieces, which were supposed to provide an introduction to the world of piano music. At some point, you had to go through Carl Czerny’s hell in order to master the technique for the first Beethoven sonatas. Before that, you would have tried Mozart and Haydn sonatas – and of course always kept a few preludes and fugues by Bach in your repertoire.

As a man, you almost never came across works by female composers. Maybe, an exception would have been a recital that included a few songs by Fanny Hensel for example, which I had to accompany. Female composers were a matter for female musicians. However, there was one everyday phenomenon here in Germany – on the old 100-mark bill: Clara Schumann. But who was actually on the old 1000 German mark bill – and who was on the twenty? We can no longer remember! Because, before the introduction of the Euro, the banknotes were not adorned by Goethe, Schiller and so on, but rather – supposedly – not so well-known people from history. This is also part of the marginalization of female composers, in this case Clara Schumann, whose Piano Concerto in A minor is played, if at all, in the large concert hall.

When she was still known as Clara Wieck, the composer wrote this at the age of 14. Long before her troubled marriage to the difficult Robert Schumann. Today, his Piano Concerto in A minor is often on the program, sometimes even in combination with Clara Wieck’s Piano Concerto in the same key. And then the two works are compared. And men in particular think: »Robert Schumann’s piano concerto is better!« How unfair! Because Robert Schumann was 35 years old at the time of his piano concerto – and was able to compose almost continuously. After all, he didn’t have to look after his seven children.

In the fall of 2019, I thought to myself: I know many living female composers of our time personally, Sarah Nemtsov, Adriana Hölszky and so on. But, I wanted to expand my knowledge of them. And I also wanted to prove to the male world how many female composers there actually were – and are. And I wanted a large number! So how about »250«? So, I had the idea of starting a weekly series on female composers in the VAN Magazine entitled »250 female composers«. Each week we featured a female composer, with a short biographical outline – and, very importantly, a link to a work that can be found on YouTube – and (very important!) my description of that work, sometimes even as a little analysis (but in an entertaining style). Soon it became two female composers per week because we wanted to speed up the process.

This link to a single work was very important (as I said). (And you can find this link as a QR code in the book!) For us, taking these female composers seriously as artists meant looking at their art in detail, not »only« their biographies. And, that’s exactly what we did. I collected the information for example from online projects such as »Music and Gender on the Internet« (»MUGI« for short) – and, of course, provided a link to every bit of information.

The articles in this series initially consisted of a brief biography. Where did the portrayed composer come from? Who were her teachers? Who were her parents? What musical instrumentation did the composer write for? But most importantly: What does this one work that I found on YouTube sound like? What does it remind me of? And, of course, I took works that inspired me personally, in which I could also – as a typical dramaturge – interpret a few things. After all, that’s what art is for. To find yourself in the picture! And, yes, it’s okay to compare the music of Ethel Smyth with the music of Johannes Brahms if you think of Brahms when you first hear Smyth’s music. Music evokes memories. And that’s okay – for the first moment. At some point you will realize: Smyth may sound like Brahms, but of course it is not »worse« (I would even say the opposite). At some point you realize: Britten sounds like Smyth … And you no longer wonder why everyone in England knows Britten, but only very few people know Smyth. Because Smyth, as we know, also took to the streets for the women’s Suffragette movement – and spent two months in jail for it. In general, female composers were fighters for completely different things: The Brazilian composer Chiquinha Gonzaga, for example – a victim of violence in her first marriage – was a pioneer in the anti-slavery movement and co-founded the Brazilian GEMA.

The »250 female composers« series then became a big book because »Die Andere Bibliothek« in Berlin approached me and said: »Would you like to do it?« So the online series in VAN Magazine went on for over four years, right up to the last episode about Hildegard von Bingen. (I’ve mixed and matched. There is no chronology! Chronology is boring!) The youngest composer was just 18 years old at the time the article dedicated to her was written. Laila Arafah, a composer from London, born in 2004, had composed a work for the music notation software »Sibelius«. In other words, a composition for a music writing program. An aesthetic between Ligeti and first-person shooter sounds. Let’s see what else we hear from her. So far only on YouTube! (Thank you, YouTube.)

How did I choose the female composers? The starting points for the online series at the time were sometimes milestone birthdays or political events, such as the start of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In that terrible week, I portrayed two Ukrainian female composers – and listened to this music for the first time (for me)!

Most of the female composers in the book are classical composers. Of course, I studied musicology »classically«. But I soon added female composers from the fields of jazz, performance art, chanson and so on. I was particularly interested in the many people of color among the female composers, because they almost always had to go through double discrimination, defamation and repression.

I would like to briefly mention just three women composers, simply to keep their names in our minds: Margaret Bonds, Undine Smith Moore and Florence Price. Listen to works by these three. This is absolutely great music. Avant-garde, profound, political, fantastic!

My demand would be: make female composers a theme at all levels of your concert and opera houses and ensembles! The audience will come, as the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin proves, who play at least one work by a female composer in every concert – and have achieved the best capacity utilization ever.

We don’t have to »educate« our audience. But we do need to get them interested. Radically! Pure musicology is not enough. We need interest at all levels.

We need to tell the stories of these many thousands of female composers without making the suffering they experienced invisible. What we do need to make visible is how great their music is. I have made hundreds of new, magnificent discoveries for myself. And I want to hear this music played live in the concert hall! (And I just wanted to share my passion for this music, not to »steal« anything. No, I think I did not steal anything. Quite the opposite. My book is full of words you had never heard before. Words about a music the people did not know before.)

And, make sure you include female composers in your music education formats. We can’t just tell the young people out there, for the thousandth time, how great Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is. There is an urgent need to catch up in this area too.

Thank you very much!

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Arno Lücker wuchs in der Nähe von Hannover auf, studierte Musikwissenschaft und Philosophie in Hannover, Freiburg - und Berlin, wo er seit 2003 lebt. Er arbeitet als Autor (2020 erschien sein Buch »op. 111 – Beethovens letzte Klaviersonate Takt für Takt«, 2023 sein Buch »250 Komponistinnen«), Moderator, Dramaturg, Pianist, Komponist und Musik-Satiriker. Seit 2004 erscheinen regelmäßig Beiträge von ihm in der TITANIC. Arno Lücker ist Bad-Blog-Autor der ersten Stunde, Fan von Hannover 96 und den Toronto Blue Jays.

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