Conference Report: Musical Women in Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century

The Royal Northern College of Music hosted the ‘Musical Women in Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century’ conference between 24 and 26 February 2020, which focused not only on female composers of the nineteenth century, but also on instrumentalists, singers, conductors, salon hostesses and piano makers. The aim of this conference was to highlight and uncover the impact these women—most of whom have been forgotten today—had on the musical life of their time. Apart from the well-known Clara Schumann, the delegates had the chance to become familiar with Gina Oselio (Patricia Puckett Sasser, Furman University, Maxwell Music Library), Beatrice Harrison (Rebecca Thumpston, University of Nottingham), Anna Caroline de Belleville (Peng Liu (University of Texas) and Marie Wieck (Paolo Munaò, MIUR Florence), to name just a few.

The conference started dynamically with a welcoming concert performed by the main conference organiser, the third-year PhD (Performance) student at the RNCM, pianist Maria Stratigou. Her performance of a selection of Louise Farrenc’s Piano Études and the Sonata Tragica by Nikolai Medtner, was followed by her paper presentation ‘Researching Louise Farrenc’s Piano Études’, which highlighted these neglected works from the standing point of a performer and musicologist. However, this was not the only performance of the conference; two Lecture-Recitals focusing on the Wieck sisters (Clara Wieck Schumann and Marie Wieck), as well as a student concert on the second evening of the conference—featuring Farrenc’s Sextet Op. 40, a movement from Schumann’s Sonata in g minor, a selection of songs by Lili and Nadia Boulanger, Pauline Viardot, Amy Beach and Clara Schumann, and two soprano duets by Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn—strengthened the direct connection of this conference to performance.

The keynote presentation, ‘The Social Network, Belle-Époque Style: How Salonnières used the Society Pages in the Paris Dailies to Promote New Music’, was excellently delivered by the acclaimed and award-winning researcher and pianist Sylvia Kahan (The Graduate Center and College of Staten Island, City University of New York). She connected the salon music of the nineteenth century with modern profile construction on social media and talked about the information that can be derived from following the society columns of the Parisian newspapers of the time, demonstrating through a wide variety of examples and sources, the role of salon hostesses in supporting performing artists and shaping the repertoire.

This was very well linked to the ‘Salon culture’ session, chaired by Denis Herlin (IReMus, RNCM), where Konstantinos Alevizos (Aix-Marseille University, PRISM.CNRS) talked about the salon and the library of Anne-Louise Brillon de Jouy, her compositions and skills as a performer. On the other hand, Richard Langham Smith (Royal College of Music) presented a wealth of material around Cécile Chaminade’s marketing strategies and material, especially his own collection of Chaminade’s published score covers, and moved his audience beyond the realm of pure musicological/analytical considerations.

The panel session on gender and musicology, including high-profile names, was very thought-provoking. Matthew Head (King’s College, London) addressed the separate spheres of the private over the public as a means of self-expression and liberation; Susan Wollenberg (University of Oxford) connected Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn in terms of their separate spheres; Joe Davies (Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford) considered how female performers-composers merged the boundaries between these different spheres—for example, how Clara Schumann used the instrument to move between private and public spheres. Natasha Loges (Royal College of Music) gave an authoritative and enjoyable account of soft power by means of language and culture within the private sphere and how it overlaps with the public. These high-level presentations provoked a stimulating discussion.  

There was also a very strong session on Ethel Smyth. In the absence of Hannah Millington (Dublin City University), Barbara Kelly presented the former’s paper on Smyth’s ‘March of the Women’, followed by Amy Zigler’s (Salem College) talk on her String Quartet in E minor, and an impressive presentation by Christian Thomas Leitmeir (Magdalen College, University of Oxford) on the two versions of Smyth’s Mass in D. Other sessions included presentations on the Belgian ‘Prix de Rome’ (Fauve Bougard, Université Libre de Bruxelles), the piano rolls from Leipzig (Jörg Holzmann, Leipzig University), the piano manufacturer Nannette Streicher Stein (Hester Bell Jordan, McGill University), the music of Lady Mildred Jessup (Russell  Burdekin), and the Polish composers Maria Szymanowska (Martyna Krymska, Karol Lipinski Academy of Music) and Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska (Dr Tomasz Kienik, Karol Lipinski Academy of Music) among others. There were also fruitful discussions on the topics of programming the works of women composers nowadays and the pedagogical value of their compositions.

Apart from the growing interest in women composers who were prominent during their time, but whose music was forgotten after their death, special attention should be given to all of those women who played an important role in the musical life and culture of their time, and further research should bring them back to prominence; this conference has shown that there is still much to be researched.

Maria Stratigou is a third-year PhD student (Performance) at the Royal Northern College of Music, focusing on the performance aspects of Louise Farrenc’s piano Études.

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