Conference Report: Women at the Piano 1848–1970, 16-19 March 2023

On 16­–19 March 2023, the University of California, Irvine (UCI) hosted the international conference Women at the Piano 1848–1970. The years from 1848–1970 witnessed sustained interest in public piano performance against a backdrop of socio-political and technological change, from the revolutionary year of 1848 through two World Wars, to the decline of imperialism and the rise of second-wave feminism. The first of its kind devoted to women’s professional work in relation to the piano, this conference focused on the forgotten history of women composers, pedagogues, pianists, and their immense musical contributions.

To the delight of the programme committee, the call for papers generated a rich and varied response. Over a hundred proposals were received and many of these unfortunately had to be turned down for logistical reasons. The conference organizers Professor Natasha Loges (Hochschule für Musik Freiburg) and Dr Joe Davies (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellow; Maynooth University and UCI) curated a richly stimulating programme with 27 themed sessions. From the work of Cécile Chaminade to Maria Yudina, Elsie Hall and Swen Deh-fang among many others, the variety of papers drew a multi-faceted perspective on the topic of women at the piano.

There was something new for everyone in attendance. A diversity in representation was observed in the geographical spread of women musicians at the heart of this scholarship, as well as in the heritage of the scholars who gave those presentations. In all, the conference brought together nearly ninety participants from across the world including representations from South America, Eastern Europe and Asia. Professor Jann Pasler (University of California, San Diego) in her Keynote Address demonstrated these vast networks of scholarship surrounding the piano as an instrument of globalism, colonialism, and mobility. 

The blending of scholarship and music-making was a notable feature in this event. Alongside paper presentations were three sessions of lecture-recitals that synthesised scholarship and performance. Music performances also brought scholarship into practice. The keynote recital by the Spanish, London-based pianist Antonio Oyarzabal featured performances from his album, La Muse Oubliée. This performance comprised carefully chosen gems by women composers, from Amy Beach to Vítězslava Kaprálová. Having this segment co-hosted by UCI Illuminations meant that this part of the conference extended to the local UCI community. The student concert harnessed the finesse of student-pianists who, under the guidance of UCI piano professors Lorna Griffitt and Nina Scolnik, performed an array of pieces by women composers.

To partake in concert programmes with repertoire entirely by women composers must have been a novel experience for many participants. It is hoped that this experience will help to normalise women representation in concerts. Further complementing the intersection between scholarship and music-making was Professor Nina Scolnik’s plenary session on the Taubman approach, which promotes health and well-being through an emphasis on the principles of coordinate motion, physiology, and the mechanism of the piano.

There is much to take away from such an adventurous program that brings together artistic and research communities. The collaboration between scholars and performers generates a constellation of musical knowledge that might not have emerged without one or the other. To this end, it was moving to witness the palpable sense of community in the congenial tone of the conference, in the openness of the community to learn from one another.

An international conference of this scale, while seeking to promote scholarship on neglected women musicians, cannot avert the by-now familiar names in the field. The session titled ‘After Clara Schumann’ suggests that much work has already been done and more importantly, that there is the desire to advance this area of scholarship by exploring intersections with Schumann’s contemporaries and her legacy transmitted through her pupils. The presence of Elizabeth Schumann Brumfield, the great-great-granddaughter of Schumann, at the conference was an honour and a reminder that the work we do has an impact on the lives of real people.

The hybrid format of the conference enabled greater participation from across the world. While logistically challenging, hybrid formats at conferences ensure inclusivity for those who are unable to travel, or for those whose travel plans are shelved at the last moment due to unforeseen circumstances.

The round-table discussion brought the conference to an optimistic finish. The success of this event has inspired hope that the representation of women musicians can become normalised in scholarship and a sustained practice. The precedent has been set, the bar has been raised high, and there appears to be an interest to see this work continued. In the meantime, there are plans for the publication of proceedings. Selected papers will be published by Joe Davies and Natasha Loges. 

Deirdre Toh is a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine working on music in the long nineteenth century.

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