Anne Midgette: Changing the Narrative about Women in Music
Anne Midgette is the classical music critic for the Washington Post, reviewing concerts and the role that music plays in our culture. She and PT host Fred Child had an extensive, fascinating conversation about the women who have been omitted from classical music history and the women who are making classical music history today.
Listen to the full interview or read a partial transcript of a highlight.
Fred Child: Anne, over the centuries there's what you call a different template for success of male composers and female composers. What do you mean by that?
Anne Midgette: I think it's not just in music that there are different templates for success. I think that the narrative shall we say of what constitutes achievement in our world has been largely a male-dominated one. There's a book called Writing a woman's life by Carolyn Heilbrunn that came out in the '80s I believe and it was pointing out that biography. the model that one follows for biography, is a male-dominated arc. And if you measure a woman's life against that arc it may come up wanting because it doesn't tick the same kinds of boxes. There's not room for success in the domestic sphere there's not room for achievements that aren't sort of measurable and I've been fascinated by that for years. And I think it's also very true in music. I think the whole way we think about music in this extremely male-dominated, historically extremely male-dominated field, is governed by that template. The very way we see music as a museum of canonical works and we judge whether new works are worthy to be included in that canon and measuring women, measuring minorities, measuring "degenerate" so-called artists from 1930s Germany, against that ruler there are always going to become... they're always going to come up wanting or be found wanting because they don't dominate the canon already. The real problem is the idea of the canon to begin with and I think one thing we need to do is get rid of the canon as a template of success and find other ways to hear music.
Music was once just an activity and something that you engaged in and took or left. It didn't all have to be masterpieces and appreciated an awed silence. And I think that that mentality has been a great obstacle for female composers even to the present day because you're constantly fighting against that huge, monolithic template.
FC: And as you say that canon is itself a product of much larger societal forces and the rules of the game being constructed a certain way. The playing field not being level for everyone who might want to play or have something important to say.
AM: Well one thing that's fascinated me, I've been doing a lot of research about women and one woman in particular in a time of Beethoven. And when you start really looking back and digging in the documents you realize that Beethoven's world was filled with women of course. There have always been a lot of women out there in the world but that Beethoven's daily world and this musical world were filled with women. He was writing some of his sonatas for his female students. There were women who were concertizing. I think the difference wasn't quite as stark as we perceive it now. And if you look at music dictionaries over the years, you can see the women gradually dropping out of them. If you go back to 1796 and look at the Dictionary of Music of Vienna in that time you find the number of names of women. I haven't counted, it's not a whole lot, but there are a lot of names of women that are no longer in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians or are just starting to reappear there.
There was a period in the 19th century when the women were dropped out and again the women's role and achievements were not of the sort that gets you kept in dictionaries of that nature. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a significant and major role.
FC: And just to name a couple of examples: Mozart wrote a lot of his piano concertos for women to play there were great women pianists in Vienna in the late 1700s hundreds. Josepha Aurenhammer was one of those and a woman named Nanette von Schaden who was not just a pianist but was a composer herself. And you wrote about her in a 2008 column for The Washington Post. And not just about her as a pianist but as a composer. What should we know about that Nannette von Schaden.
AM: Well she was said by many to be possibly the greatest living pianist at that time in the late 18th century. She was an incredibly beautiful and cultivated woman who was born illegitimately raised by aristocrats in Vienna and then married a minor aristocrat and went off to Wallerstein was a major center for music at that time where the local potentate was building up his music to be... He wanted to rival Mannheim with his orchestra. She ended up there because her husband was an official there and she came together with the composer Rossetti who was the court composer at that time. He worked with her and probably helped her to commit her concerto to paper. She was a renowned improviser, but she doesn't write that much stuff down and the concerto itself is not you know a masterwork by the canonical standards.
It's the kind of thing I wish we had in the repertoire more because there it is. And it is as pleasant to listen to as many other works. I weary a little bit of constantly hearing the drumbeat from readers, from scholars, of whether it's as good as or a masterpiece that deserves inclusion. Masterpieces are partly made by multiple hearings which for a few of these women's pieces have gotten to have and partly made by multiple opportunities which again few women at that time had. In any case Nanette remained an amazing pianist and her narrative cut off. Like many women's in part through her marriage but even more through her divorce. She left her husband, settled down in Regensburg with her father and sort of falls off the scene because as a separated woman she was no longer moving in the circles where one might hear her play. I bet she kept playing. Nobody really knows if she kept composing.
FC: And again that points to what you were mentioning earlier. That to a certain extent, it's who you know and who you connect with and how the rules of the game are set up. Getting into the history books is not purely a function of your work and any kind of objective quality of your work. It's what kind of narrative is out there about you and who's talking about you.
AM: Absolutely and you one also has to remember that the history books in Vienna in the 19th century were dominated by an extremely repressive regime. The Metternich era and it was a very male-dominated time.
It's interesting to note that Austria before that time was remarkably equal for women and that there were even women laborers in the streets at that point that you could walk through the city and see women working on buildings alongside men which was unusual at a time anywhere. The fact that that vibe reigned in Vienna at that period to some extent is notable, but is completely expunged through the historical record. My particular focus in that period as a piano builder named the Nanette Streicher who was a successful piano builder in that time. Rivaled the men, friends with Beethoven, friends with Haydn, built a concert space in Vienna that was sort of like a precursor to Steinway Hall where traveling musicians came through and played and Beethoven was a regular guest and a good friend of the family. For a long time posterity remembered this woman as the wife of the piano builder Andreas Streicher, which is completely specious. Her husband wasn't the piano builder at all. He actually gave up his composition career to work with her and her career. It's a remarkably fulfilled biography of a woman and again it's not a biography that fits the template of male achievement in that she did not become recognized by the emperor or she just had a successful life. She was happily married. She had children who loved her. She raised her son to build pianos too and he became Brahms's favorite piano builder and she established a thriving concert hall and died in her 60s. More or less content. It's not the kind of biography we think of women at that period even being able to have and it's been very fascinating me to that for that reason. I approached it thinking she was an anomaly at that time and it was really striking to me the more I look at this to discover that she was surrounded by other, smart, powerful women. She was definitely not an anomaly. She just happened to be one who realized herself in a way that is that lends itself to being written about or to catch the attention of somebody writing a couple hundred years later. She happened to have been best friends with the Nanette von Schaden than they used to play four-handed works by Mozart when he came through town. Which is how I got onto the Nanette von Schaden in the first place.
FC: It's fascinating that there were quite a few women as part of this scene, particularly in Vienna and late 1700s, early 1800s. And as you say their names dropped out of the history books over the course of the 1800s, early 1900s. And this puts me in mind of a line that you wrote Anne in a 2008 column you said, "It might be inaccurate to claim that women had the same influence as men or to hail all of their works as undiscovered masterpieces. But it's also inaccurate to perpetuate the idea that women had no role beyond representing the target audience for piano builders and music publishers." And that's the end of the quote. I mean the fact is these people were a central part of the Viennese music scene and we're having to reconstruct that history now.
AM: Absolutely and when you remember furthermore that very much at the piano literature that we're looking at was written for these women. It makes it all the more sort of egregious that we tend to overlook them when we're discussing the historical record.
FC: I'm speaking with Anne Midgette the classical music critic of The Washington Post and Anne earlier you talked about the development of the Western canon of classical music. This idea of the set of masterpieces and the idea of inclusion in the canon and the issue of being worthy. What measures up what gets in the canon. That has been an awfully tough nut to crack for anyone who's not already in 'In' the group. It's an issue for women composers for African-American composers for it's been an issue for Asian composers. Anyone who's not in the in group the group who set up the rules of the game it's tough to change the idea of what the canon is and get into that. So what's going on with this? What is the canon. Why do we have it and how do we undo that idea?
AM: Well I think a lot about it not just about women as you say. James Conlon has devoted a large chunk of his career to playing the music of composers who were labelled degenerate by the Nazis and his thesis is that if you devote enough attention to this work it will gradually get a fair chance, a fair hearing so that it will eventually either be played or not played. But it sort of was unfairly shut out and it's a very interesting hypothesis and one that takes us a little bit away from sensitive areas area. That is, people start immediately when you talk about this with regard to women talking about whether women aren't as good or African-Americans aren't as good.
There's a whole horrible level of value judgments. The so-called "degenerate" composers, everybody can pretty well agree that the Nazis were bad and that they were sort of arbitrarily shut out and it becomes a much safer way to look at it. And indeed there has been some slow acceptance of that work. There are sort of those composers are much more familiar to us all than they were 30 years ago.
FC: And for the Nazis that meant Jewish composers, anyone who included jazz in their compositions. Roma musicians and composers all labeled by the Nazis as degenerate.
AM: Exactly. Exactly. Ranging from Felix Mendelssohn I don't remember Mendelssohn was actually "degenerate" quote unquote but he was certainly proscribed. But the specific composers who were living and working in the 1920s and 1930s were the ones who became the most obvious victims. But the idea that the canon is something that can be assailed and have things worked into it is implicit in this idea of recording and playing all this music. And as I mentioned before it does lead to the question of why the canon is a necessary thing to begin with. I don't know if you're familiar with the book The Dictionary of Imaginary Musical Works by the philosopher Lydia Goehr who teaches at Columbia. But it's oh it's a wonderful book and it was sort of revolutionary in its field as she wrote it in 20-30 years ago.
But it focuses on the shift in the perception of music from activity to work. That music used to be something you did and partook in and that it sort of artificially became the structure of works and things to be looked at and finite works that must then be appreciated in a finite way and there's a lot of outgrowth from that particular thesis. The whole way that we now perceive music in this you know small silent room in worshipful silence is not the way Mozart's audiences perceived his music. He writes his father he's thrilled when they break into applause in the middle of a movement. You know it's it's a different and much more participatory activity and that you could really argue I certainly would argue that the creation of that kind of museum like canon has been extremely detrimental to our field and one of the reasons that people talk about the struggles of classical music now is a result of institutions that have grown up basically to propagate that canon. I get readers writing me all the time that orchestras should not play contemporary music but they really exist only to play Beethoven and Brahms. That that's their function. And the more you emphasize this canon the more irrelevant these institutions really seem and really are to our daily lives. And so you need some kind of format for apprehending music that is not bound to the idea of these great works. And I believe I mentioned before the need to come up with other alternatives. But the canon has such a hold on our imaginations that I think a lot of composers continued to write for the canon, again not only women. Philip Glass is a really interesting example of somebody who in the middle of his career began to devote himself to standard forms to a degree that almost no living composer quite does. I mean Philip is on his 12th symphony. He's got eight string quartets he's got 25 plus operas.
He's got all these concertos. He's turning out absolutely canonical music even if many of the major orchestras in America view him as this kind of maverick that we can't play on our series. And there is a great example of even a white male seeking inclusion into this canon by writing music that fits its template. It's a pretty extreme example but it is also fascinating that the most popular and successful composer of our time is still trying to gain admission into this old boy's club because that's been presented to all of us unthinkingly as the ne plus ultra of quality and acceptance. So women have had a very hard time in that field which almost by definition is male. But you've seen examples certainly of women trying to write in those forms trying to gain admission to it throughout history with greater or less success. I've mentioned Florence Price who's getting a lot of attention right now as a mid-century African-American woman composer who had a lot of strikes against her. And there's this new recording out of her two violin concerti which again shows somebody doing what it is that you need to do to be a composer. To be a composer you must write violin concerti. They are quite lovely pieces and I really enjoy hearing them. It's wonderful to see Price getting that kind of recognition in a field that is you know even as it tries to maintain the inviolability of its system is desperately seeking ways to establish itself as more widely relevant to more people. I hate to see them embracing ...
I hate to see this system embracing women and minorities as a sort of economic or sociological necessity rather than out of sheer curiosity of what other people in this very large world of ours are doing and thinking and writing. But it depends on of course the institution. I think some institutions are more motivated by curiosity and a genuine spirit of inclusion than others are. But at least at the very least these concepts of being more open to women are becoming a necessary feature on everybody's radar.
FC: Anne as you're talking about this and the problems that spring from the idea of a canon, an accepted set of masterpieces, and about how that canon is the product of some much larger historical and social forces and gender dynamics and how those have evolved over the centuries. I can't help but wonder if this idea of writing to the canon itself becomes a limiting factor. That creative individuals composers who might have interesting things to say are limiting themselves because they think oh this is how I'm supposed to write.
AM: I believe it's very limiting. I believe it's been historically limiting and I believe it's increasingly limiting as we come into a time when those forms have less and less relevance. I mean to think of Philip Glass seeking acceptance by writing symphonies I don't think he's only writing symphonies to seek acceptance I think he's a really wonderful writer of symphonies but it's amazing with somebody that popular precisely in other forms would even see the interest in doing that. There are so many other ways too to assert yourself as an artist. And I think some of the most successful female composers especially the second half of the 20th century have precisely done that. Have found their own ways to become powerful, creative forces that are independent of the systems that are set up which are not that relevant to what they do anyway.