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Female Composers in 19th Century Europe

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Music
Wordcount: 2125 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Music is a universal language right now, it transformed as time went by. By looking at the development of the music history, one of the aspects we find is the number of female composers was smaller than right now, they were not educated so well at the time. After that, the female composers started to appear in the stage of music history in the late nineteenth century and twentieth century, they gradually played an important role in the stage of music history as a lot of famous female musicians flooded during Romanticism, such as Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann. They earned their reputations, then their music started to be premiered in concerts. For example, Fanny Mendelssohn was a famous pianist and composer of over 460 pieces of music. However, the majority of her pieces were originally published under her brother‘s name. In this paper, I will discuss how  society’s influence on female composer’s career and how did female composers shape themselves at the time.

Unequal Education Status

         In the early period of European society, music was widely spread out to each family whatever is poor or rich. However, there was an educational tendency that men got the priorities to learn music when women always had the challenges to access their education. While women have long been acknowledged as great interpreters of music, the field of composition has been traditionally dominated by men [1].

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       A lot of female musicians are from musical families, some of them were so lucky to get their chance to learn instruments and then composition, and premier their piece on the stage, such as Clara Schumann. Others just learned how to play and compose, and could not get the opportunities to perform in public. These are because of different family backgrounds. Clara’s father was very of her to learn music and develop it as her career in the future, sometimes he regarded her daughter as a male composer, and shaped her as serious as possible. On the contrary, despite her extensive musical training and acknowledged talent in both piano and composition, she was not given such opportunities as her brothers. In large part this is due to the attitudes of her family, particularly her father Abraham[2]

        Meanwhile, there were also many conservatories had closed their doors to women for a long time, after many years, the conservatories started to let women get into starting to learn music. However, women were only allowed to learn instruments, they could not get the opportunities to compose and perform on the stages. A more terrible thing was if they went to the same class with men, some units would be not shown up to women, that means they were still treated unequally in the conservatories. An example of this would be at the Leipzig Conservatory, where “boys took a three-year course in theory, girls a two-year course, especially organized for their requirements.”[3] Basically, boys did not want girls who were in the same level with them, and they did not believe girls could ever be.

Gender Discrimination

       Not only in Europe, there were many countries in the world had the perception that men could do better than women and handle the cases better than women. They were mostly thought as a role of housewife rather than professional musicians.  Fanny’s father pointed out with it in a letter to the fifteen-year-old Fanny of 16 July 1820:

           What you wrote to me about your musical occupations with reference to and in comparison with Felix was both rightly thought and expressed, Music will perhaps become his profession, while for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing.[4]

At the time, women only got several ways to be a musician, they could have their own studios at home, could perform as a singer, but they could not be concert masters, professors, conductors.

          So under the social situations, women still worked so hard to develop their careers. Clara Schumann started to perform her own pieces in public after she got married with Robert Schumann. After her husband got ill, she had to make them living so that she started to compose and premier her pieces in public, finally she got a great population at the time in female composers. The example I would like to talk about is Fanny Mendelssohn and one of her famous piece piano trio op. 11.

Fanny’s talents on music

          Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel was born in 1805, she was a famous German pianist and composer at the time. She was four years older than Felix Mendelssohn, and they were both highly educated in composition and piano. She could play all of the 24 preludes from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. In 1820, she had her composition studies with Friedrich Zelter, who at one point favored Fanny over Felix. Then Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote to Felix Mendelssohn about “ Give my regards to your equality talented sister”. She also received a high description from Zelter in skill as a pianist “She plays like a man”. [5]

Challenges for her composition career

          However, she was so gifted at the time, she was still facing some challenges from her family because the social background, such as her compositional activities discouraged from her family. Her father and brother both thought of the only calling for a young woman was that of a housewife. Such a huge impact on her made from her family, Fanny still did not give up her belief to compose. She did, then be active in her compositional career, finally she wrote more than 400 pieces. Some of the pieces are under Felix’s name and published, and she didn’t attain her status as a professional composer. There was one person who played a very important role in her life, her husband–Wilhelm Hensel. He encouraged her to compose and play her own piece in public, then she played a public performance of Felix’s Piano Concerto in G minor without consulting with her brother. That was a bravo performance at the time.   

Fanny’s  Musical Style

        She had a literary interest in poetry, so she composed in more self-expressive way, also because of her gifted talent, she was writing music very naturally as Schubert did, the melodies are singable. Then she invented an important compositional genre called Instrumental songs without words, which her brother also composed the set of music. She also had some character pieces that one for each month, meanwhile, she got models from Haydn, Mozart. Most of her pieces are in classical forms. 

         By looking at her repertoires, we could feel her talents on music, one of her famous pieces is piano trio op. 11 in D minor was a delicate chamber music work, she endowed the music different characteristics in different instruments, I will analyze the piece then in its shape and characters.

Piano Trio Op. 11 in D minor

                  Piano Trio Op.11 was conceived between 1846 and 1847 as a birthday present for her sister, and posthumously published in 1850, three years after the composer’s death.  There are four movements of the trio, the first movement plays with a flowing, restless accompanied piano part, the strings plays the broad, beautiful melodies. Then the piano part gives a short solo part, which strings start to transform to a new subject. Then the strings and piano give a call-response genre in the middle of the passage. It also modulated several times for elaborating the minor keys. After piano plays the arpeggios, strings restates the theme. In a stormy arpeggios of piano part, the theme seems to play to us in a different sound quality that warmer than before. Then coming to a repetition of the development part, the musical character is getting quieter with the chords of piano part. Then it strikes me at the end of the first movement, it suddenly plays a quick stormy accompaniment that push me back to the sad environment

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                Then the second movement is so gorgeous that in a Andante espressivo, it is so romantic though it is also energetic in its inner mood, the theme started to vary when the strings start to play continuous sixteenth notes and then repeats in piano part back and forth. The third movement was subtitled by Fanny with Lied, the lovely Allegretto movement is from Song Without Words of sort Mendelssohn composed. The finale coming to an Allegro moderato, that piano plays a lengthy solo at the beginning of the part, then strings join in. The rhythmic pattern sounds like a folk dance which dominated with dotted notes. Cross rhythms and themes develop to a climax finally ended the whole piece with a D major chord.


                Whatever the difficulties the female composers faced in the past, they still have overcome many setbacks, barriers to get what they really wanted, they also tried to make a big progress to equal with men in the music field and some of them such as Clara Schumann and Fanny even did better than men at the time. They are the models of female composers today, even there were composers who devoted herself to music career. The blueprint of female composers are still painting.


  1. Gates, Eugene. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Composers? Psychological Theories, past and Present.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 28, no. 2 (1994): 27-34. doi:10.2307/3333265.
  2. Citron, Marcia J. Current Musicology. “ Felix Mendelssohn’s Influence on Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel as a Professional Composer”, New York Vol. 0, Iss. 37, (Jan 1, 1984): 9.
  3.  Pendle, Karin. “Musical Women in Early Modern Europe.” In Women and Music: A History (Second Edition), edited by Karin Pendle, 57-96. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001.
  4.  Sebastian Hensel, “ The Mendelssohn Family (1729-1847), Karl Klingemann, transl., 2nd ed., 2 vols.; reprint of 1882 edition (New York: Haskell House, 1969), vol. I, p.82  
  5. “Mendelssohn’s Musical Education”. www. Cambridge.org. Cambridge University Press.  Retrieved 2017-01-24

[1] Gates Eugene, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Composers? Psychological Theories: past and Present”


[2] Citron, Marcia J. “ Felix Mendelssohn’s Influence on Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel as a Professional Composer

[3] Pendle, Karin. “ Musical Women in Early Modern Europe” In Women and Music: A History

[4] Sebastian Hensel, “ The Mendelssohn Family (1729-1847)

[5] Mendelssohn’s Musical Education”. www.cambridge.org. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 2017-01-24.


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