Women Firsts in Classical Music: Women's History Month

It used to be considered proper for a young woman in upper society to attain proficiency on a classical instrument, usually the piano, harp, classical guitar, or voice. Women were not trained as professionals, however, because it was considered immodest for a woman to perform in public. But eventually some women broke through convention and asserted themselves in the world of classical music.

One of the earliest women to perform professionally as a pianist was Maria Theresia Paradis (1759-1824).

Her father was a court official in Vienna. She went blind as a small child, although treatment by Dr. Anton Mesmer was improving her vision. The treatment was abandoned when it was decided that she would lose her disability pension if she recovered her sight.

She was performing regularly by age 16 and spent much of the next decade in touring Europe to great success. Her repertoire included 60 concertos, including works she commissioned from Salieri, Mozart and Haydn.

She gradually abandoned performing in favor of composition, writing five operas, three cantatas and numerous piano works. In later years she turned to teaching. She may be largely unknown today, but she certainly worked at a professional level comparable to male pianist-composers except for the few top geniuses, such as Mozart.

Historical speculation was that Mozart may have written his Piano Concerto No. 18 in B flat major for Maria Theresia von Paradis.

Mozart could have sent the concerto to Paris, and it would have been forwarded to von Paradis in London, where it was possible that she performed the work in March 1785.

The first woman to break the bonds of convention and venture to play the violin in public was Mrs. Sarah Ottey.

Ottey played the violin in concerts as early as 1721, in England.’ Mrs. Sarah Ottey, was an accomplished musician, since she performed publicly upon the harpsichord and bass viol as well as upon the violin.

American Clara Baur was the first woman to found a conservatory, the University of Cincinnati – College-Conservatory of Music, in 1867.

Baur opened the first conservatory in Ohio on December 2, 1867 in rented rooms on West Seventh Street. She later moved to a building on the corner of Vine and Eighth Streets - a much bigger location in which Baur was able to offer room and board for out of town students. From here, her conservatory moved to the corner of Fourth and Lawrence, then to Oak Street, and is currently part of the University of Cincinnati and is known as CCM.

In 1936, Nadia Boulanger conducted a concert with the London Philharmonic, the first woman to do so.

In 1939 Nadia Boulanger was asked what it was like to be the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the world première of Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks. She replied "Well, I have been a woman for 50 years now and have recovered from my initial astonishment."

 A French composer, conductor, and teacher who taught many of the leading composers and musicians of the 20th century as well as leading living composers and musicians.

Among her students were those who became leading composers, soloists, arrangers and conductors, including Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Quincy Jones, John Eliot Gardiner, Elliott Carter, Dinu Lipatti, Igor Markevitch, Virgil Thomson, David Diamond, İdil Biret, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Glass and Astor Piazzolla. She also performed as a pianist and organist.

As a long-standing friend of the family (and officially as chapel-master to the Prince of Monaco), Nadia Boulanger was asked to organize the music for the wedding of Prince Rainier of Monaco and the American actress, Grace Kelly, in 1956

Marin Alsop made history when she became the first female to conduct a major US symphony orchestra when appointed to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007. Six years later she made history again when she became the first ever woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms.

Eight Benefits of Music Education

1. Early musical training helps develop brain areas involved in language and reasoning. It is thought that brain development continues for many years after birth. Recent studies have clearly indicated that musical training physically develops the part of the left side of the brain known to be involved with processing language, and can actually wire the brain’s circuits in specific ways. Linking familiar songs to new information can also help imprint information on young minds.

2. There is also a causal link between music and spatial intelligence (the ability to perceive the world accurately and to form mental pictures of things). This kind of intelligence, by which one can visualize various elements that should go together, is critical to the sort of thinking necessary for everything from solving advanced mathematics problems to being able to pack a book-bag with everything that will be needed for the day.

3. Students of music learn craftsmanship as they study how details are put together painstakingly and what constitutes good, as opposed to mediocre, work. These standards, when applied to a student’s own work, demand a new level of excellence and require students to stretch their inner resources.

4. In music, a mistake is a mistake; the instrument is in tune or not, the notes are well played or not, the entrance is made or not. It is only by much hard work that a successful performance is possible. Through music study, students learn the value of sustained effort to achieve excellence and the concrete rewards of hard work.

5. Music study enhances teamwork skills and discipline. In order for an orchestra to sound good, all players must work together harmoniously towards a single goal, the performance, and must commit to learning music, attending rehearsals, and practicing.

6. Music provides children with a means of self-expression. Now that there is relative security in the basics of existence, the challenge is to make life meaningful and to reach for a higher stage of development. Everyone needs to be in touch at some time in his life with his core, with what he is and what he feels. Self-esteem is a by-product of this self-expression.

7. Music study develops skills that are necessary in the workplace. It focuses on “doing,” as opposed to observing, and teaches students how to perform, literally, anywhere in the world. Employers are looking for multi-dimensional workers with the sort of flexible and supple intellects that music education helps to create as described above. In the music classroom, students can also learn to better communicate and cooperate with one another.

8. Music performance teaches young people to conquer fear and to take risks. A little anxiety is a good thing, and something that will occur often in life. Dealing with it early and often makes it less of a problem later. Risk-taking is essential if a child is to fully develop his or her potential.

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The Composer And His Muse: Isabella Colbrano and Gioachin Rossini

Colbran, born in Madrid, studied under Girolamo Crescenti in Paris. By the age of twenty she had achieved fame throughout Europe for her voice. She moved to Naples, a hub of European music during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Teatro di San Carlo, built during the Bourbon dynasty, had been home to famous singers like the castrato Farinelli and represented a destination venue for talented singers.

Isabella Colbran als Desdemona
Colbran became the prima donna of the Teatro di San Carlo company,where she counted among her admirers the King of Naples as well as an adoring public. In time she became the mistress of the theater's impresario, Domenico Barbaia.

Barbaia engaged Gioachino Rossini, the most famous composer of his time, to pen a series of Neapolitan operas as a vehicle for Colbran’s rich vocal gifts. It didn’t turn out as he planned: Colbran left him for Rossini!

As Elizabeth, Queen of England
This well known fact is a case in point in regard to the lack of primary source material for Barbaja’s biography.  It would be fascinating to know what Barbaja thought of Colbran leaving him for his star composer, but no letter has survived, or was probably ever written.  We know that Barbaja’s business relationship continued after the Rossinis’ marriage, but the relationship grew more contentious.  We also know that the three of them spent many weeks together in Barbaja’s villa on Ischia before Colbran and Rossini became an ‘item’.  But, frustratingly, we have no idea what Barbaja thought about it all.

In 1815, with Isabella at the peak of her popularity, Rossini composed the title role of Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra especially for his muse. In Otello, Ossia il Moro di Venezia she sang Desdemona.

They tied the knot in 1822, and their fruitful musical marriage continued with Armida, Mosè in Egitto, Ricciardo e Zoraide, Ermione, La donna del Iago, Maometto II and Zelmira, all composed by Rossini for his leading lady.

The ninth and final work Rossini wrote for Isabella was "Semiramide" which she premiered at La Fenice, Venice, on February 3, 1823; the couple traveled to London in 1824 but Isabella's voice was already in decline and after her flop as Zelmira she sang little, finally leaving the stage in 1827. The marriage was rocky as Isabella was a compulsive gambler and Rossini had a poor concept of fidelity but the couple did not formally separate until 1836.  Rossini's enduring fame rests on operas not written for Isabella but he was always to cite her as the greatest interpreter of his music.

OMG Moments in Classical Music

What are the greatest moments in classical music history? The bits that make you immediately rewind and play them again? Simply, the most surprising, shocking, beautiful or weird bits in classical music? Here are 10 moments that will make you say 'OMG'…

The top C in Allegri's Miserere 

There you are, just chilling out with a bit of 17th century choral music like any self-respecting person would do, and then all of a sudden, BAM! High C! Emotional overload! Skip straight to it by pressing play below…

The climax of Beethoven's 9th Symphony Everyone sing along! 

"Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium!" This is such a fist-pumping moment. How fist-pumping? Well, it's supposed to encapsulate the joy of humanity, of being alive, Germanic might, the brotherhood of man and basically all worldly positivity, which is a pretty tall order. Does Beethoven manage it? Take a listen… (the answer's 'yes', by the way.)

The opening chords of Elgar's Cello Concerto, played by Jacqueline Du Pré 

Few pieces are so iconic that they can be defined by a few chords alone, and few musicians are so iconic that they can be defined by one piece. In a word, 'whoompf'.

The Tristan Chord

How can one chord redefine the way we think about music? Well, it's simple. All Wagner did when he plonked this gorgeous little progression into the opening of his opera Tristan und Isolde was use an augmented fourth, an augmented sixth and an augmented ninth above the root to imply a completely different harmonic relation. Easy, yeah? Oh, just listen to it…

Don Giovanni is dragged to hell 

Much of Mozart's Don Giovanni is actually quite humorous, with amorous japes and farce aplenty, but things take an incredibly sinister turn right at the end when the Don himself (think of him as a folkloric version of Russell Brand with comparable dress-sense) is finally forced to atone for his sins. There's a slow knock at the door, Giovanni opens it and is confronted with a stone statue of the Commendatore, who drags the screaming Don into the fiery netherworld. Yikes!

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James P. Johnson's 'Yamekraw, A Negro Rhapsody'

James P. Johnson is one of those great unsung American creators who, for various reasons, led a life under the radar. He suffered several strokes during his lifetime and was a quiet, retiring personality in a field of extroverts. But his talent, both as pianist and as composer, was bigger than life. He essentially invented what we today call stride piano style, whereby the pianist's left hand jumps absurd distances to cover the entire lower half of the piano. 

Johnson's piano roll of his hit tune "Carolina Shout" became the measuring stick for every up-and-coming piano player. Duke Ellington learned his fingerings from feeling along as Johnson's piano roll played in slow motion, and Johnson himself blew everyone away in "cutting contests" (the virtuosic piano-playing marathons) up until Art Tatum emerged on the scene.

After his friend George Gershwin had such success with "Rhapsody in Blue," James P. Johnson thought he'd try his hand at writing a piece for jazz piano and orchestra. Johnson's piece is called "Yamekraw, A Negro Rhapsody." It has some of the same exuberent bubble and bounce you might know from the Gershwin and it makes a fascinating counterpoint to "Rhapsody in Blue."

Concert performance by pianist Gary Hammond, with Richard Rosenberg conducting the Hot Springs Festival Chamber Orchestra from Hot Springs, Ark.

Treasures In The Attic: Finding A Jazz Master's Lost Orchestral Music

In addition to composing the singular piece of music that came to symbolize the 1920s in America, "The Charleston," Johnson aspired to compose music for symphony orchestra and had actually written several orchestral pieces that were premiered at Carnegie Hall in the early 1940s.

This was the long-lost music from that Carnegie Hall concert!

Robert Lee Watt: 'The Black Horn'

Robert Lee Watt fell in love with the French horn at an early age. He met a lot of resistance from people who thought his background and his race made a career with the instrument unlikely — but he went on to become the first African-American French hornist hired by a major symphony in the United States.

He became the assistant first French horn for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1970, and stayed with the orchestra for 37 years. His memoir, The Black Horn, tells how he got there.

Watt grew up in New Jersey with a mother who played piano by ear and a father who played the trumpet. His dad was keen to have Watt follow in his footsteps and play popular music and jazz on the trumpet.

But then Watt discovered a French horn in the basement of the local community center, and asked his father what it was.

"He says, 'French horn — that's a middle instrument, it never gets the melody. And besides, it's for thin-lipped white boys. Your lips are too thick,' " Watt remembers.

Despite his father's dismissal of the French horn, Watt was drawn to the instrument.

"It gives me chills," Watt says. "It just really touched me."

Today, symphony auditions are "blind," featuring screens between musicians and the committee judging them. That wasn't the case back when Watt started his career, and he wasn't sure that, given his race, he'd even have a chance in auditions.

He tells NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates how one teacher encouraged him to audition anyway, and how he overcame skepticism within and outside the world of classical music.

Interview Highlights

On continuing his French horn career after attending the elite New England Conservatory of Music

I think it was toward the end of the third year, my teacher came to me and said "I think it's time for you to start looking for a job." And I said, "Doing what?" And he says, "Playing your horn, dummy." And so my teacher — who just passed away a few months ago, by the way, at age 100 — was very paternal for me.
Robert Lee Watt was a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for more than three decades. i

On racial tensions he faced in the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Most people were fine. They just — there were things that [were] what James Baldwin would call ignorant and innocent at the same time. ... I do remember meeting a concert pianist and he says he almost fainted when he saw me sitting there. He says, "You're so starkly black [against all the orchestra's white faces], there you were in the LA Philharmonic." ...

I had a nickname ... Boston Blackie. No one had ever called me that personally but many people came to tell me that that's how I was referred to.

And then there was a Chinese guy, very young, came up to me and he said, "Welcome. Bob, now that you're here, try and get as many black people where you are." He says, "That's how things change." And he became my first friend in the orchestra.

On what he wants people to take away from the book

One of the things that I think ... we're not honest enough about is, we tell young people that, "You can do anything you want, just put your mind to it." But that lofty paradigm defaults to: "You can do anything if we're comfortable with it."

In my hometown people would say things like, "You wanna play French horn, I see. Have you seen anyone else doing it?" I said, "No." ... That was the mentality in my hometown. If it's different, right away, you're going to get resistance.

Or, in the case of my father, it was fear. Because my father, I found out just before I went to conservatory, that he actually auditioned for Juilliard. He bolted out of the audition because he ... could play bands, he could read Sousa marches and he could play in the jazz band, but ... he wasn't classically trained trumpet. So it created a fear and a stigma, so when I come along a generation later saying, "I want to play French horn," he thought, "You think they're gonna take you?
 You'll see."

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The lost Genuis of Mozart's Sister

Maria Anna Mozart was a child prodigy like her brother Wolfgang Amadeus, but her musical career came to an end when she was 18.

Wolfgang and Nannerl Mozart, c. 1763, by Eusebius Johann Alphen (1741–1772)

When Mozart was a toddler, Nannerl (four and a half years older) was his idol. According to Maynard Solomon, "at three, Mozart was inspired to study music by observing his father's instruction of Marianne; he wanted to be like her." The two children were very close, and they invented a secret language and an imaginary "Kingdom of Back" of which they were king and queen. Mozart's early correspondence with Marianne is affectionate. Occasionally Wolfgang wrote entries in Marianne's diary, referring to himself in the third person.

“I am writing to you with an erection on my head and I am very much afraid of burning my hair”, wrote Nannerl Mozart to her brother Wolfgang Amadeus. What was being erected was a large hairdo on top of Nannerl’s head, as she prepared to pose for the Mozart family portrait.

Mozart Family Portrait

The children toured most of Europe (including an 18-month stay in London in 1764-5) performing together as “wunderkinder.” Far from being in her brother’s shadow, Nanner actually shone as the more talented youngster. There are contemporaneous reviews praising Nannerl, and she was even billed first.

In a letter, Leopold Mozart (their father, pictured above) wrote: “My little girl plays the most difficult works which we have… with incredible precision and so excellently. What it all amounts to is this, that my little girl, although she is only 12 years old, is one of the most skillful players in Europe.”

Nannerl copied down some of Wolfgang’s compositions when he was too young to write them down. So, it’s possible some of Wolfgang’s compositions are hers. We also know when he was in London working on his first symphony, she wrote it all down and orchestrated it for him. It’s unclear how big their collaboration was, but she was an extremely talented musician.

In contrast to her brother, who quarreled with their father and eventually disobeyed his wishes with respect to career path and choice of spouse, Marianne remained entirely subordinate to her father.

When Nannerl reached the age when she could get married, her father stopped taking her on the road – A little girl could perform and tour, but a woman doing so risked her reputation. And so she was left behind in Salzburg, and her father only took Wolfgang on their next journeys around the courts of Europe. Nannerl never toured again.but she carried on composing until her marriage in 1784.

Portrait of Maria Anna Mozart, c. 1785
The society was as such that, of course, there were women composers, but the ones that could show their work were nobility. Women had to play for nothing. If they made money off their music, they were thought of as prostitutes.

Wolfgang wrote a number of works for Marianne to perform, including the Prelude and Fugue in C, K. 394 (1782). Until 1785, he sent her copies of his piano concertos (up to No. 21) in St. Gilgen. 

There is evidence that Marianne wrote musical compositions, as there are letters from Wolfgang praising her work, but the voluminous correspondence of her father never mentions any of her compositions, and none have survived.