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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