Woman's Work in Music

Arthur Elson
"The question of allowing women to compose, if they wish to do so, is hardly one that needs any extended debate. Yet it is only in the last few decades that woman's inalienable right to compose has been fully established. The trials of Carlotta Ferrari in getting her first opera performed are an example in point. The opposition of Mendelssohn to the publication by his sister of even a few minor works is another instance of the attitude formerly taken by even the greatest composers. The life of Chaminade affords still another case of this opposition. When Rubinstein heard a few of her early compositions, upon which he was asked to pass an opinion, he could not gainsay their excellence, but insisted on adding that he thought women ought not to compose. The time has gone by when men need fear that they will have to do the sewing if their wives devote themselves to higher pursuits. The cases of Clara Schumann, Alice Mary Smith (Mrs. Meadows-White), and Ingeborg von Bronsart afford ample proof, to say nothing of our own Mrs. Beach.


Taking the work of women as a whole, there are worthy examples of all the large forms to be found among their compositions. In the field of orchestral work, including symphonies, symphonic poems, overtures, and suites, we find such names as Augusta Holmes, Chaminade, Louisa Lebeau, Emilie Mayer, Mme. Farrenc, Comtesse de Grandval, Elfrida Andrée, Edith Chamberlayne, Mrs. Meadows-White, Aline Hundt, Oliveria Prescott, and in our own country Mrs. Beach and Miss Lang; and the list is but a partial one at that. The recent success of "Der Wald," to mention only one case, proves that women may safely attempt the highest form of opera. This work, although it has a drawback in the shape of a confused libretto, is to be retained permanently on the Covent Garden repertoire in London. In oratorio, a worthy place must be accorded to the works of Mme. Grandval, Célanie Carissan, Mrs. Bartholomew, and Rosalind Ellicott. Among women composers of successful masses may be reckoned Mrs. Beach, Mme. Grandval, Mary Carmichael, and Maude Valerie White. In other directions women have more than held their own, and their work shows excellence, in quality as well as quantity, in cantatas, string quartettes, and other chamber music, violin sonatas, and even in large concertos. The list of women who have written piano music and songs extends to ample proportions.

In closing, it may not be amiss to express the wish that the compositions of women composers could be heard more frequently than they are at present. There is no doubt that some of our quartette clubs would find much to interest themselves and their audiences among the works of the famous musical women. According to Nero, music unheard is valueless, and all musicians would rejoice to see the fullest possible value thus placed, by frequent performance, upon Woman's Work in Music."

ELSON, Arthur. Woman's work in Music. Boston: Colonial Press, 1908.

Silvia Pato