Canon in She

Hildegard von Bingen, Clara Schumann and Emily Lau

6 November 2020

Content warnings: profanity, cissexism, colonisation, slavery, racism, genocide

Welcome to Canon in She, a column about women composers being amazing. In this edition, we have a medieval nun who told the church to stop being so damn corrupt, a concert pianist who had eight children while practically inventing the modern piano recital, and a collaborative music-maker fusing ancient and modern musical techniques.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

One of the first known composers of Western music, Hildegard von Bingen was a Benedictine nun in Rhineland (today part of Germany). Hildegard experienced visions from a young age and was placed into the care of Jutta von Sponheim, a noblewoman who lived as a religious hermit known as an anchoress. She took religious vows at the age of fourteen and spent the next twenty years learning about scripture, church writers, science, medicine, and philosophy. Hildegard would rise through the ranks as a nun into a position of leadership.

Hildegard shared her visions with her colleagues in 1141, who encouraged her to write them down, despite her being a woman. For ten years she collected her visions in a work titled Scivias and preached against church corruption and abuse. Pope Eugenius III endorsed her work in 1147. Hildegard responded by writing to him, urging for reform. She  had enough respect as an abbess to gain the rights to some land, on which she oversaw the construction of a new convent that could house fifty nuns.

She completed Scivias in 1151, closing with a liturgical drama set to music titled Ordo Vitutum, which is the earliest known Christian morality play. Between 1151 and 1158, she collected 77 hymns and canticles she had written for her nuns into a lyrical cycle titled Symphonia Harmonia Caelestium Revelationum (The Harmonious Symphony of Heavenly Relations), which was a well-regarded blend of poetry and music of varying styles and intensity. Hildegard was one of the most prolific Medieval-era composers, regardless of gender. She also wrote books on natural history, medicine, and religion.

Hildegard came to be known as Sibyl of the Rhine and continued travelling well into her 80s. She became a sought-after advisor to members of the public, archbishops, popes and even emperors. She was only officially declared as a canonised saint in 2012, despite her many contributions to science, medicine, theology, and music. There’s a music publishing house named after her, Hildegard Publishing, which is dedicated to the distribution of classical music written by women.

A Listening List

  • Ordo virtutum: A story of struggle between seventeen Virtues and the Devil over a woman’s soul, told through a 90-minute morality drama!
  • Columba aspexit: A sequence from Hildegard’s lyrical poetry, titled Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. A sequence is a sung poem placed between the Alleluia and the Gospel during Mass. This one tells the story of Saint Maximus, a monk from Constantinople.
  • O rubor sanguinis: This is an antiphon, a short chant set to biblical psalms and usually sung by choirs, but Hildegard wrote this one for a soloist. It’s dedicated to the dramatic (and violent) story of Saint Ursula, a British princess.

Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

Clara Wieck Schumann was a German composer and widely celebrated concert pianist and piano teacher. She was born into a musical family; her mother Marianne was a singer and pianist, while her father Friedrich, was a music teacher and piano salesman. She was trained by Friedrich Wieck in singing, violin, piano, harmony, composition, and instrumentation, and was considered a child prodigy. Friedrich was an overbearing teacher and parent, insistent that Clara would become a concert pianist. She made her debut at the age of nine and received positive responses to a concerto of her own writing which she premiered at the age of sixteen.

Clara met Robert Schumann while he was studying with her father. He was nine years her senior, but they ultimately fell in love. Friedrich forbade their marriage, so they sued him! They won the case and were married just before Clara turned twenty-one. Clara was objectively the more famous musician, but she advocated for Robert’s piano music and helped raise his profile. She continued to compose and perform after marriage, even as she had eight freaking children, one of whom died in infancy. She was the family breadwinner as a concert pianist because Robert did not earn much money from composing. Clara and Robert would often work together and kept a shared journal. Many of Clara’s compositions were gifts to Robert, which is a bit cute. Robert thought his wife was pretty damn talented, both as a pianist and a composer.

Robert suffered mental health issues and was ultimately admitted to an asylum, leaving Clara to care for her family and balance her career alone. Robert died in the asylum in 1856, after which Clara stopped composing. She continued to tour as a concert pianist and teach for the rest of her life, even spending some time as a teacher at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, which was depicted on the German Mark’s 100 note, alongside Clara herself, before Germany switched to the Euro.

As a pianist, Clara had a major impact on the development of the modern piano recital. The concept of “classical” music as a genre of “serious” music began to take shape in the 1800s. Before this, performers mostly performed new music written for specific occasions. As she aged, she became less interested in showing off her piano skills, which she viewed as incompatible with serious or “true” music. Clara would instead perform music by dead (male) composers such as Beethoven and Bach and contributed to creating the classical music canon that persists today (which was probably to her own detriment in terms of being remembered by history). Clara herself once wrote “a woman must not desire to compose” and often took a self-deprecating approach to her own compositions. Clara was also one of the first pianists to memorise the pieces she played, which is a common practice today.

Clara is one of the first women whose music I have sung, so she holds a special place in my heart.

A Listening List

Emily Lau (1984-present)

Emily Lau is a composer, singer, and performance artist from Hong Kong, now based in the United States. Emily, in her own words, “fuses elements of ancient music with contemporary techniques to tell unique aural and visual stories”. She is mainly interested in Medieval, Renaissance, and contemporary music. Emily’s music often uses old instruments such as the viola da gamba (the precursor to instruments such as the cello) and a lighter vocal style, with less vibrato than you might normally hear at the opera. Emily holds a Master of Music in Early Music Performance from Bard College, alongside a Bachelor of Arts in Music and Sociology from the University of Miami. Much of her work is influenced by her background as a student of sociology, as she grapples with structural inequality such as sexism or racism.

Emily is the artistic director of the chamber music ensemble The Broken Consort. A lot of her music is written with this group using the “Lau Method”: the artists live and work together for the length of the project.  Integral to her music-making is building relationships with the people she works with, or those whose stories she is telling. She also brings in her own lived experience. The heart of Emily’s music-making is to raise questions, but not offer clear answers or solutions. She sees her work as “a bridge to further inquiry and discussion” instead of an end point.

Emily founded the Big Mouth Society, intended to change the way the arts is funded and presented in America. She is also on the Voice Faculty at Reed College.

Emily is a fascinating composer with a holistic and ethics-based approach to making music, which I think is very important.

You can find out more about Emily at her website. She also has an active YouTube channel.

A listening list:

  • By Chance: Originally written for two voices and harp, lute, and string quartet, Emily describes this piece as a “dance fantasy” between two lovers. The piece is based on a poem of the same name, written by Chinese poet Xu Zhimo. This version uses a marimba, two oboes, a viola and a cello instead of the original instruments.
  • Dickinson Poems: Emily wrote this song cycle based on seven Emily Dickinson poems. There have been three separate editions of the cycle with differing instrumentation. The version linked here includes a Baroque cello, recorders and a marimba alongside the voices. This cycle and By Chance both appear on Emily’s album Isle of Majesty (linked in the title of this entry).
  • The American Promise: This is “a multi-media concert performance narrating promises made and broken in the USA since 1650”, combining music, history lessons and societal critique. This includes racism, colonisation, genocide, slavery, and classism. The concert uses a combination of original compositions and pre-existing works written by other composers. Cultural warning: the names of deceased First Nations (Lenape) persons are included in this performance.

Some of her pieces not listed here (namely The Glorious Cuntata) may be cissexist.


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