Clara Leonardi is an amateur violinist who is enthralled by the repertoire of women composers and is the founder of ComposHer, a platform dedicated to women in classical music. It's this theme that she addresses in her monthly Bachtrack column "The Clara Variations".

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Clara Leonardi
© DR / Bachtrack

Valentine's Day is over, taking with it the risk of indigestion from a surfeit of romance and chocolate. Let's not inquire yet again into the great love stories of classical music from the point of view of the romantic figure of the muse who throws the composer's life into turmoil. Instead, here's a different angle: did the women composers of yesteryear have male muses? In reality, whether sources of inspiration or acerbic critics, faithful partners or abusive husbands, the men who shared their lives turn out to be more ambiguous.

We'll start by stating the obvious: in the 19th century, spilling over into the 20th, a young woman's marriage generally signals a halt to her musical and creative life. At that point, the life of a married woman implies numerous tasks which impinge on the time and head space essential to composition. With eight children, Clara Schumann spends nearly six years of her adult life in pregnancy, and many more taking care of young children: impossible to take advantage of the "Room of One's Own" deemed by Virginia Woolf to be a necessary condition to live as a woman artist.

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Robert and Clara Schumann in 1847
© Lithographie d'Eduard Kaiser (domaine public)

At least, Clara Schumann had a husband who admired her musical talents and considered them one of the foundations of their marriage, which has not always been the case in musical couples. In a notorious letter written in 1901, Gustav Mahler demands that Alma Schindler – whom he is to marry a year later – abandon any intent to continue composing, on the grounds that a household of two composers would inevitably create "a rivalry so strange that it would become ridiculous". Explaining to Alma that she must become "the one he needs", he places the duties of lady of the house above the artist's life that Alma had adopted before their marriage, when she worked on her Lieder cycles (which would mostly be published after Gustav's death). The men with whom Alma Schindler and Clara Wieck chose to share their lives were composers and therefore well able to understand the value of their spouse's musical works, but that didn't make them in any way capable of creating the conditions necessary for their wives to exercise their artistic talents.

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Alma and Gustav Mahler near Toblach, in around 1909
© ÖNB, Bildarchiv Austria (domaine public)

The problem isn't limited to composing couples: after marriage, women's artistic activities become secondary, replaced by the need to follow and indeed support their husband's activities. So the composer Maria Bach (1896-1978), who wrote several chamber and symphonic works, abandons her composition career in favour of that of painter... when she meets the painter Arturo Ciacelli and goes off to live with him in Italy. Pianist and composer Luise Sumpf (1862-1944) experiences a similar uprooting in 1888, when she marries the doctor Ludwig Greger and leaves Berlin's musical life, joining her husband in the creation of a health center in Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe, where it will take her several years to return to an artistic life and establish a salon.

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Barbara Strozzi, self-portrait, ca. 1630
© The Yorck Project (domaine public)

Faced with such obstacles, a number of women composers have chosen a single life in order to preserve their artistic ambitions. As early as the 17th century, the legendary figure of Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) proves that it's possible for a woman to have a composing career without impediment from marital bonds. Famous singer, pupil of Francesco Cavalli and then writer of a book of madrigals in 1644, she was also a single mother of four children. In the same era, other women put their talents to the service of sacred music by taking the veil: Sulpitia Cesis (b.1577), from the convent of San Geminiano at Modena, publishes her Motetti Spirituali in 1619; Isabella Leonarda (1620-1904) writes sonatas, motets, masses and psalms while living in a convent at Novara; Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-1678) takes the veil very young, but receives a music education which permits her to write sacred music: her Vespro della Beata Vergine have recently been recorded by the ensemble I Gemelli.

In the 19th century, examples increase of single women as professional composers; one of the few who chose celibacy and whose symphonies have survived to today is Emilie Mayer (1812-1883). Her parents' demise in 1840 gives her the freedom to move to Stettin to study composition with Carl Loewe, before continuing her studies in Berlin in the late 1840s. The richness of style deriving from her different teachers would not have been possible without the freedom of movement that she enjoyed as a single women, at an age where her contemporaries were already wives and mothers.

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Elfrida Andrée, ca. 1904
© Olga Rinman (domaine public)

Towards the end of the 19th century, a number of artists turn this life into a political struggle: that's the case for Swedish composer Elfrida Andrée (1841-1929), who studies organ at Stockholm Academy of Music and is then refused the post of professional organist, on the grounds that St Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians demands that "women are to keep silent in the churches... for it is improper for a woman to speak in church". Fiercely determined to be able to provide for herself without having to be married, she engages in a legal battle which culminates in 1861 in the passing of a law permitting women to work as organists. She follows this up with a similar campaign to permit women to earn a living as telegraph operators.

Still, it would be wrong to assert that the only way that women could compose was to condemn themselves to celibacy or a nunnery. In the 19h century, there are multiple examples of couples in which a wife receives the support of husband in the exercise of an artistic career. For these, marriage may have meant the end of financial constraints which inhibited their composition, a profession which isn't exactly renowned for generating a stable income. That's the case for Johanna Müller-Hermann (1868-1941), a Viennese composer who was the pupil of Alexander von Zemlinsky amongst others. After her marriage to Otto Karl Müller-Martini in 1893, she abandons a teaching career to devote herself fully to composing.

Some composers even achieve a fruitful association with a husband who helps them surmount the many obstacles in the path of their musical careers. Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) is able to rely on the support of her husband Aristide who is not only a flautist and composer but also a musicologist and publisher: he helps her publish her symphonies and chamber music. After her marriage, she becomes a piano teacher at the Paris Conservatoire and retains a professional life in parallel with her marriage, something noticeably uncommon in the bourgeois environment of her day. Another composer and teacher at the same establishment, Pauline Viardot, a famous singer of the 19th century, achieves some of her greatest successes after her marriage to Louis Viardot, the director of the Théâtre des Italiens. Her voice at the time is so popular that that Camille Saint-Saëns dedicates Samson et Dalila to her.

Pauline Viardot sings the Havanaise: Oui c'est là que l'on sait aimer !

Finally, artistic couples aren't always as one-sided as the Ciacellis, the Gregers or the Mahlers: there are couples in which the career of each serves the other. For example, the 1880 marriage of German-Dutch composer Julius Röntgen (1855-1932) to the brilliant Swedish violinist and composer Amanda Maier (1853-1894) allows the couple to organise music salons throughout Europe, where they welcome Johannes Brahms, Anton Rubinstein, Joseph Joachim. Röntgen-Maier stops performing in public after her marriage, but she continues to compose, as evidenced by her Piano Quartet from 1891.

If Clara Wieck had chosen to stay single to pursue her soloist career on the world's stages, if Alma Schindler had chosen Gustav Klimt rather than Gustav Mahler, would they have had longer composing careers? What's for sure is that both have been eclipsed in music history by their famous husbands. But let's be reassured: today, the renown of several young women composers far surpasses that of their partner, such that they seem unlikely to suffer that fate. Is the era of the muse drawing to a close?

Translated from French by David Karlin