Entertainment Music

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Classical: When talent soared above prejudice...

Schumann: The world's first female concert pianist
Schumann: The world's first female concert pianist

George Hamilton

When you think of classical music, the focus tends to be on Europe in general, with principal ­providers having roots in Italy and in Germany and Austria, and England taking its cue from those traditions. France and Russia came a little later to the party. It was all very much a phenomenon of the Old World, and it reflected the social situation there.

Male-dominated, it was a rare woman who would have the opportunity to make her mark. Clara Wieck - better known by her married name of Schumann - was a rare example of talent soaring above prejudice.

Still, happenstance had to play its part. Her dad was a musician and teacher, and he identified her potential early on. If he'd had his way, she'd have stayed at his beck and call, his artist, his 10pc - or quite likely, a lot more.

This was a man who kept a diary that was purportedly hers, writing it in the first person and referring to himself as "Father".

Friedrich Wieck couldn't stop her falling in love with Robert Schumann, who'd come to the house as one of his piano students. They had to go to court to win the right to be wed.

Schumann encouraged his wife and she blossomed in the spotlight that shone on the world's first female concert pianist. Over six decades through the 19th Century, she was a leading figure in recital rooms and on the concert stage, and contributed as a composer, too.

But she had her doubts about the role. "I once believed that I had creative talent, but I have given up on this idea; a woman (and here she used the word 'Frauenzimmer', indicating she saw herself as middle-class) shouldn't want to compose.

"Not one has been able to do it. Why should I expect to?"

She should have cut herself some slack. Seven hundred years before there had been Hildegard von Bingen - a 12th-century abbess - who wrote religious music that makes up one of the largest collections of medieval compositions still in existence.

Clara was ignoring, too, her contemporary Fanny Mendelssohn, elder sister of Felix, a musician much admired by husband Robert.

By the time of Clara's death in 1896 at the age of 76, another formidable talent had blossomed. Amy Cheney, born in New Hampshire in 1867, made her debut just six weeks after her 16th birthday, performing Chopin and a concerto by Moscheles.

At 18, Amy married Henry Beach, a Boston surgeon who was considerably older than her. Amy always thought of herself first and foremost as a pianist, but her husband wasn't so keen on her having a career in the public gaze.

It was agreed she would restrict herself to just one or two recitals a year, and would concentrate instead on composing.

Largely self-taught - Henry didn't want her taking lessons - she mastered technique by studying the work of Bach in particular. She published under the name of Mrs H H A Beach.

Widowed at 42, and without any children, Beach moved to Europe to revive her reputation as a performer, returning to the US at the outbreak of World War I, a frontline artist again.

Her compositions have remained in the repertoire. A Mass in E-flat was her first big success. Large-scale works followed - a popular Gaelic Symphony based on folk melodies from Scotland and Ireland (as well as England), and a piano concerto. She also wrote chamber music, too, and pieces for solo piano.

Amy Beach, one of the pioneering female voices in music, died in New York in 1944 at the age of 77.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday from 10am.

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