History Lost in History

So you know Mozart and Beethoven, but do you know any female composers?

When I was in college, one of the best courses I took was a class on women and music.  During one of the first sessions of the semester, my professor asked the class to write down as many male composers as we could name on a sheet of paper. Then she asked the class to write down all the female composers that we could name as well on the same piece of paper. Many of us could name a decent number of male composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. However, most of the class could not name even one female composer.

Historically, female composers have often been overlooked and underappreciated. This is something that needs to change.

Their work is often lost in history. Let’s take a look at the life and work of Cécile Chaminade, so when someone asks you about female composers, she can be first on your list!

Throughout her lifetime, Cécile Chaminade composed over 400 pieces. She was born in August of 1857 in France. Her upper-middle-class family loved the arts, as both her parents were musicians. She began taking piano lessons from her mother at a very young age. Then she began composing music at the age of seven, can I get a wow?

At the age of eight, Chaminade played some of her composed pieces to George Bizet. George Bizet was a French composer for operas in the Romantic Era. He is most known for his four-act opera Carmen. I am sure you would recognize the Habanera and Overture from Carmen, even if you are not that into classical music! You must at least have heard them in a commercial or two. Google it, I dare you!

Bizet was impressed by Cécile Chaminade’s talent and recommended that her family make sure that she received a music education. Despite her talents and Bizet’s suggestion, her family did not allow her to study music at the Paris Conservatoire. Going to the conservatoire would have allowed her to network with other music professionals. However, her father believed that it would have been “improper” for a young lady of her social class to formally attend school. At least she was instructed privately by instructors from the Paris Conservatoire.

A black and white head shot of Cécile Chaminade. Her dress has a high neck line and she is looking slightly to the right.
[Image Description: A black and white head shot of Cécile Chaminade. Her dress has a high neck line and she is looking slightly to the right.] Via BBC
She performed her first recital at the age of 18 and began making a name for herself.  By 1878, she began traveling and performing across Europe, in Austria, Britain, and Belgium. When she toured in the United States, she performed at Carnegie Hall, Symphony Hall, among other venues. Her performances across Europe and in the United States were received well, she rose in fame and became internationally renowned. In the United States, many musical performance clubs were named after her during the time of her performances.

Despite her the admiration that was received abroad, her work and accomplishments were ignored in France during most of her life. Her compositions her mainly character pieces and melodies. These pieces were popular in other parts of Europe and America, but they were referred to as mere “salon music” in France. In the 19th century, the salon referred to the gathering of elites for intellectual conversations away from the masses. Elites and aristocracy would meet in salons and listen to music that was romantic piano music. Salons were typically associated with the gathering of elite women as well. Critics of Chaminade’s music used the term to suggest that her music was too emotional and meant for the “simplistic” entertainment of women.

Critics unfairly judged her music. Ultimately, to me, they seem to have ignored Chaminade’s talent for sexist reasons. They coded her work as “feminine” in an attempt to degrade it and dismiss her talent. Her work was described as dainty, lacking variety, and sentimental. Those critics chose to disregard the character, accessibility, and aspects of the French Romantic Era in her music that made her music popular. They were focusing on the fact that she was not male. Thankfully, later in her life received some of the recognition deserved for her work and performances. In 1913, she was the first female composer in France to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

Cécile Chaminade’s compositions and work is something that should not be forgotten in history, and we should be listening to her music. With over 400 compositions, you have plenty of material to listen to! I recommend her Flute Concertino Op. in D major, Op. 107, which she composed in 1902 if you are looking for a place to start!

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