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2020 – the year of Beethoven?

December 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.

The event seems to have split the Classical Music community. Some individuals and organisations see the occasion as an opportunity to celebrate Beethoven’s musical achievements. Others suggest that Beethoven’s music is popular enough and performances and recordings of it are already so plentiful that audiences should be exploring new repertoire and lesser known composers, and particularly work by underrepresented groups.

Beethoven is one of a group of composers from the Western Classical tradition who is often given the title ‘genius’. He was a prolific composer, writing 722 works, including 9 Symphonies, 16 overtures and incidental pieces, 16 string quartets, 32 piano sonatas, 20 sets of variations for piano, 10 works for chorus and orchestra, hundreds of songs, operas, piano trios, works for wind ensembles and concertos for violin, piano and a lost work for oboe. His development of musical forms such as the symphony, string quartet and piano sonata are seen as revolutionary, and his influence on later composers is often cited.

If you want to take 2020 as the year to explore Beethoven’s works further, check out #TheCompleteBeethoven on Twitter for advice from The Symphonist or follow the hashtag #Beethoven2020.

Beethoven led an interesting life. His father was abusive, he struggled with his health, he lived in politically turbulent times, his romantic life was complicated and he suffered hearing loss. However there are stories of his bad temper and of his poor treatment of his sister-in-law and nephew. All these elements add to the image of a tortured genius, a persona that has appealed to audiences and, it could be argued, has helped keep his music popular over the past 200 years. 

As Beethoven’s work is frequently performed, recorded and broadcast on radio, should we take his 250th anniversary as an opportunity to enjoy ever popular works such as his 9th Symphony and 5th Piano Concerto, or should we explore some of his lesser known works, such as his works for military band…

or his songs…

Or should we be exploring more obscure composers? As William Gibbons states on Twitter:

Every time I listen to Beethoven, I’m not listening to something else.

Inspired by some of the discussion around exploring a wider range of composers, Musicology Duck’s blog influenced by Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge, has suggested a hashtag of #ListenWider. Rather than recommending specific books or pieces, both challenges give categories, allowing readers and listeners to find works that appeal to them. Musicology Duck gives 30 categories of pieces to listen to including a composition of 60 minutes or more in length by a woman or non-binary composer, a miniature composition under 90 seconds long, a top hit from the year you were born or from a country other than your own, and a concerto for tuba, bassoon or double bass. 

You could take the opportunity to explore works by other composers and performers who have key anniversaries in 2020, such as:

Dave Brubeck – 100th anniversary of his birth

Dorothea Anne Franchi – 100th anniversary of her birth

Ravi Shankar – 100th anniversary of his birth

Del Woods – 100th anniversary of her birth

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) – 100th anniversary

John Rutter – 75th Birthday

Of course, there is a happy medium for those who love Beethoven’s music but still want to discover new repertoire. Ensembles such as the English Symphony Orchestra are taking the opportunity to partner Beethoven’s works with lesser known composers such as Ruth Gipps and Adrian Williams.

So how will you approach your year of listening to music? Let us know what you think in the comments!

Clara Schumann – prodigy, performer, proponent and pioneer

Clara Wieck was born in Leipzig in September 1819. Although for decades she has been predominantly known as the ‘wife of Robert Schumann,’ her contribution to music as a performer, composer and inspiration was immense.

As a woman in a male-dominated world, she gives us a fascinating glimpse into creative relationships, and perhaps a sense of what other women could and did achieve, despite the familiar list of traditionally male historic composers.

She is to be celebrated for her own achievements, for the support she gave to Schumann and Brahms amongst others, and for the lost voices of many other women who were unable to achieve the same level of emancipation. Notably, while Clara’s work has often been marginalised by claims that her husband was the ‘real’ composer behind her work, she earned most of the money in the Schumann household, which was extremely unusual for the time, and her pieces were more popular than his.

Clara Schumann was a child prodigy. As Schumann’s wife she juggled an international solo career with motherhood to eight children, seven of whom survived infancy. She composed, promoted and inspired a vast amount of music, shaping the 19th century in a way few other artists could. 

Daughter of the ambitions piano teacher and instrument dealer, Friedrich Wieck, Clara Schumann spent the first 25 years of her life in Leipzig. Before her birth, her father had resolved that she would be a great musician. She made her concert debut in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus at the age of nine, her first complete piano recital was in 1830 (age 11) and her first extended tour to cities including Paris, Vienna, Copenhagen and St. Petersburg, was in 1831.

In 1830, Robert Schumann came to live and study with Weick. Seven years later, when Clara was 18, he asked permission to marry her. Weick objected and did all he could to prevent the wedding, but Robert and Clara went ahead, marrying the day before her 21st birthday, on September 12th 1840. 

From a modern perspective the image of the pushy father who had already decided his daughter’s career path and a man of 20 moving to live in a household where he subsequently married the daughter who had been 11 on first meeting doesn’t scream emancipation. But Clara was ambitious, and within the framework of society at the time, this path allowed her familial and creative happiness.

Her playing was said to be characterised by technical mastery, poetic spirit, thoughtful interpretation, a singing, tone, depth of feeling and strict observance of the composer’s markings. At the age of 13, she was one of the first pianists to perform from memory – standard practice amongst concert pianists today.

It was expected in the 1830s for performers to play their own compositions in recitals and Clara’s early compositions were written to show off her skills as a pianist, including writing for wide stretches up to tenths, due to her large hands.

Clara was just 13 when she began working on her Piano Concerto Op 7 and she performed it just after her 16th birthday at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. The work showcased Clara’s skill on the piano and gives the impression of improvisation. 

The work is being performance at the BBC Proms on Sunday 18thAugust at 7:30pm and will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

One reviewer commented, “If the name of a female composer were not on the title one would never think it was written by a women.” However not all reviews were positive and one critic took issue with the unconventional key changes between movements. His only explanation for this was that, “Women are moody.” Comments such as these may help to explain Clara’s insecurities about her compositions.

While Clara’s ambitions as a concert pianist and composer were naturally hindered by the responsibilities of family life (though she still managed a career total of 38 concert tours outside of Germany), Robert encouraged her to compose. Their musical discourse was intense, and they studies scores, performances and literature together. They would write diary entries to each other, chronicling a significant and intimate narrative of the lives of two artists.

In 1853, composer Johannes Brahms met the Schumanns. Brahms remained a close friend of both until their deaths, despite the fact that he was in love with Clara.

In 1854, Robert, who had various mental health problems, attempted suicide, and was, at his own request, placed in an asylum. Brahms, who at this point came to stay in their home to offer support, was allowed to visit, but Clara could not visit her husband. She did not see him again until two days before his death in 1856.

Clara was 36 when her husband died, and notably, given this personal tragedy and the loss of her creative champion, all of her compositions date from 1853 or before. She simply stopped composing.  

In later life she said:

I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?

In 1857, after her husband’s death, Clara moved to Berlin. Here, she taught, performed (she played regularly with the violinist Joseph Joachim and others) and edited Robert’s works and letters continuing to support her family.

Having had a direct influence on their compositions, she became known as both advocate and interpreter of the music of Brahms and Schumann. Brahms was always supportive of Clara’s professional career, and she was the first person to publicly perform any of his work (specifically the Andante and Scherzo from the Sonata in F minor, in Leipzig, 23 October 1854).

Clara continued to travel, whilst the children were looked after at home. In 1856 she first visited England, where critics received Robert’s music coolly. However she returned to London in 1865 and made regular appearances there in later years.

She became the authoritative editor of her husband’s compositions for Breitkopf & Härtel. It was speculated that she and Brahms destroyed many of Schumann’s late works which were tainted by his illness, but the Violin Concerto, the Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra and the Violin Sonata No. 3, all from 1853, have entered the repertoire, and only Five Pieces for Cello and Pianoare known to have been lost. She was instrumental in getting the works of Robert Schumann recognised, appreciated and added to the repertoire, promoting him tirelessly. Although when she began, his music was unknown or disliked, and the only other important figure in music to occasionally play Schumann was Liszt, she continued until the end of her long career. Those, therefore, who consider Schumann to have been influential on the 19thcentury must look to Clara for the fact that this influence has been realised. 

In 1878 Clara Schumann was honoured at a ceremony in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus to mark her 50th year as an artist.

She died on May 20th, 1896 (aged 76) in Frankfurt.

Her compositions include 29 songs, 3 partsongs, 4 pieces for piano and orchestra, 20 pieces for solo piano, and cadenzas for 3 piano concertos by Beethoven and Mozart; her works are numbered up to Op. 23, with 17 others without opus numbers. She set poetry by: Heine, Rückert, H. Rollet, E. Geibel, Kerner, F. Serre, Goethe, Lyser, and Burns (translated by Gerhard).

The Female Trailblazers : Women in Electronic Music

Electronic music is music that employs electronic and digital musical instruments and circuitry-based music technology. Pure electronic instruments like synthesisers, computers and the theremin have no sound producing mechanisms like strings or hammers, but electronic compositions also include electro-acoustic elements.

A little history

Electronic music began as early as 1913 with Luigi Russolo’s conceptualisation of the genre and development of prototype synthesisers. While the 1920s and 30s saw the introduction of more electronic instruments and compositions for them, historians credit Russolo with redirecting the development of music, redefining what music could be and how it could be produced. 

Alongside the liberating emergence of jazz, the ideas in electronic music affected the way technology was uses to mix noise and sound. These concepts subsequently fed through the work of composers like Stockhausen and Cage, and into popular music, making ‘electronic’ one of the single biggest influences on 20th century music. 

As the genre developed, artists such as Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Depeche Mode, Tiësto and Armin Van Buuren have all come to be considered as its pioneers. However, despite its modernity, electronic music seems to share an age-old and anachronistic characteristic with both its classical counterpart and with the tech industries: There’s very little acknowledgement of the contribution of female composers and performers. 

In an otherwise fairly thorough discussion of the genre, Wikipedia explains how electronic instruments offered expansions in pitch resources that were exploited by advocates of microtonal music. Examples include Charles Ives, Dimitrios Levidis, Olivier Messiaen and Edgard Varèse. Percy Grainger used the theremin to abandon fixed tonation, and Russian composers such as Gavriil Popov treated the instrument as a source of noise in otherwise-acoustic noise music.

But where are the women?

Improving the profile of women

As in classical music, much has been done in recent decades to redress the balance, and to give a voice to women composers and musicians, and this work continues.

In 1998, Austrian music producer, Techno DJ and feminist, Susanne Kirchmayr aka Electric Indigo (born 1965) launched the web-based database Female:Pressure. Female:Pressure provides an international platform for female DJs, producers and artists involved in electronic music and was created to promote mutual support and communication, and to provide a source of information about artists. The database contains links to all kinds of electronic musicians, ranging from noise, free, electro-acoustic, contemporary new and beat orientated to soundscapes, field recordings and installations.

Female:Pressure has also undertaken three studies (in 2013, 2015, 2017 and with a fourth in 2019) of electronic music festivals around the world. This research looks at numbers regarding gender and clearly demonstrates the disconnect between talent and gender equality. In 2012, only 9.2% of acts performing at festivals were female. By 2017 this had increased to 18.9% – a notable improvement, but nonetheless far short of the 75.4% representing male performers.  

Image: https://femalepressure.wordpress.com
Image: https://femalepressure.wordpress.com

As well as Female:Pressure, a number of UK websites are developing and increasing their activities. These include:

Yorkshire Sound Women Network

This website includes resources such as a lesson plan on the history of women in electronic music

Women in sound/women on sound network 

Sounding the Feminists– an Irish-based, voluntary-led collective of composers, sound artists, performers, musicologists, critics, promoters, industry professionals, organisations, and individuals, committed to promoting and publicising the creative work of female musicians.

Symposiums and events are also looking more closely at equality whilst still focusing on electronic music, art, installation work and research. In particular, the research centres at Middlesex and Goldsmiths Universities are doing important work in this area.

Some Great Women Pioneers of Electronic Music

Lituanian-born Clara Rockmore was instrumental in the development of the theremin. Mainly performing on violin and theremin, she worked alongside Léon Theremin. As she had absolute pitch – the ability to identify any note on hearing it- she helped the inventor to refine his instrument for performance use. Rockwell’s recommendations, which translated into actual modifications, included increasing the sensitivity of the pitch antenna and lowering the instrument to make the player more visible. 

The German-American pianist, Johanna M. Beyer (1888 – 1944) was the brains behind Music of the Spheres, the first known score written by a female composer entirely for electronic instruments. 

Daphne Oram (1925 – 2003) was a British composer who was involved in early experimentation with ‘musique concrete’ – a type a type of music composition that uses recorded sounds such as sounds from nature, the human voice and digitally produced noise as raw material. In this genre, sounds are often altered using audio effects and tape manipulation techniques.

Oram was also the first woman to direct an electronic music studio. She co-founded the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop Sound Effects Studio with Desmond Briscoe in 1958. And she was the first woman to design and construct an electronic musical instrument.

Wendy Carlos, born in 1939, was one of the earliest composers to promote the use of the synthesiser. Now overused, the instrument initially provided an important step in introducing electronic music to audiences. Carlos’s work can be heard in many popular movie scores including Tron, The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange. 

Delia Derbyshire (1937 – 2001) was another British musician and composer who was a pioneer at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop. She is most noted for composing the original theme for Dr. Who in 1963 – one of the first tracks ever to be produced entirely using electronic instruments. 

Suzanne Ciani (b. 1946) is an American musician, sound designer, composer, and record label executive. Initially trained as a classical pianist, she studied masters in composition, as well as taking evening classes in acoustics, the psychology of acoustics, and computer music. Before she found success as a composer, she spent some time living on the floor of Philip Glass’s basement. In the 1970’s she worked on advertisements for Coca-Cola, Merrill Lynch, AT&T and General Electric. Few people at the time understood what the Buchla synthesiser could do as it lacked a keyboard and this gave her creative freedom. The sound of a bottle of Coca-Cola being opened and poured was one of Ciani’s most widely recognised works and was used in radio and tv commercials in the late 1970s. She continued to pioneer electronic music and in June 2018, Ciani and producer KamranV released LIVE Quadraphonic, a live album documenting her first solo performance on a Buchla synthesiser in 40 years.

Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016) was an American composer and accordionist. She was central to the development of experimental and post-war electronic art music. A founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Centre, she also served as its director, and taught music at Mills College, the University of California San Diego (UCSD), Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Oliveros formulated new music theories, wrote books and explored new ways to focus attention on music including her concepts of “deep listening” and “sonic awareness”.

Other women of note include Éliane Radigue, Laurie Spiegel, Laurel Halo, Maryanne Amacher and Laetitia Sonama. Their achievements are too many to list here.

Musicians current in International Electronic Music by Country:

Ireland: Dr Ann Cleare, a composer using electroacoustics

Belgrade, Serbia: Svetlana Maras, who runs Electronic Studio Radio Belgrade

U.S.: 

Sister (electronic music composer and DJ) 

Kinds of kings– electroacoustic new music composers – 

Germany: Luz Diaz, who runs Room for Resistance, a Berlin-based queer femme forward collective focused on community-building and creating safer space & visibility for underrepresented artists in dance music.

Holland: New Emergences

Further reading:

https://mixmag.net/feature/the-women-whove-shaped-electronic-music

https://thevinylfactory.com/features/the-pioneering-women-of-electronic-music-an-interactive-timeline/

Wikipedia’s list of female electronic musicians, composers, and sound artists who work in the various genres of electronic music, and the musical groups of which they are members: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_female_electronic_musicians

This blog is written with thanks to Semay Wu for much of the information about the current position of women in electronic music.

Melody Amongst the Cacophony

June 11 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Helen Tobias-Duesberg. 

Helen Tobias-Duesberg

Tobias-Duesberg produced a large and varied body of work. She was respected by her contemporaries and her work was regularly performed, yet few recordings exist and her name is not familiar.

It would be easy to draw the obvious conclusion that this is because of her gender. The contribution of so many talented and successful women in the Arts has been marginalised. However the promotion of female composers ‘for the sake of it’ seems unhelpful in redressing the balance. It could also be argued that her origins in the former Soviet Union might play a part, though she spent most of her working life in the US. With those considerations in mind, the reason for this blog is that June 2019 marks the centenary of the birth of an interesting composer.

Born in Suure-Jaani, Estonia, then part of the Soviet Union, Helen Tobias was the youngest daughter of the composer Rudolf Tobias. She never knew her father, except through his music, as he had died from pneumonia in October 1918.

Whilst his may not be a familiar name outside of Estonia, Rudolf Tobias was noted as the first Estonian professional composer. After his death his achievements were celebrated by the erection of monuments in Haapsalu and Kullamaa, the renaming of a street in Tallinn, and his name was given to the Children’s Music School in Kärdla. In 1973, the centenary of his birth, a museum was opened in Selja, Käina Parish in the house where he was born.

Helen Tobias studied music composition at the Tallinn Conservatoire (now known as the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre). Her teachers were Artur Kapp and Heino Eller. She graduated in 1943 as an organist, and went on to further study at the Berlin University of Music.

During World War II she met Wilhelm Duesberg, a journalist who was to become her husband. He was imprisoned on numerous occasions for writing stories critical of Adolf Hitler, and died of a heart attack shortly after the war. At the time of his death he was in a Stuttgart courtroom preparing to testify against several Nazi war criminals.

In 1951, Tobias-Duesberg moved to the United States. Sources describe that it was then that she began composing music, although her training had been as a composer as well as an organist. The music she wrote was a far cry from much of the contemporary work at the time. In fact, in a swipe at the direction of classical music in the 1960’s and 70’s, Leonard Bernstein described her as a female composer who,

…dares to be original and musical at the same time, while all the men run around writing intellectual cacophony.”

He had a point. Her Requiem is described by allmusic.com thus:

A hybrid of the neo-Baroque and neo-Classical styles she absorbed in the middle decades of the twentieth century, though some aspects of Romanticism are evident in her instrumentation and presentation. Bach’s cantatas are the most pronounced influences, though Duesberg’s forays into fugue seem at times closer to Beethoven’s forceful counterpoint in his Missa Solemnis. But because this Requiem seems designed for practical use — specifically for the Estonian Bethany Church of New York — Duesberg’s use of traditional techniques is perhaps intended more for the congregation’s spiritual comfort than as a clever pastiche.

The writer also describes her shorter chamber works as “intellectually stimulating,” mentioning the “darkly chromatic Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano and the comical Suite for woodwind quintet, both of which reveal more of Duesberg’s character, since imitation of past models is replaced by her own ingenuity and craft.”


“Blessings” from Requiem:

Little is recorded about her personal life or feelings about political issues, other than the connection with her husband, but notably, during the Civil Rights Movement, she played the organ at Friendship Baptist Church in Harlem, the church where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. served as a guest preacher.

The full list of her works is extensive, and the comment from Bernstein indicates a relatively high profile, yet as previously mentioned few recordings exist. Although her work has been performed on major concert stages in the United States, Canada, and Europe as well as the Aspen, Ravinia and Spoleto festivals, her online discography reveals only two CDs; Through the Seasons, made a year after her death, and the album containing Requiem,Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, and Suite for Woodwind Quintet, recorded in 2005. Compositions include violin and cello sonatas, string quartets, song cycles, concertos, and a wide range of choral works. She also reworked and edited some of her father’s work.

Helen Tobias-Duesberg died on February 4th in the US. She was laid to rest alongside her father and grandfather in her native Estonia.


Image of the composer used as featured image is taken from: https://www.emic.ee/helen-tobias-duesberg

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