Giving women in music a voice: ‘There’s a hierarchy that you always feel’

Why are so many male composers celebrated for their genius while their female counterparts sink into oblivion? Why are women in music so understudied? The Voices of Women project aims to give them the spotlight they deserve.  

The grave tone of a saxophone breaks the silence in the packed Merlot basement café. Soon after, it’s joined by a soft singing voice. Some of the people in the audience close their eyes to take in the music.

The performance by singer Renske de Boer and saxophonist Gabija Bartulytė capped the first day of the Voices of Women conference in Groningen, which took place last Thursday and Friday. Its main goal: to raise cultural awareness of women’s musical and creative output.

If someone would ask you to list some famous music composers, you would probably instantly think about the likes of Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, and Beethoven. But how many have heard of Fanny Mendelssohn? As talented as her brother Felix, but never given much of a podium – a number of her works were even originally published under Felix’s name. Or Clara Schumann, the wife of Robert Schumann and herself one of the most distinguished pianists of her time?

Gatekeepers

‘Often, women who enter the canon get help from their fathers, brothers, or teachers who discovered them. They always needed helpers or gatekeepers’, says associate professor of European languages and cultures Petra Broomans, who organised the conference with UG colleagues Janke Klok and Kristin McGee. ‘But even then, very often they would be forgotten; they were lost in history.’ 

The final act of the walking concert: Lena Hasselman and Bettina Smith accompanied by Lise K. Meling on harpsichord. Photo by Zuzana L’udviková

Last week’s conference was part of a joint project by the University of Groningen, the University of Stavanger, the Arctic University of Norway, and the University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar. Together, they not only want to showcase women’s compositions, but they also aim to remedy the lack of attention to female voices within academic and professional fields.

‘The scope of the project is broader than just discovering lost female composers’, says Broomans. ‘It’s very important for mutual understanding between men and women, but also between different ethnicities and their cultures.’ 

Concert

The two-day conference consisted of lectures, workshops and masterclasses, with guest speakers from diverse backgrounds in academia as well as the professional music sector. The highlight, however, was Thursday’s ‘walking concert’, with three performances in two locations in Groningen. 

The Merlot concert started off the evening, with De Boer and Bartulytė’s musical improvisation inspired by the book Women Who Run with the Wolves, written by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Its main theme is the wild woman archetype, which is compared to an endangered species due to the external pressures of a patriarchal society. 

Cat lady

‘Women artists usually have a lot of similar experiences. There’s a hierarchy that you always feel’, according to De Boer. ‘People are scared of free, independent women’, adds Bartulytė. ‘An independent man is like George Clooney, while an independent woman is just a crazy cat lady.’ 

‘I think it’s an excellent idea that the conference is not just lectures, text and presentation of ideas, but also an expression of women and their place in society’, says audience member Anjana Singh with the UG’s history department. ‘We live in an illusion in Western society that everything is already equal, but there are still many structures that oppress women and we need to talk about that.’

Viola Blache singing and Wilma Pistorius on cello. Photo by Zuzana L’udviková

Nederlands

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