19th Century Women Composers in the Spotlight

19th Century Women Composers in the Spotlight Clara Schumann Fanny Mendehlson
Agathe Backer-Grøndahl, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Clara Wieck-Schumann and Luise Adolpha LeBeau

There are relatively few women composers who have made a mark on classical music of any kind through the ages; in guitar they are practically nonexistent until the 20th century, and it is still a rarity in what has always been a heavily male-dominated field. Ryan Marquardt, a student of the University of Missouri working toward his bachelor’s degree in guitar performance, tells us, “One day it clicked in my mind: there is virtually no historical music by women for guitar. That seemed like such a shortcoming in our repertory and something that I could actually do something about, albeit indirectly.”

What he’s done is self-published a valuable new book called Women Composers of the 19th Century Arranged for Guitar Quartet, for which he took four piano works and one string quartet by four women composers from the Romantic era, and devised guitar settings for them. Two of the composers are fairly well-known by virtue of their relationship to famous male composers: Clara Wieck-Schumann (1819–1896) was the wife of Robert Schumann, and Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805–1847) was the older sister of Felix Mendelssohn-Hensel. Luise Adolpha LeBeau (1850–1927) “achieved relatively strong success for a woman of the time, particularly given the fact that she did not come from a family with a musical background,” Marquardt writes in the short biographical profile that precedes his transcription of the second movement of her String Quartet, Op. 34. The fourth is Norwegian composer and pianist Agathe Backer-Grøndahl, represented by five short pieces from a multi-part work called Fantasistykker, Op. 39, which Marquardt says is blend of German Romantic, Norwegian folk, and even some Impressionist elements.

Marquardt says that in researching the lives of these composers he was surprised to learn “how well-connected many on these women were. It is relatively known that Clara Schumann had plenty of contact with the day’s leading figures, along with her husband and their colleague Johannes Brahms. And Agathe Baker Grøndahl was around Edvard Grieg, George Bernard Shaw, Franz Liszt, and many others.”


Asked how he managed to track down the pieces in the collection, Marquardt says, “Fortunately, I was able to start with some of the work by Sylvia Glickman and Martha Furman Schleifer in their collection Women Composers: Music Through the Ages; and also [Venezuelan pianist] Rosario Marciano’s recordings [of Grøndahl]. I was able to get access to the music from libraries, and in some cases order the music from German publisher Furore Verlag. Hildegard Publishing company is another good source for people looking for women composers.”

Any disappointments along the way? “Not really a disappointment, but more of a roadblock perhaps: I had originally wanted to arrange the whole Sonata in G minor by Clara Schumann, but the many wide-ranging arpeggios made it impractical, so only the second movement, Adagio, made it into the book.”

At 156 pages, which includes the full quartet and individual part scores, plus the informative biographies and Marquardt’s performance notes before each piece, this is a substantial volume that is certain to shed new light on an overlooked sector of the music world. “It’s about bringing recognition to these composers and expanding the classical guitar’s repertory,” the author told his hometown newspaper in St. Joseph, Missouri. “Historically, women were not really allowed to compose. It was a men’s profession and it was thought that [only] men had the creative and artistic abilities to create great music.” Books such as this put the lie to that sexist notion.

To purchase the book, go to amzn.to/2uehi2M —Blair Jackson

We don’t ordinarily post non-guitar videos, but in the case of this book, we haven’t been able to find any guitar performances of any of the pieces on YouTube, so here’s a piano version of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s Melodie, Op. 5 No. 4. You’ll have to use your imagination to picture it as a guitar quartet piece!