MUSIC Orietta Caianello’s concert featured only women composers

Italian pianist Orietta Caianello’s recital for the International Arts and Music Society was unusual, consisting entirely of women composers, though Caianello is not an avowed feminist. The Feminist Movement that was at its height in the ‘90s, lost much of its strident momentum, focus shifting to Women’s Studies, yielding rich results. Research, mainly in America, has recovered women composers who have languished in obscurity for centuries. “I got interested in them and this programme is the result of two years of my research”. She introduced her recital with detailed information about how women musicians were constrained by social limitations, traditional expectations and lack of musical education.

The programme’s concentration on minor composers rendered it somewhat limited, though the music was enjoyable and well served by Caianello’s technique and commitment. Interestingly enough, not one of the pieces betrayed any gender bias; nothing singled them out as being particularly ‘feminine’.

Marianne von Martinez’s two Sonatas were written in the prevailing Viennese galant fashion of three movements. She was tutored by the young Haydn and her works resemble his early sonatas. Though she was also the only woman to have composed a symphony in that period, it is unlikely Haydn would have regarded her as competition. The E major Sonata was more lively and complex than the A major , though neither was technically taxing. Their spare textures and modest elaboration made them merely pleasant and genteel, though restraint was also forced on them by the limited keyboard, as the instrument had not yet developed into the modern piano.

In late 18th Vienna and Paris, Keyboard Variations were a popular way of teaching composition and technique. Mozart developed an ideal form, posing keyboard problems that focussed on style, mode and tempo. A pupil of Mozart’s, Josepha von Auernhammer joined him in piano duets, one of which he wrote for her. Auernhammer chose Mozart’s playful aria from The Magic Flute to compose her delightful Six Variations . Her Variations on a Hungarian theme also had a tongue-in-cheek quality, with much crossing of hands. A mocking irony was evident in her Variations: since her music was not going to be taken seriously, she would indulge in self-parody.

Clara Schumann’s Variations Op. 20 on a theme of Robert Schumann was altogether more sombre. The wistful opening statement soon developed Romantic passion, the power in some passages by no means softly feminine. The melancholy of the original theme in minor key and its treatment by Clara, underlines the pathos of both the Schumanns. He was slipping into insanity and she was trapped by domestic burdens, caring for eight children and a mental convalescent. Her desperation is evident: “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. There is not even one little hour in the whole day for myself.... I would sometimes like to strike my dumb head.”

She was also frustrated by gender circumstances, being an adjunct to her more famous husband. He had first access to the only piano in the house, so that she had little opportunity for playing and composing. Her situation is a justifiable case for Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own – preferably furnished with a piano! A virtuoso performer [she was one of the first pianists to play concerts from memory, making it standard practice] influenced contemporaries and inspired Brahms. Despite 61 years of contributing so much to musical life, she faded into comparative obscurity till her rediscovery.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel is another woman musician who was defined by contemporary male narratives. Though her liberal, cultured and wealthy father tolerated her musical talents, he did not support or promote his daughter as he did his son Felix. Father Mendelssohn asserted that music for women “can and must only be an ornament, never the basis of your being and doing.” In the marriage market, accomplishment attracted but brilliance detracted! Fortunately, her artist husband was more encouraging and Fanny was among the first female composers to have their works published. Her poetic music has much of the melodic charm for which her brother Felix is famous. He often used her as a sounding board for his own musical compositions. Modern scholarship even suggests that her series of Songs Without Words preceded his.

Caianello was equal to the most technically demanding piece in the programme, bringing requisite urgency to the dramatic first movement of Fanny’s Sonata in G minor . It developed with Romantic flourish into melodic lyricism, the finale expressively tender, its intimacy the hallmark of early Romantic piano music. It was a fitting end to this niche repertoire, as Fanny Mendelssohn lived to witness an increasing degree of acceptance of women in a male-dominated artistic profession.