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Wives of the Composers

By Arthur Elson
Among the women who have influenced music without actually creating it, none have had greater chances to use their power than the wives of the famous composers.

Often they have been endowed with no inconsiderable musical genius themselves, but have sacrificed their claim to renown upon the altar of domestic duty. Sometimes, in rare instances, they have had the ability to perform the double task of caring for the household and continuing their own musical labours. Their story is an interesting one, and from the time of the great John Sebastian Bach, who stands as a model of domestic purity, down even to the present day, they have played a large part in shaping the musical destinies of the world.

From the twelfth to the seventeenth century is a long gap, and music underwent many changes during this period. After the passing of the minstrel knights, popular music fades out of sight. That it had an existence, however, is amply proven. The Jongleurs must have continued long after their masters were stamped out, for their direct successors are with us to-day, and our hand-organ is the descendant of their fearful and wonderful organistrum. The entire school of English national music saw its palmiest days during this epoch. Even on the Continent, the great schools of contrapuntists delighted to show their skill by employing as their cantus firmus, or chief part, some well-known popular song, such as "L'Homme Armé," for example.

In Germany, the mantle of the Minnesingers fell upon the guilds of musical amateurs in the growing commercial cities. Less poetic than their predecessors, these Mastersingers, as they named themselves, often took refuge in arbitrary rules and set metrical forms that made a poor substitute for real inspiration. That there was some genuine poetic feeling and humour among them is shown by the work of Hans Sachs, the greatest of their number. He wrote many poems and plays, of which the "Fassnachtspiele" were the most popular and the most mirth-provoking. Contrary to the version of his life given in Wagner's opera, he succeeded in making a second marriage late in life; and contrary to the general experience in such cases, the marriage was a happy one, for his young wife was exceedingly proud of her famous husband. But in the actual creative work of the Mastersingers woman played no part.

Sacred music and the science of composition flourished as never before. There is an appropriate saying that old music was horizontal, while now it is vertical; and the contrast between the interweaving of parts, proceeding smoothly together, and our single melodies supported by massive chords, is aptly illustrated by the remark. This very interweaving led to a style of music that was extremely complex, affording chances for intellectual and mathematical skill rather than emotional fervour. It has been customary to say that this style of composition was unsuited to women, and to pass over the epoch with the casual remark that no women composers appear within its limits. But modern research has shown the futility of this statement.

The records of the Netherland schools are meagre, so it is to Italy that we must turn for the earliest examples of skilled women composers. The first great name is that of Maddalena Casulana, who was born at Brescia about 1540. Her published compositions took the shape of two volumes of madrigals, issued in 1568 and 1583. Next in point of time comes Vittoria Aleotti, a native of Argenta. Her magnum opus was published at Venice, in 1593, under the flowery title, "Ghirlanda dei Madrigali a 4 Voci." Francesca Baglioncella, born at Perugia in the same century, is another exponent of the art, while Orsina Vizzani, who first saw the light of day at Bologna in 1593, not only composed many pieces in this form, but by playing her own and others' works did much to make it popular with all music-lovers in Italy.

The year 1600 saw the beginning of opera, due to the work of Peri and his Florentine compeers in trying to—

"Revive the just designs of Greece."

Among the early operatic composers is found the charming and accomplished Francesca Caccini, daughter of that Giulio Caccini who was Peri's friend and most formidable rival. Born at Florence in 1581, and educated in the most thorough manner, she was for many years the idol of her native city, not only because of her great talent in singing and composition, but also on account of the exquisite beauty of her Latin and Tuscan poetry. Among other musical works by her are two examples of the new form,—"La Liberazione di Ruggiero" and "Rinaldo Innamorato,"—both of which are preserved to us. A later composer in the same field was Barbara Strozzi, whose opera, "Diporti d'Euterpe," was successfully received at Venice in 1659. In Ricordi's modern collection of old Italian songs are some charming examples of her skill in other directions.

In the domain of Italian sacred music, too, the women were not inactive. Catterina Assandra, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, wrote a number of religious works, of which "Veni Sancte Spiritus," for two voices, achieved more than passing fame. Margarita Cozzolani and Lucrezia Orsina Vezzana, both Catholic sisters, won renown by their motets and other sacred works. Cornelia Calegari, born at Bergamo in 1644, won the plaudits of her nation by her wonderful singing and organ-playing, as well as by her many compositions. Her first book of motets was published in her fifteenth year, and met with universal success. The highest forms possessed no difficulties for her, and among her works are several masses for six voices, with instrumental accompaniment. These names are enough to show that woman was able to hold her own, even in a period when music had apparently banished those emotional qualities with which she is said to be most in sympathy.

The women of other countries were not idle in this period of musical activity. Germany, in spite of her meagre records, can show at least one great name. Madelka Bariona, who lived during the sixteenth century, upheld the musical reputation of her country by publishing seven five-voiced psalms at Altdorf, in 1586. Bernarda Ferreira de Lacerda was of Portuguese nationality. She won great renown by her writings and her knowledge of languages. Philip II. of Spain wished to entrust her with the education of his children, but she declined, alleging as her reason that she wished to devote all her time to study. Many of her manuscript compositions and musical writings are preserved in the Royal Library at Madrid.

France can boast of a real genius in Clementine de Bourges, who was born at Lyons in the sixteenth century. Such authorities as Mendel and Grove accord her a rank with the very greatest of her time. She held a high position among the intellectual leaders of that day, as much by her great learning as by her musical skill. She shows complete mastery of many instruments, and her gifts in composition are amply proven by her four-part chorus, which can be found in J. Paix's organ collection. Her career was brought to an untimely end by grief. She was engaged to Jean de Peyrat, a royal officer, who met his death in a skirmish with the Huguenots in 1560. Her sorrow at this disaster proved incurable, and she died in the next year.

Although the unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots, belongs to a more northern land, the credit of her talents may be fairly accorded to France, where she received her education. She made no musical attempts in the more ambitious forms, but wrote many songs, among which "Las! en mon doux Printemps" and "Monsieur le Provost des Marchands" met with considerable success in their day.


Ludwig Spohr was another composer who possessed a musical wife. He came of a musical family, his father being a flutist, while his mother played the piano and sang. Ludwig took up the violin at five years of age, and at six was able to take part in concerted music. His compositions began at about the same time. After a youth of earnest study, long practice, and successful tours, he finally became leader in the band of the Duke of Gotha. It was there that he met Dorette Scheidler, the famous harpist, whom he afterward married. Her influence is seen in his later compositions, for he wrote for her a number of sonatas for harp and violin, as well as a good many harp solos. The musical pair went on many tours, always sharing the honours of the performances.

Among other composers gifted with musical wives, the most preëminent was Richard Strauss. As Clara Schumann did perform her husband's works, so the wife of Strauss, who was an excellent singer, was at her best when giving her husband's songs. Like Grieg's wife, she was more successful than all other singers in this rôle of domestic devotion. She did usually appear with him as accompanist, a position in which he excelled, and each of them modestly tried to make the other respond to the applause that was following their unique performance.