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Music museums kept only for men?

Museums and exhibitions seem to be thriving in most places across Europe at the moment, with virtually every reasonable sized town and city having at least one. A number of these museums are related to music, ranging from musical instrument museums (e.g. Brussels, Ediburgh), pop music museums (Liverpool) and sound phenomena museums (Vienna). Perhaps the most common types of musical museums though are the houses of, or museums dedicated to, specific composers, particularly those of Western Art music. Below is a list of composers that have houses or museums dedicated to them across Europe (there are also some lesser known ones that I haven’t included).

Beethoven (Austria, Germany and Hungary)

Bruckner (Austria)

Brahms (Austria and Germany)

Haydn (Austria)

Mozart (Austria and Germany)

Schubert (Austria)

Johann Strauss (Austria)

Schoenberg (Austria)

Liszt (Austria, Germany and Hungary)

Dvorak (Czech Republic)

Janacek (Czech Republic)

Smetana (Czech Republic)

Nielsen (Denmark)

Chopin (France and Poland)

Berlioz (France)

Debussy (France)

Satie (France)

Robert and Clara Schumann (Germany)

Weber (Germany)

Wagner (Germany, Switzerland)

Handel (Germany)

Mendelssohn (Germany)

Bach (Germany)

Bartok (Hungary)

Mahler (Italy)

Verdi (Italy)

Puccini (Italy)

Greig (Norway)

Rimsky-Korsakov (Russia)

Tchaikovksy (Russia)

On this list, there are 30 male composers who have museums dedicated to them but only one woman: Clara Schumann. You may say that is because the male composers are all more famous than any other female or non-binary ones, but surely Amy Beach, Fanny Hensel, Ethel Smyth and others are well known and are worthy of having their life’s work shared and told in a museum.

Fanny Hensel composed over 460 pieces of music, Beach wrote about 150 songs as well as other instrumental music, while Ethel Smyth wrote about 175 works including The March of the Women for the suffragette movement and her opera Der Wald which was for more than a century the only opera by a woman composer ever produced at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. In comparison, Smetana wrote around 150 works and Nielsen about 190, both of whom have their own dedicated museums and appear on the list above. Based on these figures, it seems wrong that these male composers should have museums dedicated to them while Fanny Hensel, for example, does not.

This summer, I travelled to Leipzig and visited several museums including the Bach Museum, the Mendelssohn House and the Schumann House. At the time the Bach Museum, as well as all the permanent information on Bach, was holding a temporary exhibition about three women in music: Anna Magdalena Bach, Clara Wieck (later Schumann) and Fanny Mendelssohn (later Hensel). The exhibition was very informative on all three musicians and especially highlighted the difficulties for women to become professional musicians: by law they needed either their father or husband’s consent, and often also had to consider their role as a mother. The exhibition itself was a great idea and I hope many more people now know more about Clara, Fanny and Anna, and are encouraged to find out about other female musicians. However, there was also a bittersweet feeling about the exhibition given its temporary nature and the fact that it squeezed the retelling of three extraordinary women’s lives into one room, while the rest of the museum remained dedicated to a single male composer. The Schumann House was better in this respect as it was dedicated equally to Robert and Clara Schumann, featuring works by both of them and actually concentrating a lot on Clara’s musical education, even more so than Robert’s. The Mendelssohn House also had a large section on Fanny Mendelssohn, particularly focusing on letters from her father, who stated that the only profession open to a maiden was “that of a housewife”. However, again it is still only one section of a house otherwise devoted to Felix Mendelssohn.

There has been no shortage of female and non-binary composers over the centuries and this is becoming increasingly evident. Works by female and non-binary composers are now being programmed in concerts, liturgical services and starting to be included more prominently in music history books and education systems. There is no doubt that their music is worth hearing and teaching about or that their stories are worth writing, so why not go a step further and give them a sacred place in our museum culture that we seem to love so dearly? Including more female and non-binary composers in general music mueseums is at least a start, but any other museums on specific composers, to change the ratio of 30:1 on the above list, can and should be created and supported.

Parallels can be drawn with female artists, who historically have also struggled to get their work displayed in galleries, as museums deemed it unnecessary include their works. Over the past few years though museums have begun to redress this gender imbalance and now the work of female artists in galleries has advanced much further than that of female and non-binary composers in museums. This is evident even by a simple Google search for “musician exhibitions as female musicians” - the first page of results is all about art, not music. Therefore music museums should be trying to follow in the footsteps of these art galleries and exhibitions to redress the gender imbalance in the composers they represent.

In fact, addressing gender imbalance and bringing it to light in museums is topical in Cambridge at the moment as the University Library hosts the exhibition The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge. It showcases the history of women at the University, the marginalisations they were subject to, and the ongoing fights for equal educational rights, recognition and inclusion in university activities and careers. The exhibition only runs until March 2020 and I would strongly recommend going to see it as it shows interesting and important stories that don’t get anywhere near as much of the recognition that they deserve in museums and elsewhere (much like female and non-binary composers).

The Minerva festival is a Cambridge-wide festival celebrating the music of women and non-binary people and has its launch concert this Saturday at 8pm in Jesus College Chapel. This concert is then followed by around 30 other recitals, talks, exhibitions and evensongs, throughout January to March, including one on Sunday 26th at 8.30pm in Selwyn Hall, featuring music by Clara Schumann. Events can be found on the Minerva website and Facebook page, and hopefully coming to any of these events will prove to you the importance of including and exploring these and many other female and non-binary composers in our museums.

Written by Abigail Birch

Edited by Zak Price

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