Early Music Festival Utrecht 26: female composers

Apart from workshops, lectures, concerts, this yearly Early Music Festival which takes place in Utrecht, also hosts a market. Since the festival moved back to the modernised Tivoli-Vredenburg building, it also moved to this building. This market takes place during the festival’s last weekend, early September.

Where the participants used to fill a whole church, the nearly 100 stalls now sprawl over several floors of the modern building. There are musical instrument builders from various countries, who show examples of replicas they create. You can order your copy on the spot, or try out a few instruments. There are regular demos on replica instruments, but also stalls selling CDs, sheet music – anything to do with music.

I’m always drawn to lutes, harps, harpsichords. Maybe you dream of playing horns of all sizes, producing noise at various pitches and levels, or prefer recorders and flutes made from wood or metal, even clay. There are percussion instruments and a great many others which are no longer part of a regular orchestra.

This year, after admiring a few piano-predecessors (still too expensive to afford), as well as mr Hüttel’s harps (still not sure a harp is for me), I spent a long time browsing the sheet music stalls. At the last stall, selling sheet music and books, something caught my eye.

I pulled it out and had a look: too complicated for me to play, but nevertheless a fascinating piece. It had been composed a while ago, by one Fanny Hensel. Fanny Hensel? I frowned, then – on reading her maiden name – had my “Aha-Erlebnis”.

She is no other than Fanny Mendelssohn Bartholdy! Yes: Felix’ sister was also talented, also a pianist, also composed. But being a woman, she is not as famous as her brother. Her music is hardly known by the general public – though she composed over 450 pieces.

When Renate Matthei established Furore Verlag in 1986, her aim was to change all this. Not just for Fanny, but for all female composers. Renate Matthei started to publish books about and music composed by female composers. For we may be living in the 21st century, too many female composers from the past centuries remain obscure, or totally written out of history.

Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn Bartholdy is just one example. Fortunately, music composed by her and other female composers can now occasionally be heard during festivals like this Early Music Festival in Utrecht. Thus, it was during one of the nearly thirty Early Music Festivals, that I first heard pieces by Clara Wieck and Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet.

In case you now raise an eyebrow or two: Elisabeth-Claude was a famous harpsichord player and composer at the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Until she married fellow musician Marin de La Guerre and had to leave court. She did continue to teach, compose, perform, though.

You are probably more familiar with Clara Wieck. Under her married name of Clara Schumann, of course. And probably because she was married to Robert Schumann and a close friend of Brahms. Not because, like Elisabeth-Claude, Clara was a child prodigy, or because you regularly hear her compositions or play them.

And what about that other composer Brahms so much admired and liked? The English Ethel Smyth? Does not ring a bell either, one suspects. Like other works about and by female composers, Ethel Smyth’s memoirs were translated and published by Furore Verlag. The publishing house may also help you find compositions by the German novelist Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Lili Boulanger, Marianne Stoll, or the sheet music of “Al all, at all” composed by Vivienne Olive based on a poem by Anne Sexton – to give a few examples.

This year’s Early Music Festival concentrated on English music and Tallis. Next year’s theme has already been decided. No idea when a future Early Music Festival will finally focus on female composers – and solely female composers – from the Middle Ages (Hildegard von Bingen and others), via the Renaissance (Queen Elizabeth I claimed to compose dance music) right up to the Romantic female composers and contemporaries of Fanny and Clara.

By the way: still wondering if a virginal, viola da mano, theorbo, or dulcian might be your thing? Heed mr Claus Hüttel’s advice: “Arrange lessons and start playing! Age doesn’t matter, you can start any time and the sooner the better!” So when will you arrange lessons and start mastering the – or another – musical instrument of your dreams? It’s not about filling a Carnegie Hall like “Marguerite”; but about realising your unfulfilled artistic dream which simply refuses to die!

Furore Verlag Kassel
Claus H. Hüttel historical harps
The Early Music Shop


2 thoughts on “Early Music Festival Utrecht 26: female composers

  1. Hi there,
    I was delighted to find your blog, with lots of lovely entries on the Early Music Festival Utrecht. I will be attending for the first time this year, and am so excited! So far I’ve read all your blog entries about the 2015 festival, and I still have the 2014 festival to read about. It has given me a much better idea of what to expect and how to navigate the festival – especially getting tickets for the Fringe concerts. Thanks so much!

    • Dear Jean,
      Thank you for your nice remark. Ticket-sales for the ordinary concerts have already started!
      This year’s theme is “La Serenissima” – so lots of lovely Venetian music, I hope.
      The schedule for all the delicious Fringe concerts will not be published till late July or early August.
      For the official website, search Utrecht Early Music Festival 2016.
      This website has lots of info as well as schedule.

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