The first half of the nineteenth century was a time of unparalleled development in the history of Western music. Many of today’s best-loved classics—from Beethoven’s symphonies to Chopin’s heartrending nocturnes—were composed in the years between 1800 and 1850. A music lover would be hard-pressed to find any contemporary symphony orchestra that did not include a significant number of pieces from this era in their yearly programs.
But how often do these programs include music composed by women? The short answer is: very rarely. And yet a quick Internet search for women composers in the nineteenth century yields a surprising number of results. Women played an integral role in the development of Western classical music—as performers, as critics, as salon hostesses, and yes, as composers. Their stories deserve to be told.
The lives of three women composers influenced me as I wrote A Woman of Note: Clara Schumann (née Wieck), Fanny Mendelssohn, and Louise Farrenc.
Clara Schumann is often remembered primarily as the wife of composer Robert Schumann. However, in her time, Clara was as well known as Liszt and Chopin for her formidable skills as a concert pianist—and she was more well known then her husband, Robert. A mother of seven children, Clara’s successful career on the concert stages of Europe lasted for several decades. In recent years, her wonderful compositions are once again enchanting audiences. Her hauntingly beautiful Trois Romances was the inspiration for the romances composed by Isabette.
Fanny Mendelssohn, the elder sister of her more famous brother, Felix, received the same musical training as her brother and was considered equally talented. As a woman from an upper-class family in Berlin, Fanny was not permitted to pursue a professional career in music. However, Fanny was at the center of a very musical circle and composed prolifically. She also advised her brother about his compositions.
Louise Farrenc came from a distinguished family of Parisian artists who encouraged her musical talents. She married a music publisher in 1821 and resumed a concert career in Paris in the 1830s. She was also a highly praised composer, and became the first and only woman appointed as a professor of music at the Paris Conservatory. Madame Farrenc makes a cameo appearance in A Woman of Note.
A Woman of Note is a work of fiction. Isabette Grüber never existed, and all her encounters with real people—Schubert, Berlioz, Chopin, and Louise Farrenc—are imaginary. Isabette Grüber’s story is the story of a serious young woman who cares passionately about music. Her story is of all creative people who strive to share their artistic expressions with the world.