Christina Harnisch will give a piano recital at Angels Resort Porvorim on 17 February 2013 at 6.30 pm (Donation passes available at Furtados Music stores and at the door). She spoke to Navhind Times in an exclusive interview

You are the second performer in recent memory to play the works of female composers in your programme. Is this the beginning of a new interest in this often-forgotten repertoire of music?

Yes, you find more concert programmes featuring female composers. I think there is a higher interest now. There are also more organisations championing and promoting such music.

It is interesting that the previous artiste, like you, was also female. Is it fair to say that male performers are less inclined to give the spotlight to female composers, even though the compositions are of high artistic merit as is undoubtedly the case with the composers on your programme (Fanny Mendelssohn, Cecile Chaminade, Maria Szymanovska)?

I think this is true.

Szymanovska had a career as virtuoso pianist-composer much before Chopin and Liszt made it fashionable. Why are her birth and death milestones not celebrated with as much reverence and enthusiasm as theirs?

Because of the roles that women had at that time. Today it’s better but not perfect. The president of the Maria Szymanowska Society in Paris, Elisabeth Zapolska-Chapelle told us that her music wouldn’t eclipse the glory of Chopin.

Similarly Fanny Mendelssohn seems to have been eclipsed by her brother’s fame, even though their tutor Zelter had high praise for her, comparing her ability to that of “Sebastian Bach”. Indeed Felix Mendelssohn discouraged her from publishing her compositions, allegedly for “family reasons”, meaning that it would “distract” her from household matters. Was there an element of sibling rivalry here, do you think, or was this just a reflection of the prevailing attitude regarding the place of women in society at the time?

Felix and Fanny had a very good relationship. They were friends. Fanny and Felix had a great musical education. But their father was a patriarch. He was fighting against the place of women in society, reducing their role to household, family matters. The education for Fanny was a decoration. He was searching for editors for Felix, but not for Fanny. Felix had the better education than Fanny; he could undertake long journeys, meet interesting people. Fanny travelled only later in life, when she married the painter Wilhelm Hensel.

In the archives in Berlin there are still a lot of compositions by Fanny Mendelssohn that have never been published. It is known that some of her compositions were published under the name of her brother.

Only in the Mendelssohn Villa in Berlin could she organise concerts and invite many famous people such as Liszt, Clara and Robert Schumann, the brothers Grimm.

Cécile Chaminade seems to have fared better, perhaps because she lived in an age of greater emancipation for women. She was the first female composer to receive the Legion d’Honneur. Yet her colleague Ambroise Thomas paid her a rather backhanded compliment when he said of her: “This is not a woman who composes, but a composer who is a woman”. Somehow even in the early 20th century, the female composer was still seen as an oddity, as if composition were exclusively the domain of the male gender. Does the fact that her works barring a few exceptions are still obscure reflect some persistence of a male prejudice?

Yes, I think, she lived in an age of greater emancipation for women. But she was also lucky to have rich parents. The famous composer Georges Bizet, who heard some compositions she wrote at the age of eight, called her lovingly “mon petit Mozart”. He convinced her parents to pay for her private tuitions with professors of the Paris Conservatoire, as women were not allowed to study formally there. She became famous, and toured as pianist and composer, and met famous people like Queen Victoria and American President Theodore Roosevelt. In the USA women began “Chaminade Clubs”, celebrating her as a star much like today’s Madonna.

Yes, the fact that female composers are exceptions is a prejudice of men but also prejudice in society in general. But nevertheless this is in a continuous evolution.

You have devoted much time and thought to this genre, and have two CD recordings devoted to the music of women composers. Are you planning to record some more?

I have recorded two CDs and am planning two others: one with the ”Konzertstück” op.40 of Cécile Chaminade for piano and orchestra; and another with works of women composers like Cécile Chaminade, Lily Boulanger , Maria Szymanowska , Maria Theresia von Paradis, Mel Bonis etc for flute and piano together with Romano Pucci, flautist in the orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala Milan.

The Guardian some years ago addressing the issue of sexism in the male-dominated world of classical music quoted female musicians stating that gender discrimination was still “alive and kicking” in British orchestras. This seems to be still true when it comes to conductors. Just two of the 336 conductors in the history of the Metropolitan Opera have been women; 11 out of 483 conductors since the inception of the New York Philharmonic have been female. Does a similar bias still exist when it comes to composition, in terms of works getting published and performed and recorded?

Gender discrimination is still “alive and kicking”. In famous orchestras you don’t have many female musicians, or conductors. Concert programmes feature very few female composers (but there are many!!). Women must also have the idea, the desire to become musicians, conductors, composers …then they would be able to do it.


(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times on 15 February 2013)