As in other spheres, it was very difficult for women to be seen as composers and performers in the world of classical music. In many cases, these societal restrictions have meant a sad loss to the world, as so much of women’s musical work has not survived. Here, we celebrate four incredibly talented classical pianists.
Maria Anna Mozart 1751-1829
Maria was born in Salzburg. By the time she was seven years old, her father Leopold Mozart had taught her to play the harpsichord. Together with her brother Wolfgang, she toured many cities such as Paris and Vienna under the direction of Leopold. She was highly praised for her playing, often receiving top billing.
But by the time she was eighteen, she was considered of marriageable age. Both her father and the society of her time disapproved of her continuing to perform, and she was asked to cease touring, relinquish her bookings, and remain in the home. Leopold even refused to allow her to study the violin and the art of composition, declaring that women did not become composers.
Nevertheless, Maria did write some musical compositions, for they were praised by Wolfgang in his letters to her – which would go some way to confirming their musical merit – and it’s deeply sad that while her brother went on to secure such an enormously powerful legacy, none of Maria’s works have survived.
Mozart once announced at a concert that the piece he had just played was composed by his sister. Leopold angrily reminded Maria of her social position as a woman and forbade her to compose again.
She remained obedient to her father, even to the point of turning down a marriage proposal from someone she loved dearly because he didn’t approve. She did eventually marry in 1783, bearing three children whom she raised alongside her husband’s five children from two previous marriages.
When her husband died in 1801, Maria returned to Salzburg and supported herself once again by giving piano lessons. She died in 1829, age 78 years, and was buried in St Peter’s Cemetery, Salzburg.
Alma Haas 1847-1932
Alma was born in Racibórz, a town in Silesian Voivodeship in southern Poland. She was a teacher as well as a renowned pianist, giving her debut performance at the age of 14.
From the age of 10 she attended Herr Wandelt’s music school, continuing her studies in Berlin with Theodore Kullak from 1862-1867. Alma played at a Gewandhaus concert at Leipsic in 1867 and proceeded to tour the principal German cities, playing for the season in London in 1870.
She visited England again in 1871, and in 1872 Alma married Dr. Ernst Haas, professor of Sanskrit at University College, London. After her marriage, she had a ten-year career break. Noted for her interpretation of Beethoven, Alma returned to giving recitals after her husbands death in 1882.
She taught piano at Bedford College until 1886 when she was appointed as Head of the Musical department at King’s College, London. Alma was made a Professor of the Royal College of Music in 1887. She continued to give recitals and chamber concerts and died in London in 1932.
Rosina Lhévinne 1880-1976
Rosina was born in Kiev, the second daughter of prosperous Dutch Jewish parents, Maria and Jacques Bessie.
When Rosina’s piano teacher became ill, Josef Lhévinne, a talented student at the Moscow Imperial Conservatory, was recommended to the family as her teacher. Rosina later studied at the Conservatory, graduating in 1898 and winning the Gold Medal for piano, equalling Josef’s earlier success.
Later that year, Rosina and Josef were married. As Josef was already becoming established as a concert pianist, Rosina decided she must forgo her ambitions as a solo artist. Instead, she concentrated on teaching, sometimes joining her husband to play duets on two pianos.
They emigrated to New York after World War I and the Russian Revolution, both joining the Juilliard School, where she regarded herself as a preparatory teacher to her husband’s students.
Josef died in 1944 and five years later, Rosina agreed to a series of appearances as a solo artist.
In January 1963, at the age of 82 Rosina had her debut with New York Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Leonard Bernstein. She chose a piece she had played for her graduation sixty-five years earlier, Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
Rosina continued to teach at Julliard and at the University of Southern California. She died in Los Angeles at the age 96.
Philippa Schuyler 1931-1967
Philippa was born in New York in 1931. She was the daughter of George S. Schuyler, a prominent black essayist and journalist, and Josephine Cogdell, a white Texan from a former slave-owning family.
Philippa was tested at an early age and her IQ was reportedly over 180.
She began composing music at the age of five, giving piano recitals whilst still a child, performing before royalty and heads-of-state in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America.
Most of Philippa’s Texan relatives neither met nor heard her perform. Interracial marriages were illegal in Texas until 1967 and, as Philippa was an interracial child, she would not have been welcomed in that society.
Philippa became deeply disillusioned as she grew older, due to her consistent difficulties with gender and racial prejudice. In her thirties, she decided to change her career entirely and like her father, became a journalist. She became an active feminist and interestingly, though she was never short of admirers, she never married.
During a trip to Vietnam in 1967 as a war correspondent, the helicopter Philippa was travelling in crashed into the sea near Da Nang. Philippa survived the crash, but sadly drowned as she was unable to swim. Her mother never recovered from her daughter’s death and committed suicide two years later.
References include History and Women, Grande Musica and The Bridge Street History Center.
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