A Celebration of Female Composers: Emilie Mayer
Welcome to our Celebration of Female Composers series! In the lead up to our next concert, Celebrating Female Composers, on Saturday 9th March 2019, we will be profiling various female composers. Some will be featuring on the next programme, and some are just extraordinary composers that we love to listen to.
It's time for an intriguing puzzle of a composer: Emilie Mayer. Emilie was a prolific composer for a vast array of ensembles, was published and performed throughout her working years and achieved both popularity and critical acclaim, and yet information about her life is very hard to come by.
Name: Emilie Luise Friderica Mayer
Born: 14 May 1812 in Friedland
Died: 10 April 1883 in Berlin
Emilie Mayer is well out of the bounds of copyright, her work completely in the public domain. She composed eight symphonies, eight violin sonatas, twelve cello sonatas, six piano trios, seven string quartets and seven orchestral overtures. That’s not even mentioning the rest of her piano pieces and songs. She published and performed widely in her day, travelling throughout Europe, and was popularly and critically acclaimed.
Now guess how many of her symphonies have full score and parts available on IMSLP?
Not one of her symphonies has a full score and all parts available for people to explore and study. Only four are listed at all, and none are complete. The scores that are present are scans of original hand-written music, which are fortunately both very clear and absolutely fascinating. However, typesetting them into digital sheet music is a weighty task in every case.
Luckily Mayer has some superfans who are working on it. Marie, co-founder of ComposHer, recently took the score of Mayer’s Faust Overture, which had been scanned and uploaded to IMSLP, and wrote out all the parts on MuseScore. They are now freely available, and completely legible, and it’s a beautiful piece of music – have a listen to it here. ComposHer is working on doing the same with Mayer's Symphony No 1 in C Minor, and we have that to look forward to.
So how does someone who has composed so prolifically and popularly over several decades, and whose work covers a range of oeuvres and instrumentation, fall into such obscurity for more than a hundred years? Attempting to read up about Emilie Mayer online brings up a strangely small amount of information, with the brief Wikipedia entry copied and pasted almost everywhere, and several claims about her life within it uncited.
Other online articles offer a few more nuggets of information but it’s hard to dig up any primary sources. One of the most concrete-looking sources of information cited by Wikipedia is a 2003 publication by Dr Almut Runge-Woll called Die Komponistin Emilie Mayer (1812-1883): Studien zu Leben und Werk. Apparently Dr Runge-Woll has researched not only Emilie Mayer but Fanny Hensel, Ethel Smyth, Lili Boulanger and Adriana Hölszky, which would make her work of huge interest to many who love to read about unsung composers. Unfortunately this publication is in German (fair enough, given its author’s nationality, but frustratingly out of reach for us English speakers!) and comes with a dauntingly hefty price tag.
One piece of research that looks both appealingly accessible and very promising is a new film, Komponistinnen (Female Composers), which centres on the lives of four female composers: Mel Bonis, Fanny Hensel, Lili Boulanger and Emilie Mayer. Dr Runge-Woll features in the documentary. It’s currently only being shown at film festivals, none of which are scheduled in London, but hopefully at some point it will be released on DVD and might prove fascinating.
Meyer’s life may only be sketchily covered by biographers in readily available online material, but the little that is available is intriguing. Although she came from a wealthy background, she was not gentry, and there was no inherited tradition of music within her family. She nevertheless received a musical education, starting with piano lessons, and according to violinist Aleksandra Masloravic she interpreted her set musical pieces so liberally that her teacher suggested that if she was going to do that then she might as well make up her own songs. She was seven years old at the time. We highly recommend following the link above to read more about Masloravic’s research; upon reading into Mayer, she found that only one of her nine violin sonatas were in print, and worked hard to get her hands on the remaining ones. She managed all but two, which are still lost.
Mayer’s life apparently continued without major incident, but great grief was coming, and an event that would change everything. Her father committed suicide on an anniversary of her mother’s burial, when Mayer was twenty-eight years old. This seems to have marked the turning point of her life, and it presumably left her independently wealthy, as a year later in 1841 she moved to Stettin, then still in Germany but now called Szczecin in Poland, and this launched her musical career.
She became a composition student of Carl Loewe, a composer famous for his hundreds of ballads with the reputation of the “Schubert of North Germany”. Carl was apparently very impressed with her talent and took it upon himself to nurture it. During this time she composed for everything from piano to full orchestra, and by 1847 she had written two of her symphonies and had them performed.
At this time in her life she moved to Berlin to continue her studies with other teachers: Adolph Bernhard Marx for fugue and counterpoint, and Wilhelm Wieprecht for instrumentation. During this time she performed publicly and published her work, and in April 1850 her instrumentation teacher Wieprecht gave a concert with his orchestra at the Royal Theatre performing solely her compositions.
Mayer was quite an anomaly for a woman of her era. Not marrying will have freed her from some conventional restraints, but nevertheless living alone in a flat in Berlin was unusual for a woman at the time. And though her brothers accompanied her, she nevertheless travelled and performed widely throughout Europe, again quite an unusual lifestyle. But most importantly, being able to access full professional orchestras to perform her work over such a period of time was almost unprecedented for a woman at this time, and it gave her the means and opportunity to keep composing on such a scale.
Mayer’s musical development can be charted through her works, from her output in earlier periods reflecting a classical Vienna style, to later pieces that show strong romantic era influences. Her symphonies are bold and confident, and usually involve multi-layered rhythmic complexity and multiple shifts in tonality. The drama and passion in her music is as apparent as anything else written in this era, and she deserves to be programmed far more frequently. And with that we leave you with this gorgeous symphony: