The Women of Mozart's Day

Johanna Doderer, above, wrote a new work based on Mozart's letters; Christine Schornsheim played a concerto by Nannette von Schaden.
Johanna Doderer, above, wrote a new work based on Mozart's letters; Christine Schornsheim played a concerto by Nannette von Schaden. (By Dimo Dimov)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

AUGSBURG, Germany, June 3 -- She was called one of the best pianists of her day. The illegitimate daughter of a Salzburg aristocrat, she was raised in cosmopolitan Vienna, married at 16, and came to this more tranquil region as a proverbial big fish in a small pond. Lively, pretty and a little lazy (her best friend called her "a crazy woman"), she dabbled in composition in addition to performing, collaborating with the composer Antonio Rosetti, a close friend, on a major piano concerto in 1788. It had its first documented performance here Friday night.

Her name was Nannette von Schaden, and there is no reason you would recognize it. Her story is representative of female composers in Mozart's day: writing a few pieces of music as a supplement to performing; active in their youths but later pulled away by family demands (von Schaden does not seem to have performed for the last 30 years of her life); now forgotten. This year's Mozart festival in this small city, from Wednesday to Sunday, set out less to change this state of affairs than to document it by creating a fuller picture of the musical landscape of the period, with women as a significant component.

It certainly created a period flavor. Some concerts were held in the shining Festsaal (festival hall) of the Schaezlerpalais on the main street here, a rococo confection of shining mirrors framed in scrolls of gilt plasterwork, built in 1770 and -- a rarity in a city heavily damaged by World War II bombs -- virtually untouched since. In fact, the hall has neither electrical sockets nor heat nor air conditioning.

In this space, on original instruments, a beguiling chamber program Thursday night began and ended with trios by the most famous Bach of that period, Carl Philipp Emanuel, whose popularity far overshadowed that of his father, Johann Sebastian. The program also included works by other noted composers of the day, Franz Danzi and Mozart, as well as Anna Bon di Venezia, Franziska Lebrun (a renowned opera diva once painted by Gainsborough) and Marianne Auenbrugger, who was, on the evidence of the sonata played here, a strong musical personality -- though this is the only surviving evidence; she died at 23.

It would be inaccurate to claim that women had the same influence as men, or to hail all of these works as undiscovered masterpieces. (Lebrun's sonata for fortepiano and violin was especially schoolgirlish -- a disappointment, since her two sets of sonatas were among the most popular works written by a woman after they first appeared in 1780.) But it is also inaccurate to perpetuate the idea that women had no role beyond representing the target audience for piano builders and music publishers.

Marianna Martines, the most frequently cited female composer of the time, was one who took on the larger-scale musical forms that were generally thought to be beyond the abilities of a woman; Sunday night's concert included an organ concerto (in what was billed as its first performance) and excerpts of an oratorio ("Isacco Figura del Redentore"). Two of the most important piano soloists in late-18th-century Vienna were women: Maria Theresa von Paradis (a blind prodigy who toured Europe) and Josepha von Auernhammer. And the male composers now remembered as the "greats" of the Classical period all refer, in their correspondence, to hugely talented female students. Haydn said Auenbrugger was on the level of the greatest masters.

Posterity further downplayed women's contributions. While 18th-century music lexicons are filled with entries about women, the numbers in the 19th century are sharply reduced. Take Nannette Stein Streicher, represented at this festival through two short marches. Streicher's father, Johann Andreas Stein, was one of the leading piano builders in Europe; his workshop was just down the street from the Schaezlerpalais, and Nannette grew up here, performing as a child prodigy (Mozart was critical of her style, though he thought she had "genius") and learning her father's craft. When he died, she took over his business and moved it to Vienna, where it became a strong presence in a crowded field.

Streicher and her husband were friends of Beethoven, knew Haydn and passed their knowledge on to their son, Johann Baptist Streicher, who brought the firm to new heights in the 19th century (Brahms had one of his pianos). While Streicher gets her due in 18th-century publications, many later ones name her husband, rather than her, as the piano builder. The true story was outlined in a talk Thursday night by Uta Goebl-Streicher, Streicher's great-great-great-granddaughter.

Though Augsburg was a powerful city in the Middle Ages, it is today overshadowed by Munich, half an hour away by rapid train. And although Leopold Mozart grew up here, the city's attempts to brand itself as "the German Mozart City" seem like a bit of a stretch, since Mozart himself was here for only a matter of weeks over the years. In any case, it was a pleasure to find this small festival so intelligently put together, with outstanding programming of unusual repertory and some fine early-music performers (La Stagione Consort and the pianist Wolfgang Brunner, among others).

To broaden its appeal, the festival found a conceit to justify its presentation of women: It was predicated on the 250th birthday of Mozart's cousin Maria Anna Thekla Mozart, called "Bäsle," whom he met when he was here in 1777 and to whom he subsequently wrote a number of earthy, off-color, uninhibited letters that have gone down in history as the "Bäsle-Briefe." The festival commissioned three new works meant to represent Bäsle's lost answers. One of these, "Mon cher cousin," by Johanna Doderer, certainly represented a strong woman's voice: If the text of her piece for mezzo-soprano and orchestra was silly, her music was so strong and colorful that it rather disturbed the delicate balance of the Classical-era works that made up the rest of Wednesday's opening-night concert.

There was also a predominance of female soloists, including the strong pianist Christine Schornsheim, who together with L'Orfeo Barockorchester played von Schaden's concerto on a pianoforte that was copied from a Stein original. The piece itself was striking; its second movement, in particular, anticipates the 19th century in its probing harmonies. But the question of authorship remains. Von Schaden was not an orchestral composer, and Rosetti was an unusually fine one, so it is probable that she was responsible for the solo line, he for the orchestration.

Does this undercut the cause of women or support it? The festival provided more evidence that there is no simple answer to this question.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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