Worthy of the Canon: Romantic Cello Sonatas by Women

November 15, 2021


In 1882, Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850–1927) won the first prize in an international competition in Hamburg, surprising the judges because of her gender. As a result, music journalists began publishing biographies of her across Germany, she received an honorary membership at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and her opera Hadumoth was performed in Baden-Baden in 1894. In 1903, Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) became the first woman composer to have an opera performed at the Metropolitan Opera, with this production breaking their box office record for that year. Smyth was also the first female composer to receive a damehood and was awarded several honorary doctorates, including one from Oxford. Finally, Countess Dora Pejačević (1885–1923) is notable as one of the first Croatians to produce a symphony and a piano concerto, and according to her biographer Koraljka Kos (2008), she was also the first of her compatriots to delve deeply into chamber music. 

In spite of such honors and breakthroughs during the lifetimes of these women composers, their music is seldom performed on today’s mainstream Classical music stages. This article seeks to broaden the listening public’s perspective by considering their achievements via an examination of three of their cello works: (1) Le Beau’s Cello Sonata in D Major, op. 17; (2) Smyth’s Sonata in A Minor, op. 5; and (3) Pejačević’s Sonata in E Minor, op. 35. There will be a brief overview of Romantic cello sonatas by composers who wrote for the genre roughly at the same age as these women, and an inquiry into possible reasons as to why their music has been excluded from the canon. Beyond the usual misogyny, other issues will be considered as to why these works are not better known today.

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