Critical Perception and the Woman Composer: The Early Reception of Piano Concertos by Clara Wieck Schumann and Amy Beach

Macdonald, Claudia

Though lauded by contemporaneous audiences, neither Clara Wieck Schumann's Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 7 (1833-35), nor Amy Beach's Piano Concerto in C♯ Minor, Op. 45 (1900) is among the standard repertory today. Both pieces were closely associated with the women who composed and performed them; and, while women then enjoyed acceptance as performers, critics tended to view women composers with reservations and judged their work accordingly.

In 1835-38 Wieck performed her Concerto to enthusiastic audiences in Germany and Austria. Reviewers, by contrast, criticized the work's design, blaming its unusual harmonic movement on the capriciousness of the female sex. Although elements of its experimental design lend the Concerto
an improvisatory quality, closer examination shows that it is tightly structured harmonically, thematically, and formally. Its innovations, far from being dictated by Wieck's gender, are found in concertos by Mendelssohn and Moscheles. Wieck defended her Concerto saying that it
appealed to her audiences, who well may have warmed to the very improvisatory
quality the critics condemned.

Audience reception of Beach's Concerto was also favorable when she gave its premiere in 1900, but reviewers were patronizing, suggesting she had overreached the bounds of her sex and needed tutoring in her craft. On grounds that later became irrelevant, they faulted the form and the
balance between soloist and orchestra, and passed over the thematic cohesiveness
and harmonic richness that likely attracted her audiences. Critical opinion changed when Beach played the Concerto in Germany and throughout the United States in 1913-17, but this was more an acknowledgment of her growing fame than a reappraisal of the work itself.



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Columbia University
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January 29, 2015