Women composers continue to feature on the North East’s musical scene this spring, with works by Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn appearing in a programme announced last week by the Sage, Gateshead.
Royal Northern Sinfonia’s (RNS) principal conductor Dinis Sousa and leader Maria Włoszczowska will celebrate the talents and connections of the famous musical families, the Schumanns and Mendelssohns, at a concert on 3 June.
As well as three violin sonatas by their respective kinsmen, Robert and Felix, the programme will feature a selection of songs by the two women who, as the Sage says, were both talented composers in their own right but are often overlooked by history.
News of the event comes hot on the heels of the announcement of a concert at the King’s Hall, Newcastle University, in March, featuring the 18th century English composer Elizabeth Turner, among others, reported here on 31 January.
Exploring the connections between the Schumanns and Mendelssohns leads one to the city of Leipzig, in former East Germany, which has long been one of the country’s most important musical centres. It has a proud cultural tradition, dating particularly from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Clara Wieck was born in Leipzig in 1819 and Robert Schumann moved there in 1828 as a reluctant law student. The couple married in 1840 after Robert went to court to get Clara’s father’s objection overruled. They spent the first four happy years of married life in Leipzig before moving on.
Robert’s physical and mental health deteriorated and he died in an asylum in 1856. Clara, however, lived for another 40 years and enjoyed successful careers as a pianist and composer. She also continued the couple’s friendship with the composer Johannes Brahms.
Fanny Mendelssohn was the elder sister of the composer Felix and was born in Hamburg in 1805. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, she is said to have been as talented musically as her brother, and the two children were given the same music teachers.
Fanny wrote about 500 works, including pieces for piano, songs, chamber music, cantatas and oratorios. She married the Prussian court painter Wilhelm Hensel in 1829 and lived in Berlin.
Felix made numerous visits to England and Scotland, was reputed to be Queen Victoria’s favourite composer and met the Queen and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace.
In 1835 he became conductor of the still-celebrated Gewandhaus Orchestra at Leipzig, where, according to Britannica, he not only raised the standard of orchestral playing but made Leipzig the musical capital of Germany. In 1843 he founded the Leipzig Academy, where he and Robert Schumann both taught.
Felix’s Scottish and Italian symphonies remain firm favourites in the Romantic repertoire, as does his chamber music.
Bach, Wagner and Reger
As if this is not enough Leipzig musical tradition to explore, Johann Sebastian Bach moved to the city in 1723 and served the churches there until shortly before his death in 1750. He needs no further introduction.
Nor does Richard Wagner, who was born in Leipzig is 1813. He is famous today for his ground-breaking operas and infamous for his antisemitism and for reputedly being Hitler’s favourite composer.
Less well known is his poor reputation in Leipzig even as a young man. According to the broadcaster Deutsche Welle he did not pay his debts and had two children with his second wife before they were married.
One other composer with Leipzig connections worth mentioning is Max Reger. Though not as well known as those already mentioned, he is nevertheless a not-insignificant musical figure.
Born in Bavaria in 1873, Reger moved to Leipzig in 1907 as professor of composition at the conservatory and musical director at the university. He composed organ and orchestral works, chamber music and songs. Reger died in Leipzig in 1916.
So there are plenty of musical connections for the Sage concert to explore, and Leipzig’s cultural heritage is not limited to music. It also has links to the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who was born there in 1646, and the poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).
Nor is Leipzig, which is in the German federal state of Saxony, the only city in former East Germany to enjoy a rich cultural heritage. Weimar, in the state of Thuringia, is known for its connections with Goethe and his fellow playwright Friedrich Schiller (1715-1805) as well as the flamboyant Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886).
In the 20th century Weimar was home to the Bauhaus school of architecture under its leader Walter Gropius (1883-1969) until it was driven out by the Nazis. And Wittenberg in the sate of Saxony Anhalt is where Martin Luther sparked the Reformation by reputedly pinning his famous 95 theses to the church door in 1517.
This region of Germany is perhaps little known in the UK and well worth a visit by those interested in European cultural history. But some may be deterred by its current right-wing politics, with strong electoral performances by the Alternative for Germany party.
The Mendelssohn/Schumann concert is one of three new events at the Sage between 17 March and 3 June to go on sale this week. Visit the Sage website here: https://sagegateshead.com/