The following is an electronic translation of the first chaper of
Dahm, Cecilie. Kvinner Komponerer: Ni portrtter av norske kvinnelige komponister i tiden 1840-1930. Oslo: Solum Forlag A. S., 1987.
translation: (Dahm, Cecilie. “Women compose: nine portraits of Norwegian women composers between 1840-1930.” Oslo: Solum Publishing, 1987).
The first chaper of Cecilie Dahm's book is a general discussion of the challenges women composers faced in Norway during Theodora Cormontan's lifetime. Dahm included a paragraph about Theodora which may be found at the end of the following entry.
A glance at the times [1840-1930] and the role of women in music.
Many ingenious theories have been made over time regarding women’s “natural “ inability to create music, theories which often conclude that, while women have distinguished themselves as performers, composition is a discipline that has not produced a single female composer of greatness, even--as it so often is described--when they have been assessed less critically than men. The few female composers have at best created small, unpretentious compositions, typically songs and piano pieces.
In Europe and America there has been, in recent times, comprehensive research in this area. Historical sources have been studied and scores have been pulled out from libraries and archives, and a whole new picture emerges, a picture that shows that over the centuries there have been a number of significant female composers. Many were highly regarded in their day but, to a far greater extent than men, they have been subject to the changing conditions of their times and limited by historical and social conditions.
In Norway, where art music does not have as long a tradition as elsewhere in Europe, we remember only a few Norwegian female composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among these, there is only one name that is widely known today--Agathe Backer Grøndahl. That she was the great female figure in Norwegian music between 1840-1930 is beyond doubt. She is duly mentioned in encyclopedias and historical works, and a fairly significant amount of her music is still heard.
But while Agathe Backer Grøndahl was the greatest, she was far from the only female Norwegian composer of her time. Music historiography in Norway has not been better than other countries. It confirms all our notions of music as men's work. But the reality is that in Norway women have engaged in the art of music not only as interpreters, but also as creators.
A 1986 list compiled by Kari Michelsen at the University of Trondheim contains no less than 120 names of Norwegian women who had their music published by Norwegian publishers before 1920. The actual figure is probably higher. It must be noted that many of these women were not significant composers, but the figure shows that women have composed in Norway and that publishers have found it profitable to publish their music. This suggests that there has been a market for music composed by women. It has been used in homes, in teaching and—from what we can see in old concert programs--often in public performance.
Women who had the opportunity to cultivate skills in muscial composition usually belonged to the upper class; a typically more liberal group that supported the opportunity for women to receive training. But the educational opportunities for women were inadequate. In the 1700’s and 1800’s there were clear roles for music and for women. Training in piano, singing and harmony belonged to the young girl's upbringing. But professional requirements were rarely asked, even of those with special abilities. For women, music composition was seen as a hobby, like drawing, embroidery and other domestic tasks.
Consequently, women were precluded from training in the compositional skillls that are required to compose in larger forms and for larger instrumental ensembles. Women were provided little opportunity. Though some Norwegian women studied at music conservatories in Leipzig, Berlin and Paris in the second half of 19th century, it was mainly for training in piano and singing. Playing the organ, orchestra conducting, choral conducting, and playing wind instruments were areas typically reserved for men. When Sweden's first female organist, Elfrida Andree (1841-1929), graduated from the conservatory in Stockholm in 1857, it was through a special dispensation; also when she entered a position as organist four years later. When the Organist School--later the Oslo Music Conservatory--was founded in 1883, there was no question that women would be included. Nevertheless, women did not apply for orchestra positions, nor was there available to them public positions as organists or chapel masters. Such jobs entailed practical knowledge of instruments and, in many cases, compositional duties.
Women’s musical education was thus characterized by superficiality, their instrument of choice being limited to the piano and singing. This was also rooted in the prevailing conditions in the upper class in the 1800’s. It included an expectation of family life which brought with it making music in the family circle. During the 1700's the piano—the defining musical instrument of the upper class--made its appearance in Norway. Every self-respecting bourgeois family had a piano in the living room. Here the woman’s role was that of the singing and piano-playing wife and daughter, not only a cherished staple of family and social life, but a plus for the family's social status. The image of the woman at the piano in plush, furnished interiors is a well-known motif from this period. And the perception of music as the most emotional of the art forms also entered the picture. For conveying intimate emotions, the woman was considered particularly suitable to perform music that characterized music for the home; parlor music, “song with its heart on its sleeve,” the intimate little piano piece, and dance pieces like the gavotte, mazurka, waltz and polonaise. Newspaper ads from the period reinforced this attitude.
Women's music-making in the home has had an impact on the general music education. But women experienced highly limited opportunities for development and training at a higher level. There was no tradition to support the professional woman composer. We can assume that many an artist has been destroyed under these conditions.
There was nothing to break this social pattern. When a woman still managed to do it, it was because, in addition to being gifted, she was fortunate regarding her economic situation and lived in a liberal, arts-friendly environment. These women, after studying abroad, could become professional practitioners or educators. But whether they were professional or just clever amateurs, they worked within a tradition where the two functions, performer and composer, were closely linked. That women composed was not uncommon. But the culture severely limited what they could compose. They were expected to compose only songs and piano pieces; only the miniature forms. Here were the invisible boundaries of what was expected of women as creative musicians. As long as they stayed within those limits, they were not only accepted by their environment, they were encouraged and viewed favorably by music critics when their music was published or was performed at concerts. Reviewers frequently made a point of noting when the composers were women. A piece would be described as a gracious female work, or a composer as a talent which does not tend to be present in women. Regarding a couple of songs by Sophie Irgens, the Nordic Music Journal wrote in 1892 that they are what one does not often find with female composers; they were written with humor. Regarding some romances presented by Marta Vestbe, a music magazine in 1911 wrote that the songs were different from what the ladies ordinarily performed in this area.
The most prominent of the Norwegian music critics in the period was Otto Winter Hjelm (1837 1931). He himself was a composer, a conductor, and also a sought-after teacher. As a music writer with the longstanding newspaper Aftenposten, he had great influence on our music scene in the 19th century and into the 20th. He was a noteworthy person. But he appears to be skeptical when it comes to female composers. Another music critic and composer, Per Reid Arson (1879-1954), appeared somewhat later. Though not as influential as Winter Hjelm, his voice still carried crucial importance for at least one of our female composer, Anna Lindeman (1859-1938). She belonged to the famous musical Lindeman family and was trained as a pianist. As one of our greatest piano teachers of the time, she was for many years associated with the Conservatory of Music in Oslo. When she was about 70 years old she completed a four movement string quartet on which she had worked for a long time. According to her son Trygve Lindeman, later director of the Conservatory of Music in Oslo, she considered her composing more as a hobby, but she still wished to have the quartet published. However, she showed it to Per Reid Arson, and he stated that he did not think it was compelling enough; that it was too lightweight.
This assessment reflects his thoughts about women composers in general. He expresses these thoughts in the music magazine Tone Art in December 1932, where he writes an article mulling over women's lack of abilities as composers, noting that they rarely appear even among the names of less significant composer. He admits, however, that
“some handsome song or the most successful smaller piece could probably be produced by the common female composer. We have experienced that. But, it is typical that when women compose in the larger musical form, logic is betrayed and the music lacks proportion.”
He then rushes to add that he does not mean this as a criticism of women. He values them highly, even though statistics prove they cannot compose.
The authority had thus spoken, and Anna Lindeman’s string quartet fell into oblivion, where it remained for half a century. It collected dust in the library’s music collection until 1983, when the London String Quartet recorded it on the Norwegian label SIMAX, enriching the Norwegian Chamber Music repertoire with an exceptionally beautiful and well-written piece of music.
Some of our women composers excelled in organization. In the early 1890’s Fredrikke Rynning Waaler (1865-1952) founded Hamar's first orchestra, where she served as concertmaster. Waaler is the exception when it comes to women's instrument of choice. She played the violin, and in 1885 was a first violinist in the Music Association orchestra in Oslo. Olga Bjelke Andersen (1857-1940) formed the Drammen amateur orchestra, a forerunner of the later Drammen professional orchestra. She even served as director and conductor of the orchestra. Both of these women wrote songs, piano pieces, and choral works. Olga Bjelke Andersen also composed orchestral music, including the stage works East of the Sun and West of the Moon and Princess Rosy, listed on the National Theatre programs in 1906 and 1908 respectively.
Towards the end of the 1800’s, concurrent with the emergence of the feminist movement, some of our women composers began to gain a clearer understanding of their abilities and their work as creative musicians. They wanted education on an equal footing with their male counterparts, and they sought government assistance in the form of scholarships and grants. Government scholarships and endowments followed, with the Church & Ministry of Education responsible for distribution. Applications from Norwegian musicians, performers as well as composers, is preserved among Church and Ministry of Education documents in the National Archives in Oslo.
The first applications from female composers that noted clearly that they wanted to study composition were received in 1890. These came from Borghild Holmsen and Mon Schjelderup, who in subsequent years would reapply eight and six times respectively. Other applications came from Inga Lærum Liebich in 1893 and 1894, Inger Bang Lund in 1897 and 1907, and Signe Lund in 1898 and 1900. None of these applications were granted. In the same period (1890-1907) twelve male composers received funding from these sources, some of them several times, for a total of 24 grants.
A record of the rationale for this distribution does not exist, but a review of the Church and Ministry of Education document collection seems to show that women athletes were accepted and allocated funding on a par with their male counterparts. Women composers were also accepted, but only as long as their compositional training was an additional, non-funded part of their creative activity.
The first woman Norwegian composer who was granted public funding was Pauline Hall (1890-1969). In 1917 she received an endowment of $400.00 and, in 1919, a Government grant of $1500.00. She is the first woman to append the word “Composer” to her signature. This heralded a new generation of women composers in Norway, women who would eventually be seen as equal to their male counterparts. The 19th century bourgeois parlors were gone. To prove that Norwegian women composers have broken down some of the barriers of gender discrimination, the Composers Association membership list of 1987 includes 72 women. Disparity in numbers between male and female composers still exists; however, this is a question that falls outside the scope of this presentation.
Cecilie Dahm's book goes on to devote a chapter each to nine Norwegian composers from 1840-1930. Theodora Cormontan is not one of the nine composers. At the end of her book Dahm devotes a paragraph each to a number of other Norwegian women composers, and Theodora is included here. The following is an electronic translation of the paragraph devoted to Cormontan:
Theodora Cormontan was born in Beit stad I Nord-Trøndelag. While still young she moved to Arendal and grew up as a priest's daughter. She received her first lessons from the organist and town musician, Friedrich Toschlag. Later she received instruction in Copenhagen. In her hometown of Arendal she appeared frequently as a singer at the local concert hall and was a central figure in the local culture. She started her own music lending library and music publishing house. In 1887 she left Norway with her father and sister to settle in Iowa [actually, Minnesota] in the United States. Here, she lived the rest of her life as a music teacher. She published some piano pieces and songs, among them "Aloud from the heavenly high" and "Among the Mountains."