Emilie Mayer defied 19th century mores with grand symphonies

As with many a composer, Emilie Mayer (1812-1883) was very successful during her lifetime, but was forgotten almost immediately after her death. The German historian Barbara Beuys is now restoring her to her former glory with the biography Emilie Mayer, Europas größte Komponistin (Emilie Mayer, Europe’s greatest female composer).

Mayer composed in all genres and left behind a large oeuvre, including eight highly praised symphonies, seven concert overtures and ten string quartets.

Yet in 1893 – only 12 years after her death – a German critic wrote about the premiere of a symphony by Luise Adolpha le Beau that ‘this is unique, a symphony by a lady we have never heard before’.

Beuys gave het biography the somewhat provocative subtitle ‘Europe’s greatest composer’.  In an interview, she laconically states that some exaggeration is appropriate to draw attention to your subject.

Moreover, she stresses that Mayer was considered one of the most important composers of her time, and that critics started to emphasise her gender less and less.

Happy single

Those who listen to Mayer’s colourful symphonies – numbers 3 and 6 have just been recorded by the Philharmonisches Orchester Bremerhaven – and the beautiful songs on the also recently released CD This Be Her Verse by Golda Schultz and Jonathan Ware, will wholeheartedly support Beuys’ decision. Mayer has an enormous flair for orchestration and her setting of Goethe’s poem Erlkönig is at least as chilling as Schubert’s.

On the basis of the little source material available, Beuys tries to sketch Mayer’s personality. This paints a picture of a self-assured woman, who worked purposefully to realise her dreams and deliberately remained unmarried. Thus she was able to avoid the fate of her contemporaries Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, who as composers always remained in the shadow of their brother and husband respectively.

Royal blessing

In 1850 Mayer even organised a concert in the Royal Theatre in Berlin, dedicated entirely to her own music and made available free of charge by Friedrich Wilhelm IV. – With foresight, she had earlier given his wife Elisabeth of Prussia a bread sculpture of her own making. The sovereign was so impressed that she awarded Mayer with a gold medal.

In her ‘royal’ concert, Mayer presented chamber music as well as choral works, an overture and the premiere of her Third Symphony. This was performed by Wilhelm Wieprecht’s leading orchestra Euterpe, with whom she was studying orchestration at the time.

One critic speaks of ‘captivating phrases’ and ‘a confident command of the material’. The influential Ludwig Rellstab praises the way the themes ‘flow smoothly through the securely defined realm of tonal colours, often with surprising elegance’.

Mayer also managed to lure her former teacher Carl Loewe to Berlin from Stettin, the city she moved to in 1840. This was shortly after the unspecified suicide of her father, who ran a pharmacy in the town of Friedland and had wholeheartedly supported her talent.

Although Loewe was somewhat sceptical about female composers, he had immediately accepted Mayer as a composition student on the basis of her earlier work. Thanks to him, Mayer became a well-known figure in Stettin’s lively music scene, where her first two symphonies were also successfully premiered.

International fame

Gradually, her fame grew and her music was heard in such important cultural centres as Leipzig, Brussels, Vienna and Budapest. She negotiated the publication of her compositions courteously but firmly with the leading publisher Bote & Bock. But despite this glittering career, her fame fades soon after her death.

Beuys is a dedicated but somewhat wide-ranging author, who provides all the people discussed with an extensive biography. – Even when Mayer probably did not know them, like the French composer Louise Farrenc. Moreover, Beuys – no doubt due to a lack of sources – makes quite a few assumptions, which are not always convincing.

The book is off to a fascinating start. It is rather a shock when Beuys points out that women were independent until the 18th century, but were then labelled impotent beings by the Enlightenment philosopher J.J. Rousseau. However, since the author keeps on stressing the point that females were reduced to incubators, she ultimately gets on one’s nerves: yeah, we know it now!

The biographer’s devotion to her subject is sincere, however, and Emilie Mayer’s music deserves to be heard. Apparently Beuys’ appeal has not fallen on deaf ears, as shown by the increasing number of performances, the recent CD-releaes and the first edition being sold out soon after publication.

– As I wrote before: the female composer is definitely on the rise!

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published ‘Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht’.


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