When Whoopi Goldberg moved into the convent as Sister Mary Clarence in the 1992 film Sister Act, the abbey was forever changed – or at least changed until Sister Act 2 a year later.
The music world might have seen a similar revelation and revolution, if not for society’s limitations on women in centuries past.
Consider two highly musical sisters, Maria Anna Mozart and Fanny Mendelssohn. Both received outstanding musical instruction. Both impressed thoughtful, unbiased contemporaries as immensely talented – equal to or perhaps even superior to their more famous brothers.
As a child, Maria Anna Mozart (Nannerl) studied with her father Leopold. She and younger brother Wolfgang were both on show as prodigies, touring Western Europe and Vienna with their father.
Maria Anna developed into a thoroughly capable composer, an accomplished keyboardist, and a fine improviser. Her father proudly touted her talents: "My little girl plays the most difficult works with incredible precision … although she is only 12 years old, [she] is one of the most skillful players in Europe."
And yet, as little brother Wolfgang rapidly progressed, Papa Leopold put the brakes on his big sister’s career.
Despite her father’s restrictions, Maria Anna served as Wolfgang’s agent, inviting Haydn to her home and playing some of Wolfgang’s quartets for the older composer. And in one of her letters, Maria Anna said that she had been Wolfgang Mozart’s only music advisor. Indeed, Wolfgang sent her most of his piano concertos, at least up to #21. He expressed amazement at Maria Anna’s skill as a composer, and – despite Leopold’s admonitions – encouraged her to write more. Alas, none of her compositions survives.
As the decades passed, although no radical changes developed, the climate improved somewhat for women musicians.
In the early 1800s, another dynamic sister-brother duo appeared on the scene. Both prodigiously talented siblings in the prominent Mendelssohn family, Fanny and Felix, studied with the finest instructors that Berlin could offer, thanks to their father’s encouragement (and his substantial financial resources).
Fanny Mendelssohn wrote a significant amount of music. But if her brother Felix encouraged her to compose, he drew the line at publication. He wrote that publishing her music "would only disturb her" in her "primary duties" of managing the home.
Of course, he was just echoing the cultural norms of the day – and papa Abraham’s exhortation to his 14 year old daughter: "You must become more steady and collected, and prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your calling, the only calling of a young woman — that of a housewife … music will perhaps become [Felix’s] profession, but for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing."
Despite these restraints, Fanny persevered. Her surviving works include over 250 lieder, a string quartet, an overture, a piano trio, 125 solo piano works, and four cantatas.
In one of her late songs, Dein ist mein Herz, Fanny Mendelssohn quotes the poet Nikolaus Lenau. She bares her soul to many of those who held her back – perhaps most pointedly to her brother, whom she adored: "The dearest thing I may acquire in songs that abduct my heart is a word to me that they please you, a silent glance that they touch you."
– Sylvia Docking