Music’s Hidden Figures: Women at the Piano

Image: Sheet music from a composition written by Clara Schumann

Visiting scholar Joe Davies sheds new light on female musicians throughout history

By Christine Byrd

Clara Schumann was a 19th century piano virtuoso – a performer, composer, teacher and arranger. Yet for nearly a century after her death, she was recognized as little more than the wife of fellow composer Robert Schumann.
For the last 40 years of her life, Schumann not only raised her children as a single mother, earning a living by giving concerts and teaching piano, but she also dedicated herself to fortifying her late husband’s musical legacy.

For the last forty years of her life, Schumann not only raised her children as a single mother, earning a living by giving concerts and teaching piano, but she also dedicated herself to fortifying her late husband’s musical legacy. 

We will hear stories that have been untold and see figures being revealed.

“I see Clara Schumann as a role model, not only in terms of what she was doing musically, but in terms of her depth of understanding of the human condition,” says Joe Davies, who is visiting UCI for two years as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellow, funded by the European Commission.

Pianists such as Schumann are the hidden figures Davies aims to bring attention to with his research, which combines music history, theory and performance.

“I aim to challenge some of the ideas around the great male composer and think about musical creativity in various facets – teaching, composing, performing,” says Davies. “Clara Schumann invites us to think openly and creatively about musicianship in the 19th century and beyond.”

Rarely Heard Music

Image: Professor of Teaching Nina Scolnik will present at the Women at the Piano conference 1848-1970 conference in March. (Photo: Ted Jack)

This spring, Davies is organizing a conference, Women at the Piano 1848–1970, drawing scholars and pianists from around the world to UCI. Shedding light on women’s often obscured contributions to the art of piano, the event will focus on women piano teachers, composers, performers and even piano manufacturers, from a global perspective, including where the instrument was introduced by colonizers.

“The conference will invite you to reassess the history of the piano and pianism,” says Davies. “We’re thinking broadly about what it means to be creative, not just in terms of works but the traces of creativity that are not always visible or audible — through teaching or performing music, and thinking about agency and authorship through the lens of history.”

The four-day event, beginning Thursday, March 16, 2023, aims to offer something for every piano lover, from nearly every perspective. A recital by London-based pianist Antonio Oyarzabal will feature music by women composers, and a recital by UCI students will introduce the audience to even more female composers.

“This is music that’s rarely heard in a concert hall,” says Davies. “Throughout the conference, we will hear stories that have been untold and see figures being revealed.”

In addition to performances, the conference will bring scholars to talk about piano history, theory, pedagogy, performance and composition. Jann Pasler, distinguished professor at UC San Diego, will present a keynote lecture.

UCI music professor and concert pianist Nina Scolnik will illuminate the life and legacy of her most influential piano teacher, Dorothy Taubman. Scolnik will give a talk about the impactful and often controversial Taubman, who pioneered an approach to prevent and repair injuries that tend to afflict pianists.

“My own teaching approach stems from the work that she developed over many years,” says Scolnik. “My talk will try to look at her contributions through some of the themes of the conference, specifically those relating to gender and the shaping of pianistic values.”

The conference is supported by the UCI Department of Music, Claire Trevor School of the Arts, UCI Illuminations, the European Commission and the Women in Global Music Network.

During his time here, Davies has already hosted two events drawing international scholars and performers. First, when he launched the Women in Global Music Network with co-founder Yvonne Liao, and again when he published Clara Schumann Studies (Cambridge University Press, 2021) – the first volume in the series to focus on a woman composer.

UCI is the ideal host for a conference on women at the piano, Davies says, because of its rich confluence of performers, contemporary composers, and music theory and history scholars – bolstered by the recently established Ph.D. program in music history and music theory.

A Wide Range of Creativity

We're pioneering in saying the approach to the musical works can be holistic.

Image: Visiting Scholar Joe Davies stands on the stage of the Claire Trevor Theatre at UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts.(Photo: Will Tee Yang)

UCI’s Department of Music launched its doctorate in music history and music theory in 2020, with the first cohort expected to graduate as early as 2025, ready for careers in music history, music theory, musicology, curation, journalism or academia. Students in the program have the option to take courses outside the Department of Music, including UCI’s renowned critical theory program and even other UC campuses.

The new doctorate program represents a third pillar in the music department’s offerings, which already included performance studies and the Integrated Composition, Improvisation, and Technology doctoral program. Together, these three programs enable students to consider music from many angles: the the sounding notes, the historical and cultural influences on the composer, and the sensual experience of playing and hearing the music.

“The music history and music theory program embraces all of these facets of music whilst also allowing critical theory to come into conversation with music history, theory and performance,” says Nicole Grimes, chair of the music department. “The program speaks to a wide range of creativity and provides a wonderful interaction between humanities scholarship and the artistic activity of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts – resulting in scholarship that reflects historical, sociopolitical and cultural aspects of music.

“We’re challenging and defying the sometimes artificial boundaries that exist between areas of musical knowledge, facets of music that are not necessarily easily extricated from one another,” adds Grimes. “We’re pioneering in saying the approach to the musical works can be holistic.”

Continuing Vibrations

Davies came to UCI the year after the music history and music theory program launched, bringing a global perspective. Trained as a pianist with the inspiration of cherished mentors Matthew Head and Susan Wollenberg, Davies pursued his passion for thinking and writing by earning a masters and doctorate at the University of Oxford. He is currently writing a book about gothic influences in Franz Schubert’s music (Boydell & Brewer, 2023). He’s also co-writing a chapter with Natasha Loges, professor of music at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg, for an interdisciplinary book titled Women in Power.

Davies’ intersecting interest in piano performance and theory is unusual, Grimes says, yet Davies has found UCI an ideal home for the combination.

“There’s a sense in which scholarship and performance thrive in equal measure and I’ve really found that enriching since being here,” says Davies. “The opportunity to work across interdisciplinary divides exists at UCI in a way that doesn’t happen everywhere.”

Image: London-based pianist Antonio Oyarzabal will perform the keynote recital on March 18 at 6 p.m. in Winifred Smith Hall. (Photo: Romain Thiery) - MORE INFO

Colleagues say Davies has a knack for inviting diverse perspectives and approaches to the study and performance of music.

“Joe’s research is quite public facing, but it’s also intricately bound up with performance studies,” says Grimes. “He has a capacious mind and he’s been wonderful at bringing together people from UCI and all over the world, sparking the most fascinating and stimulating conversations and then capturing that through his writing, videos and events.

“We’re really lucky he’s here,” she adds.

In winter 2023, Davies will teach two courses at UCI, an undergraduate class on Women at the Piano and a graduate seminar on public musicology. Per the structure of the European Commission’s program, he will complete the third and final year of the fellowship in Europe, at Ireland’s Maynooth University.

Yet Davies’ collaborations with UCI faculty and students will continue indefinitely, as he also leaves an indelible mark on the music department.

“Joe has created a vibration here that I don’t think is going away any time soon,” says Scolnik. “There’s a great interest now not only in women at the piano but in women in music in general. We’re trying to pull from obscurity those who have been overlooked or pushed to the margins and to evaluate them through more nuanced narratives, and that’s exciting.”

Women at the Piano 1848-1970 will be held at UCI March 16-19, 2023, with options for both in-person and virtual attendance. For more information, visit the conference landing page.

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Posted Date: 
February 06, 2023
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