born on May 14, 1812 in Friedland/ Mecklenburg
died April 10, 1883 in Berlin
April 1854: The Vossische Zeitung reports that “in the apartment of the female composer” a performance took place before “a number of listeners from the most educated music lovers of Berlin, women and men”. The performance “had the peculiarity that the program was composed entirely of female achievements in music, as the works either originated from women or were in the main performed by them. The renowned critic Ludwig Rellstab reports on the unusual event, but abstains from any comment.
April 1853: The Vossische Zeitung reports: “Their Majesties the King and the Queen honored ... the concert with their presence.” It was a concert at which only compositions by Emilie Mayer were played.
April 1850: The Vossische Zeitung reports: “A lady, Miss Emilie Mayer, will have a number of her compositions performed in the concert hall of the Königliches Schauspielhaus; ... such a concert program, created entirely by female hand, is, according to our experience and knowledge at least, unique in the musical history of the world.”
In his review of Emilie Mayer's first concert, Ludwig Rellstab immediately takes his stand: “We may place her work on an equal footing with most of what the young world of musical artists ... has produced today, a wreath of honor that music criticism can rightfully present to female talent.” His colleague Flodoard Geyer, on the other hand, in the Neue Berliner Musikzeitung, gives a veiled but unequivocal rejection to the sensational claim of his colleague Rellstab that musical talent should no longer be judged according to gender categories but “on an equal footing”: “What female forces, forces of the second order, are capable of - that has been achieved and reproduced by Emilie Mayer.”
In 1851, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer published an essay “Über die Weiber” (On Women) in his collection “Kleine philosophische Schriften” (Small Philosophical Writings) and wrote: “Neither for music, nor poetry, nor fine arts do they really and truly have sense and sensitivity…”. Thus it is only logical “that the most eminent minds of the entire sex have never produced a single truly great, genuine and original achievement in the fine arts, and have never been able to bring any work of lasting value into the world.” Bull's-eye, for this is also how his colleague Friedrich Schlegel had defined the gender relationship – as radically polarized on the basis of supposedly natural biological precepts: “Woman gives birth to man, man to the work of art.”
Both invoke Jean Jaques Rousseau, icon of the Enlightenment and progenitor of a gender ideology that ascribes intellect, creativity, and passion to the male, who shapes the world with them. For, according to his best-selling novel “Émile or On Education” from 1762, he “is man only at certain moments” – during procreation. Woman, on the other hand, as a gentle childbearer, is committed for life to the “preservation of the species.” Her place is forever the private sphere. What follows from this for the arts was also laid down by Rousseau: “Women, taken as a whole, love no single art, are connoisseurs in none - have by no means the quality of genius.” Following Rousseau, Germany's poets and thinkers promulgated these stereotypical images of women and men well into the 19th century. And all social classes have absorbed and implemented them far beyond that - with all their consequences for social and cultural reality - music included.
In 1817, the owner of the council pharmacy in Friedland, Mecklenburg, decided to give his five-year-old daughter Emilie Mayer piano lessons. “After a few lessons,” recalled fifty-eight-year-old Emilie Mayer in one of the very few surviving personal statements, “I composed variations, dances, little rondos, etc.” Her piano teacher encouraged his pupil in Mecklenburg dialect: “Wenn du die Meu gifst, kann ut die wat warden ... If you make an effort, you can become something.”
What seems to us to be good pedagogy was a breach of taboo. Girls had to be brought up with the understanding that they were only there for their future family and were to have no ambitions of their own. The fact that Emilie Mayer's talent was not suppressed at home but encouraged can be assumed to be an important foundation for her extraordinarily self-determined life.
In 1840, after her father's suicide, the 28-year-old decided to move from Friedland to Stettin to study composition with Carl Loewe, music director and respected composer. She was single. A coincidence?
The only detailed contemporary source on Emilie Mayer's personality is a two-part “Biographical Sketch” in the Neue Berliner Musikzeitung of March 15 and 22, 1877, written by Elisabeth Sangalli-Marr, a writer who advocated equal education for women. The author gets to the point quickly and with surprising frankness. Emilie Mayer had “renounced the binding bondage of marriage for the sake of art.” For the composer, there was an alternative to marriage: “She claimed music as her life's calling, and considered it her life-companion, the ideal – of her loving, believing, hoping.”
Emilie Mayer's first concert in 1850 became the starting point for a public career as a professional composer such as had never existed before. The fact that her extensive oeuvre – eight symphonies, 15 overtures, ten string quartets, in addition to numerous chamber works – was totally forgotten after her death in 1883 makes her biography a double challenge for the historian.
A glance at her immediate surroundings shows that there were exceptions among important men in the music business. In Stettin, Carl Loewe became her most important supporter. Inspired by his teaching, Emilie Mayer composed two symphonies – the crown of male musical creation and inappropriate for a woman's efforts. And the respected master even performed these symphonies in 1847 with the Stettiner Instrumentalverein. Critic Ludwig Rellstab found this sensation worth a positive mention in the Vossische Zeitung of March 4, 1847. He drew the attention of the “musical world” to the fact that a lady, “Demoiselle Emilie Mayer ... is writing larger musical works” and that her symphonies had been performed “to great applause”.
Loewe and Rellstab had known each other for a long time. Adolph Marx, the first senior lecturer in musicology at the University of Berlin, under whom Emilie Mayer had studied composition after 1847, had been friends with Carl Loewe since his youth. Fourth in the group was music director Wilhelm Wieprecht (with whom Emilie Mayer simultaneously perfected her skills “in instrumentation”), reformer of Prussian military music and founder of the popular orchestra “Euterpe.” The personal contacts resulted in an extraordinary collaboration. The concert of April 1850 in the Royal Playhouse with works exclusively by Emilie Mayer was performed for an enthusiastic audience by the orchestra “Euterpe” under its conductor Wieprecht. In the same year she made a move to establish her life in Berlin.
By the time Emilie Mayer moved back to Stettin in 1862, she had not only become an established composer in Berlin. Her works were also performed in Cologne, Munich and Brussels. How did Emilie Mayer manage to assert herself as a composer against a gender ideology that, since the beginning of the Enlightenment, had denied women any creativity and banned them from the public sphere? It was a woman, the writer Elisabeth Sangalli-Marr, who hinted in the Neue Berliner Musikzeitung in March 1877 at the balancing act the composer Emilie Mayer managed to perform to negotiate “the path she had to follow to lead a life in public.”
Contemporary music critics have praised Emilie Mayer's personality as modest, friendly and reserved. This is how she is still seen today. But her fellow writers recognized that this woman did not naively stumble into her success. Emilie Mayer knew that her career depended on a male music business, and she was self-confident enough to appear to conform to the traditional image of women.
Behind the scenes, however, Emilie Mayer single-mindedly organized her concerts, made connections with orchestras and their musical directors, invited male and female soloists to her private concerts. There was no music agency in Berlin before 1880. Eventually Mayer gained a Berlin publisher to print important works. Her letters to him are the only ones that have survived – they are also friendly and self-confident. Previously undiscovered traces of dedications of her works reinforce the profile of an intelligent, communicative personality who was firmly integrated into Berlin's tone-setting society.
Research on Emilie Mayer's biography, which includes the broad panorama of her time, shows that music, too, is dependent on sociopolitical developments. In the 1870s, when Germany's intellectual elite reacted with angry pamphlets to the newly founded women's movement, quite a few music critics fell back into the old gender stereotypes. Even Emilie Mayer, because of her talent, was once again isolated as a female exception.
But this seemed to spur her musical self-confidence. The fact that Richard Wagner, Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz and others were inspired to compose by Goethe's “Faust” did not discourage the sixty-seven-year-old from competing with such male geniuses; she also composed a “Faust Overture.” In February 1881 it had its the first performance by the “Berliner Sinfonie-Capelle”. The “Faust Overture” was performed four times in Stettin; in the course of the winter it was acclaimed by concert audiences in Karlsbad, Prague and Vienna.
Emilie Mayer died in her Berlin apartment on April 10, 1883. By the end of the century, her compositions had completely disappeared from concert halls. And that is how it has remained to this day. A commitment to the performance of her works, which Emilie Mayer energetically pursued, has not been taken up by anyone in the male-dominated music business since.
Since August 2021, a memorial stone marks the place where Emilie Mayer found her final resting place at the Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof, one of the cemeteries at Hallesches Tor in Berlin. Simultaneously, the Berlin Senate designated this place as a grave of honor.
But when will Emilie Mayer's works, alongside those of other women composers, become part of the standard repertoire in the concert halls of the 21st century? (Text from 2021)
In the fall of 2021, the first comprehensive biography of Emilie Mayer was published by the author of this article:
Barbara Beuys: Emilie Mayer - Europas größte Komponistin - Eine Spurensuche, 235 pages, Dittrich Verlag.
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version); edited by Joey Horsley
Author: Barbara Beuys
After brief instruction, I composed variations, dances, little rondos, etc.
(Emilie Mayer, looking back on the beginning of her piano lessons in 1817 at the age of five)
Women, taken as a whole, do not love a single art, are not connoisseurs in any - have no genius at all.
(Jean-Jacques Rousseau 'Lettre à d'Alembert' 1758)
For the female being marriage is the main purpose of her life, therefore, until she reaches it, the female being has not yet lived.
('The German Horizon' 1832)
She had, after all, renounced the binding fetters of marriage, of every encapsulating family connection, for the sake of her art
(Elisabeth Sangalli-Marr on Emilie Mayer, 'Neue Berliner Musikzeitung' 1877)
A lady, Demoiselle Emilie Mayer, will have a number of her compositions performed in the concert hall of the Königliches Schauspielhaus; ... such a concert program, created entirely by a female hand, is, according to our experience and knowledge at least, unique in the musical history of the world.
('Vossische Zeitung' Berlin, April 20, 1850)
We may place her works on an equal footing with most of what the young world of composers ... has created today, a wreath of honor that music criticism can rightfully present to female talent.
(Ludwig Rellstab, music critic, 'Vossische Zeitung' April 23, 1850)
What female forces, forces of the second order, are capable of - Emilie Mayer has achieved and reproduced.
(Flodoard Geyer, music critic, 'Neue Berliner Musikzeitung' May 1, 1850)
I have already composed 8 symphonies, 12 overtures, 8 string quartets, including one with pianoforte, 2 string quintets, 3 trios, 3 duos, 1 piano concerto, sacred pieces and other vocal compositions.
(Emilie Mayer 1857)
The B minor symphony by Fräulein Emilie Mayer is, according to my most heartfelt conviction, in any case a significant and ingenious work of this genre.
(Carl Loewe 1859)
And loving and beloved she spends her life
Secured by harmony from the world's strife ...”
(Clarissa von Ranke, 'Stars of my Life', sonnet about Emilie Mayer)
I kindly ask you to send me my duo for correction as soon as possible. My address is: Componistin Emilie Mayer in Pasewalk Doctor Bertuch.
(Emilie Mayer to the Berlin music publisher Bote & Bock 1863)
Repeatedly we looked at the title page to make sure that this sonata is really by a lady.
('Neue Zeitschrift für Musik' about the 'Sonata in A major for pianoforte and violin' by Emilie Mayer 1869)
I need not add that I have experienced not only in male but also in female society not inconsiderable opposition and that it has not been easy for me to accept such opposition with the appropriate equanimity!
(Emilie Mayer to the music critic Wilhelm Tappert July 1870)
A symphony in B minor has been received with extraordinary success, composed by a woman, Emilie Mayer. Women composers are now conquering serious art a little everywhere. They are in the process of refuting the opinion that denies them the capacity of being musically creative.
('Revue et Gazette de Paris' 1878 on a concert in Halle)
The Faust Overture by Emilie Mayer will be performed in Carlsbad, Prague and Vienna during the winter.
('Neue Berliner Musikzeitung' 1881)
I find the works of the male composers announced on the last page of the Musikzeitung. It would probably not be immodest if I also lay claim to this according to the principle: what is right for one is right for the other.
(Emilie Mayer to the Berlin publisher Bote & Bock, early April 1883)
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version); edited by Luise F. Pusch and Joey Horsley
Discover Emilie Mayer with youtube:
No one has to be a music expert not to be carried away fascinated into another world by the first notes of the “Faust Overture”. As if with cosmic sounds, majestically carried, then again light-footedly relaxed, the musical signature of the composer shapes the sound of the large orchestra, 28 minutes long. Those who want to listen to the string quartet in G minor for 30 minutes will experience the creative range of Emilie Mayer. Emotionally rhythmic, the melodies go deep under the skin. A romantic piece, yes why not.
Unfortunately, many of her compositions have been lost, including the especially praised B minor symphony. But other symphonies can also be heard on youtube, as well as some of her chamber music. Several CDs with compositions by Emilie Mayer are also now on the market. (Barbara Beuys)
I have set up an Emilie Mayer playlist via youtube. It's amazing how many works by Mayer are already gathered there. So far, I like the 2nd Symphony in C minor best. However, I haven't heard the famous Faust Overture yet. (Luise F. Pusch)
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)
Literature & Sources
The original 21 letters of Emilie Mayer are in the music department of the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, accessible via the Kalliope database. All of them are quoted in detail in this biography. The autographs of many of her works are also located there.
Also digitized and available on the web are well over 90 percent of the cited music journals from the 19th century.
Literature: Life and Work
Otto Altenburg: Carl Loewe. Beiträge zur Kenntnis seines Lebens und Schaffens, Baltische Studien, Neue Folge, Bd. 26, 1924, S. 241-288
Gisbert Bäcker: Leopold von Ranke und seine Familie, Diss. Bonn 1955
Gisbert Bäcker-Ranke: Rankes Ehefrau Clarissa geb. Graves-Perceval, Göttingen 1967
Bettina Brand, Martina Helmig (Hg.): Maßstab Beethoven? Komponistinnen im Schatten des Geniekults, edition text + kritik, München 2001
Bettina Brand, Martina Helmig u.a. (Hg.): Komponistinnen in Berlin, Berlin 1987
Claudia Breitfeld: „... es webt darin ein männlich-leidenschaftlicher Geist“. Emilie Mayers Auseinandersetzung mit Beethoven, siehe Brand/Helmig, : Maßstab Beethoven, S. 45 - 57
Katja Buclow: Emilie Luise Friederika Mayer: Die Componistin aus Friedland, Rostock delüx, Gesellschaftsmagazin der Ostsee-Zeitung, Jg. 2018, Bd./Heft 11,2, S. 16-17
Heinrich Bulthaupt: Carl Loewe, Deutschlands Balladencomponist, Berlin 1898
The Clarissa von Ranke Letters and the Ranke-Graves Corresponcence 1843-1886, hg. und übersetzt von Andreas Boldt, Queenston Canada, 2012
Ingrid Hecht: Clarissa von Ranke. Im eigenen Körper gefangen mit blühendem Geist, 2013
Carl von Ledebur: Tonkünstler-Lexicon Berlins von den ältesten Zeiten bis auf die Gegenwart, Berlin 1861
Carl Loewe’s Selbstbiographie. Für die Öffentlichkeit bearbeitet von Carl Hermann Bitter, Berlin 1870
Carl Loewe 1796 – 1869. Bericht über die wissenschaftliche Konferenz anläßlich seines 200. Geburtstages vom 26. bis 28. September 1996 im Händel-Haus Halle, Halle an der Saale 1997
Emilie Mayer, Biografie, Werkverzeichnis, MUGi (Musik und Gender im Internet), mugi.hfmt-hamburg.de, 5.7.2012
Paul Alfred Merbach: Heinrich Marr, 1797-1871. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des deutschen Theaters im 19. Jahrhundert, Leipzig 1926
Alfred Michaelis: Frauen als schaffende Tonkünstler, Leipzig 1888
Heinz-Mathias Neuwirth: Emilie Mayers Streichquartette. Kontext und Analyse, Diplomarbeit, Wien 2010
Derselbe: Emilie Mayer, MUGI – Musik und Gender im Internet, 2012
Sophie Pataky (Hg.): Lexikon deutscher Frauen der Feder, 2 Bde., Berlin 1898
Oscar Paul (Hg.): Handlexikon der Tonkunst, 2. Bd. Leipzig 1873
Almut Runge-Woll: Die Komponistin Emilie Mayer (1812-1883). Studien zu Leben und Werk, Frankfurt/M 2003
Maximilian Runze: Goethe und Loewe, Studie, Leipzig 1901
Marie Silling: Jugenderinnerungen einer Stettiner Kaufmannstochter, Greifswald 1921
Dieselbe: Emilie Mayer, einer vergessene Künstlerin, in: Unser Pommerland, 8, 1923, S. 280-282
Kyra Steckeweh, Tim van Beveren: Komponistinnen. Eine filmische und musikalische Spurensuche: Mel Bonis, Lili Boulanger, Fanny Hensel, Emilie Mayer, CD 95 Minuten, tvbmedia productions, Berlin 2019
Wilhelm Tappert: Die Frauen und die musikalische Composition, Musikalisches Wochenblatt, II. Jahrg., Leipzig 1871, Nr. 51 S. 809-812, Nr. 52 S. 825-831
M. Wehrmann: Festschrift zum 350jährigen Jubiläum des Kgl. Marienstiftsgymnasiums zu Stettin, Stettin 1894
Martin Wilfert: Martin Plüddemann. Leben und Werk eines pommerschen Komponisten 1854-1897, Hamburg 2006
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