If asked to name a classical composer, odds are Mozart, Bach, Shubert, or maybe Beethoven will spring to mind. All men.
Historically, classical music has been male dominated. And that fact was what prompted Amelia LeClair to give up her dream of a music career after she finished college in the mid-1970s.
“Part of the reason I gave up music is I had no role models whatsoever,” said LeClair. “And I came to believe I couldn’t do it because I was being told by a few people, who were influential in my life, that I couldn’t compose ... because I was a woman.”
But that changed when she discovered the music of an 11th century nun.
“Twenty-five years later,” LeClair said, “I found out that there were indeed not just women composers now but women composers in history, in fact quite a few of them, that began back in 900 A.D. with Kassia, with Hildegard von Bingen … etc.”
LeClair decided to bring some of these works back to life — and bring herself back to the world of music. Now she directs a Boston-based professional ensemble of voices and instruments that researches and performs works by women composers overlooked by the classical mainstream. They are called Cappella Clausura.
“Clausura [is] both an Italian and a Latin word, and it means cloister," she said. "I named the group Cappella Clausura because the first music I was finding was written by cloistered women. They were writing music that was for women’s voices only.”
Essentially, nuns writing for other nuns. Historically, the church was controlled by men. The role of women was deliberately downplayed, even suppressed. Through the ages, classical music reflected this reality.
“The classical world, I think, was behind a lot of the rest of the world in accepting women as artists,” she said. “It was generally the same sort of misogyny that was accepted everywhere. It was assumed that women could not be artists.”
The world is changing. Just this past year, we've seen a seismic cultural shift that is reexamining the role of women in all walks of life, especially the arts.
But why has the world of classical music seemed slow to respond?
“I think [it's] because classical music is generally a more conservative field,” LeClair said. “It is slower, but this #MeToo movement has had a huge impact on everything, on everything. Suddenly, it feels to me and to my female colleagues, this issue has come to the front and decent men are looking at it and saying, 'Gee, I didn’t think it was this pervasive and I don’t want that for my daughter and I don’t want that for my wife, I don’t want that for my mother.' And so everyone is beginning to realize this is an issue.”
At her office in the Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center, the 66-year-old LeClair and a student assistant are bringing tattered old manuscripts back to life. It's a painstaking process.
“I’m recovering the existing piece note by note and making it readable — usable for a full orchestra, chorus and conductor,” she said. “It’s hard on the eyes. These people have young eyes, and they can look at these little tiny scratches and make more of them than I can.”
This work gives voice to the women who have been silenced for too long. In addition to making performances and recordings possible, it updates physical manuscripts, making them readily available online and free, to inspire others as LeClair herself was inspired.
“Take them, perform them, use them, teach your high school kids to sing this stuff, let them know that this exists,” she said. “I’m remembering myself as a young student thinking that there’s nothing here for me, and I’m thinking of the young girls now who are saying, 'Yeah, there’s something there. Look at that. So I can do it, too.'”
This article has been updated.