Emilie Mayer’s Stunning Symphonies

Entwürfe cpo-Cover Februar 2020_cover.indd

AwardMAYER: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 / NDR Radiophilharmonie; Leo McFall, cond / CPO 555 293-2

Emilie Luise Friderica Mayer (1812-1883) is one of those women composers who seem to have fallen through the cracks, though there are several commercial recordings out there of her music (all, not surprisingly, on German labels). The third of five children born to well-to-do pharmacist Johann August Mayer, her mother died when she was two. She received a musical education at an early age but only as a performer. When she was 28, her father fatally shot himself, after which she developed an eating disorder which plagued her for the rest of her life. A year later, now a single woman living on her parents’ inheritance, she moved to Stettin, the regional capital of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, to study composition with famed composer Carl Loewe. In one respect this was an emotional reaction to her loss; she wanted to bury herself in work; but as time went on, she developed into a skilled and then quite an original composer.

To his credit, Loewe recognized from her first lesson that Mayer had it in her to become a great composer. He said, “You actually know nothing and everything at the same time! I shall be the gardener who helps the talent that is still a bud resting within your chest to unfold and become the most beautiful flower!” When she asked him if she could share her lessons with other female pupils, his reply was, “Such a God-given talent as yours has not been bestowed upon any other person I know.” She took this very much to heart, and from that point on promised him that she would work very hard to be as fine a composer as she could.

Emilie Mayer

Emilie Mayer

I don’t remember who it was, but some male churl in the music world asked, a few decades ago, that if women were inclined to be composers, where were the large works, the symphonies, string quartets, concerti and operas that men wrote? Decades after Mayer appeared on the scene, Ethel Smyth came along and provided the operas along with a Mass in D and a few concerti, bit Emilie Mayer, in her lifetime, wrote eight symphonies, an equal number of violin sonatas plus a Notturno for violin & piano, 12 cello sonatas, six piano trios, seven string quartets, two string quintets, a piano concerto, 15 concert overtures, six lieder (including two settings of Erlkönig) and, yes, one opera, Die Fischerin. As in the case of Ethel Smyth, she was able to accomplish this in part because she remained unmarried. She later became the Associate Director of the Opera Academy in Berlin as well.

Her Wikipedia page claims that her early symphonies were based on classical models, but later became fully Romantic in scope, but in listening to her first symphony here one can only compare her work to that of the early Beethoven symphonies, and not the first two. There is a clear dramatic narrative in her work that is both convincing and compelling. Although her later pieces would show dramatic shifts in tonality, even from the start she had “it,” that indefinable something that makes a composer’s music sound both well-structured and emotionally charged. Moreover, though this first symphony uses Beethoven as a model, it also includes the kind of surprising juxtapositions of themes that one finds in the work of Schumann. Yet early reviews of her music by male critics show their bias against women composers. One such review by Flodard Geyer in the Neue Berliner Musikzeitung, quoted in the booklet, said “That which female powers – powers of a second order – are capable of attaining, Emilie Mayer has achieved and brought to expression,” but the public reception to the concert was wildly enthusiastic. Nonetheless, Mayer continued to suffer gender bias throughout her life and career. Had she managed to write something as massive and impressive as Das Lied von der Erde, she would undoubtedly still be characterized by the male hierarchy as second rate because she wasn’t a man. According to annotator Bert Hagels:

Mayer suffered bitter disappointments in her further path as a composer. Although her symphonies were occasionally heard out­side of Berlin, and although the concerts she later organized for her music in Berlin were warmly received, none of the great Berlin or Leipzig publishing houses showed interest in her orchestral works. Her eight symphonies remained unpublished, except in the case of the Fourth in B minor, which, though premièred in Berlin in 1851, did not appear in print until late summer of 1860, and then in an arrangement for piano duet. Of her at least 15 con­cert overtures only one appeared in print toward the end of her life, issued by a tiny Stettin publisher in 1880. In the latter half of the 1850s her composer’s career had already begun to stagnate.

A true artistic tragedy, but in recent years her music has been recorded with some regularity by German orchestras and conductors—not even close to her full output, but at least enough to make people aware of just how great a composer she was. Although I could not find any claim in the booklet or notes for this CD that these are the premiere recordings of her first two symphonies, I checked thoroughly on the Naxos Music Library, Arkivmusic and Amazon and could not find another recordings of either of these two works. One very interesting aspect of the Second Symphony comes in the finale, where Meyer introduces a brief but spirited violin-cello duet.

Leo McFall

Leo McFall

Leo McFall, listed everywhere as a young conductor though I could not find a year of birth anywhere online, does a terrific job with these symphonies. Under his direction, the NDR Radiophilharmonie plays with fire and drive to every bar. I look forward to hearing much more of him in the future.

In addition to these two works, you can also find a number of Mayer’s other compositions on YouTube. Here is a partial but somewhat comprehensive list:

Symphony No. 7 in F min. (1856)
Kammersymphonie Berlin
Jürgen Bruns, conductor

Faust Overture (1880)
Neubrandenburger Philharmonie
Stefan Malzew, conductor

Symphony No. 4 in B min. (1851)
Same as Faust Overture

Cello Sonata No. 4, Op. 47
Thomas Blees, cellist; Maria Bermann, pianist

String Quartet No. 1 in G min., Op. 14
Klenke Quartet

String Quartet in E min.
Steve’s Bedroom Band

Laura Colgate (violin) and Andrew Welch (piano)

I urge you to explore the music of this great and unjustly neglected composer. I promise you, you won’t be sorry.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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3 thoughts on “Emilie Mayer’s Stunning Symphonies

  1. Pingback: The Enigma of Emilie Mayer – Romanticism's Forgotten Pasts

  2. Derek Hunt says:

    Thank you for this very informative article.

    At a time where female composers are being sought out and rediscovered, Emilie Mayer is a worthy and remarkable example, whose works are deserving of far more exposure and performance.

    You point to some fine pieces. I thought that the symphony has some of the vivacity and style of Mendelssohn – what do you think?

    I intend to seek out more works and also look into your Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music.


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