Emilie Mayer’s Piano Trios

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MAYER: Piano Trios: in D min. (c. 1845-55), No. 3 in Eb, in A min. (c. 1859) / Klaviertrio Hannover: Katharina Sellheim, pno; Łucja Madzier, vln; Johannes Krebs, cel / Genuin 22790-1

Readers of this blog know how bowled over I was when I finally discovered Emilie Mayer (1812-1883) about two years ago—a woman composer who easily stood comparison with the best male composers of her time, yet has been marginalized and forgotten. This new CD by the talented Klaviertrio Hannover presents three of her piano trios that have never been previously recorded, although two of Mayer’s later piano trios (Opp. 13 & 16) have been recorded by Trio Vivente.

Although Mayer’s family was not the least musical—her father was a pharmacist—she evidently had an incredible talent from a young age, and she was very fortunate to find a composition teacher who was both a first-class musician and open-minded towards women in the arts: none other than Carl Loewe, one of the greatest song composers Germany ever produced. As Kaja Engel’s liner notes observe,

In addition to their supposed lack of artistic ability, women were largely kept away from artistic activities because they were assigned a fixed place in the household.  In the classic family arrangement, the woman took care of the children and the household, thus freeing her husband for professional realization. [Think of poor Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel.]  Mayer eluded this role assignment by remaining unmarried. This reduced her domestic obligations, but also meant that she had to earn her own living.

Mayer’s music contained much of the same surprising and unconventional twists and turns that characterized Loewe’s songs, but she was able to apply this skill to larger forms such as chamber works like these and symphonies. Of course I haven’t heard her full output—it hasn’t all been recorded—but everything I have heard is on the same level as these piano trios. This music can easily hold its own in comparison to Johannes Brahms, at any period in his development as a composer, and that’s saying quite a bit. In fact, I often find Mayer’s music to be more emotional and inspired than much of Brahms from this period. He was a composer who, like Meyerbeer, spent long hours considering which note went where on the page, whereas Emilie Mayer, though of course taking classical form into consideration, seemed to me to write much more spontaneously.

MayerWhy her music faded from view is unclear. During her lifetime, it received not just positive but rave reviews from critics whenever and wherever it was performed. Ludwig Rellstab, writing of Mayer’s pieces in April, 1850, said that “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.” It is, then, rather a shame that now that she is being rediscovered as a composer, she has become a poster child for gender debate in the arts. A great composer is a great composer, regardless of race or gender…or at least, so it should be. Yet the “feministas” out there simply have to make an issue of such outstanding composers as Barbara Strozzi, Elizaneth Jacquet de la Guerre, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and Mayer. This attitude has led to deifying Clara Schumann, whose own music wasn’t even half as good as that of Pauline Viardot-Garcia, let alone that of her late husband or Brahms, into some sort of paragon in the arts. Sadly, women composers of merit are still marginalized for the most part. A few, like Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Kaja Saariaho and August Read Thomas, are celebrated, but what of Errollyn Wallen, Nancy Van de Vate, Libby Larsen, Barbara Kolb and Outi Tarkainen? Still relegated to “freak” status when they are mentioned at all.

But concerning the music on this CD, it is simply wonderful, tightly written, exciting, and harmonically daring for its time, veering back and forth between major and minor with impunity. Several of the melodic lines she used, even in fast movements like the last of the Piano Trio in d minor, are memorable and catchy, but unlike Brahms she did not get hung up on producing “melodies.” Rather, she used them as a springboard into often wild and unpredictable development sections; the tunes were secondary to what she was able to do with them. Perhaps this is another reason why she was forgotten.

I was also thrilled with Klaviertrio Hannover’s performance style, crisp and exciting. They take the attitude that this is music worth playing and hearing, regardless of the composer’s gender. I was also very happy to read in the notes that they have edited these scores for publication, finally, by Furore Verlag. Hopefully, this splendid recording will spark interest in other chamber groups to play her music more often, but don’t hold your breath. The Standard Repertoire is just that, standard, and formerly unknown outsiders like Emilie Mayer keep a-knockin’ but they can’t come in.

One of the few let-downs on the entire CD, in my personal view, was the slow second movement of the Trio No. 3 in Eb. It’s technically well written, but to my ears doesn’t really say a lot; it sounds more like a time-filler, as if Mayer had to write a slow movement and so came up with this. But of course, you are free to feel differently. The sprightly, smile-inducing finale, however, makes up for this.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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