Finnish Researchers' New Book on Female Composers
The book comprises biographies of 126 women composers in Finland from the 19th to 20th century
For six years, musicologists Susanna Välimäki and Nuppu Koivisto-Kaasik have traced the life stories and forgotten compositions of Finnish female composers born between 1784 and 1909, to create the first extensive and original source-based study on the topic.
Their resulting peer-reviewed publication is titled “Sävelten tytäret: Säveltävä nyäisten (Daughters of Tunes: Composing Today) in Finland from the 19th century to the 20th century.” The publication contains miniature biographies of 126 female composers, who have been neglected in Finnish music historiography until now.
In their search for Finland’s historical female composers, Välimäki and Koivisto-Kaasik scoured hundreds of archives and private collections in Finland and abroad, connecting small clues along the way. Their work draws on feminist music history, social history, and cultural music history.
While details on the existence of some composers were often found by chance, such as being mentioned in a letter or newspaper article, a large majority of works by female composers were missing or destroyed.
“It all started when I wanted to find out for myself how much women in Finland have composed in general,” said Välimäki, who is also an assistant professor of arts studies at the University of Helsinki.
“Little by little they started to be found and eventually the number just seemed to grow and grow. In the end, this book didn't even fit all the composers we found.”
To access the book, click here.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of those who received a thorough musical education in Finland were women. Opportunities for music studies were promoted by wealth and a Swedish-speaking gentry family and urban background; music was also seen as a suitable hobby for women at the time, a reviewer explains in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper.
While some married female composers were in constant cycles of giving birth, caregiving, or grieving due to child mortality, the book also highlights these women as leaders of women’s orchestras and choirs, teachers, organizers, and developers of music for the visually impaired.
Some of the composers presented in the book had long public careers, while others stopped composing at an early age due to marriage, motherhood, or some other life path.
“One of the biggest reasons (why these female composers are only now coming to light) is that the music world has been so patriarchal and heteronormative,” said Koivisto-Kaasik. “The history of music has mainly been written by white cis men. Of course, there has been feminist music research in Finland since the 1990s as well, but perhaps only with the #metoo movement has the status of historical female composers come into wider discussion.
“In addition to the fact that [this book] thoroughly dusts the image of men in the history of Finnish classical music, it also challenges us to think more broadly about who can be called composers and what kind of music is valuable enough to be considered.”
“I think it would be important for every person to have the opportunity to listen to or play the music of these women composers,” Välimäki added. “After all, songs are stories that basically tell about what it's like to exist in this world. The more varied artists and music are available, the better people can also find objects of identification for themselves.”
Recently, the book’s release was celebrated with a concert at Helsinki's Ritarihuone, which featured music by Ingeborg von Bronsart (1840–1913), Greta Dahlström (1887–1978), and Heidi Sundblad-Halmee (1903–1973), among others.
The concert can be heard at Yle Areena and Yle Radio 1 from September 30, 2023.