When female composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries come to mind, some of you might think of Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn; for those who have looked more into this topic, you might also recognize the names of Amy Beach, Emilie Mayer, and Louise Farrenc. However, one female composer whose achievements are often overlooked is Luise Adolpha Le Beau.
Born in 1850 in Rastatt, Germany – a town I had the opportunity to briefly visit this past summer – Le Beau was the daughter of a military officer, Wilhelm, and his wife Karoline. In addition to serving in the military, Wilhelm was also a pianist and composer, and upon his retirement in 1856 he began giving his daughter piano lessons. Just two years later, at the age of eight, Le Beau composed her first work.
At 13, Le Beau was sent to a local girl’s school, where she studied languages for three years. During this time, she also began studying piano with Hofkapellmeister (court chapel master) Wilhelm Kalliwoda at Karlsruhe and also took singing lessons from the noted tenor Anton Haizinger. After graduating with a degree in 1866, she would spend the rest of her life on music.
In 1868, Le Beau debuted as a pianist, playing piano concertos by Beethoven and Mendelssohn in Karlsruhe. Two years later, she met Franz Lachner and Anton Rubinstein, two important musical figures of the late 19th century, and in 1873 she began taking lessons with Clara Schumann in Baden-Baden; due to differences between the two as well as an aversion to Schumann’s teaching methods, these lessons lasted for only one summer. The following year, Le Beau toured the Netherlands, where she performed in Utrecht, Arnhem, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Amsterdam.
Looking to further her studies, Le Beau turned to none other than Hans von Bülow, a student of Liszt and one of the most renowned conductors of the 19th century. On von Bülow’s recommendation, Le Beau and her family moved to Munich, where she studied with the pianist and organist Josef Rheinberger at the Royal Music School. During this time, Le Beau faced an obstacle common to many of her female contemporaries; because of school regulations, she was not allowed to be tutored with male students.
While studying in Munich, Le Beau toured the Bavarian countryside, performing her own compositions with the singer Aglaia Orgeni and the violinist Bartha Haft. She also worked briefly as a music critic, writing for the “Allgemeine Deutsche Musik-Zeitung” in Berlin beginning in 1878, but stopped writing articles after her reviews were shortened and modified by her editor. Finally (and perhaps most importantly), she established a “private music course for daughters of the educated classes” which aimed to prepare women for careers in piano teaching.
In 1880, Le Beau stopped lessons with Rheinberger to focus more on the work of other composers. During the five years that followed, she met Franz Liszt, the critic Eduard Hanslick, and Johannes Brahms; she also wrote several of her best-known works, including a piano quartet, a piece titled “Ruth – Biblical Scenes” for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, and a cello sonata which took first prize in an international composition contest.
Le Beau’s cello sonata is a powerful work reminiscent of Schumann; it is one of many pieces by women composers that deserve to be heard and performed more often.
In 1885, with her parents’ health deteriorating and declining opportunities in Munich, Le Beau took up residence in Wiesbaden, beginning her opera Hadumoth and a piano concerto while also offering lessons in music theory in voice. During this time, her music began being played outside of Europe, with performances in Sydney and Istanbul – a remarkable feat given the obstacles all women composers of the 19th century faced.
Five years later, she relocated again to Berlin, where she completed both pieces, studied music history at the Royal Library, and continued her teaching activities. While in Berlin, she was also nominated for a position at the Royal School of Music, but it was not granted, as the position was not given to women.
In 1893, Le Beau and her family moved again, this time to Baden-Baden. Around the turn of the century, she wrote several more important works, including a symphony and the tone poem “Hohenbaden”. After her mother’s death in 1900, Le Beau’s output decreased, although she completed an unpublished string quintet and an opera, “The Enchanted Caliph.”
In 1903, Le Beau essentially ceased her music career. From 1906 to 1910, she lived in Italy, publishing an autobiography, “Memoirs of a Female Composer.” After returning to Baden-Baden, she once again became involved in music, appearing occasionally as a concert pianist and writing reviews for a local newspaper; on her 75th birthday, she gave a concert of her own compositions.
Two years later, in 1927, Le Beau passed away. The city of Baden-Baden named its music library after her, and in 2004, a memorial plaque was installed at her former residence in the city, Lichtenaler Straße 46.
Overall, Luise Adolpha Le Beau is one of the most underappreciated female composers of the Romantic era. In total, she wrote over a hundred works, including pieces for piano solo, chamber compositions, symphonic poems, choral works, and operas – not to mention her distinguished career as a pianist!
I will leave you with a recording of Le Beau’s enjoyable piano concerto, completed during her time in Wiesbaden and Berlin.
Thank you again for reading!