Dr Carola Darwin: Johanna Müller-Hermann - a voice worth hearing
WEDNESDAY MARCH 10, 2021
Johanna Müller-Hermann? You haven’t heard of her, then? Don’t worry, you’re not alone: not many people know her name and even fewer have heard her music. And yet the world she worked in and was part of - Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century – has been almost endlessly discussed and analysed. It’s a fascinating place, full of artistic and intellectual innovation and experiment. Perhaps you’ve heard of Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka in visual art, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg in music, and of course Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung in psychology - and that’s just the beginning.
I once wrote a speech about all the interesting people in Vienna at this time, which started:
“In Vienna, as the 20th century began, everyone knew everyone, or at least anyone who was anyone knew everyone else. And most of them were in love with Alma Mahler.”
But of course I should have said: most of the men were in love with Alma Mahler. Because although almost all of the people from that period who are remembered now were men, at the time there was plenty of exciting, well-publicised work being done by women: philosophy by Rosa Mayreder, sculpture by Teresa Ries, painting by Broncia Koller, novels by Elsa Kotanyì- Jerusalem, and music by a number of composers, including Johanna Müller-Herman. Maybe some of them were in love with Alma Mahler, too – I don’t know.
So how did I find out about all this? After training as a singer at the Royal Northern, I wanted to learn more about the way that women are represented in opera. I chose to write my PhD about early 20th-century Vienna, because I knew the music was fascinating, and I found that the women’s movement there was pretty interesting, too. The music I’d heard was all by men, however – Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Alexander Zemlinsky, so that’s what I wrote about. But when in 2016, BBC Radio Three put out a call for information about “Forgotten Women Composers” who’d written orchestral and choral works, I thought - “I wonder what there was in Vienna?” - and I started to look around.
Photo property of Erich Hermann
That was when I discovered that the women’s movement was part of a bigger wave of female creativity in Vienna that nobody really seemed to have noticed. I realised how existing descriptions of that time tend to focus on the fear and bigotry that was inspired by the increasing visibility of women, while the energy and creativity of those women is hidden in libraries and obscure academic texts. I suggested Johanna Müller-Hermann to the BBC and was delighted when she was chosen. I had the chance to go to Vienna, to find her scores and to meet her great-nephew, who generously let me have copies of his photos of the composer (one of them is printed here). I also met the Viennese academic Ann-Kathrin Erdelyì, who had discovered Müller-Hermann’s papers in a dusty, uncatalogued cardboard box in the Austrian National Library, and who was equally generous with her research. And as a result, a number of Müller-Hermann’s pieces have been broadcast on Radio Three, and more are planned.
But what kind of person was Johanna Müller-Hermann? She grew up with the extraordinary creativity of turn-of-the-century Vienna in the background, but her family were thoroughly respectable and middle-class: her father was a senior civil servant. Music was encouraged at home, but not as a profession. Following her father’s wishes, young Johanna Hermann trained as a school-teacher, and it wasn’t until her marriage to Otto Martini-Muller (also a civil servant) that she was free to pursue her calling as a musician.
It starts to become clear that Vienna was not as uniformly misogynist as it’s sometimes been depicted; that the questioning of convention that it is famous for included a questioning of the place of women in society; that Freud, Klimt and Schnitzler were working in a work where the old certainties about gender and sex were beginning to shift and crack. And as such, it’s part of a bigger programme of recognising women’s contribution to the arts and society through the centuries, reversing the all-to-common erasure and ignorance of their voices.
She studied the piano, the theory of music, and composition with a number of teachers, including Josef Labor and Alexander Zemlinsky, both of whom also taught Alma Mahler, as well as the successful Czech composer, J. B. Foerster. When Foerster returned to Prague after Czechoslovakia became independent in 1918, Johanna Müller-Hermann took over his job at the Neues Wiener Konservatorium, and taught there till 1932. She was the first woman to have a post of this kind in the German-speaking world.
The op. 2 songs, some of which Olivia Bell is performing for the SWAP’ra festival, are early works, though it’s not clear exactly when they were written. Apart from these songs, perhaps my favourite work from this period is the String Quartet op. 6, which was premiered in 1911. We know that the composer worked on it with Zemlinsky, because he wrote to Alma Mahler (who had introduced them to each other) asking her advice on how much he should charge for lessons. The quartet starts in a fairly conventional way, but as it goes on, it becomes more adventurous, and the fourth movement is wonderfully lively and expressive, with a subtle, shifting harmony that was to become of characteristic of Müller-Hermann’s work. The string quartet was recorded by the Artis Quartet in 1990. It’s one of only a handful of Müller-Hermann’s works that have been recorded professionally.
Müller-Hermann went on to write music in all genres, from solo piano and songs from voice and piano to large choral and orchestral works. The only genre she never tried was opera. Her works were performed in major concert halls such as the Musikverein in Vienna and were published by Universal Edition, alongside the works of great figures like Mahler, Schoenberg and Berg. Reviews were generally favourable, though remarks like ‘you would never have suspected this was by a woman’ in reviews of the string quartet give a sense of the prejudices that she had to overcome.
So why is Johanna Müller-Hermann’s name not better known?
In 1938 the Nazis took over Austria in the Anschluss. While she was not Jewish, as a creative woman, Müller-Hermann was at odds with the Nazi doctrine of ‘Kinder, Kirche, Kuche’ (that women should confine their activities to the home and the church). Although some of her works were published under the Nazi regime, the Neues Konservatorium, where she taught for nearly 25 years, was closed down, and never reopened. And once the horror and destruction of the war was over, Müller-Hermann’s music suffered from two disadvantages. As a woman, her contribution to ‘Vienna’s Golden Autumn’ did not fit into the prevailing picture of Viennese young men rebelling against their conventional fathers, which dominates the literature. Secondly, as a tonal composer, she was ignored as being irrelevant to the great project of Modernism launched by Schoenberg’s atonal and serial techniques. This ideology, which also affected reception of composers like Richard Strauss and Alexander Zemlinsky, has now largely been left behind.
I believe it’s time that Johanna Müller-Hermann took her rightful place as part of Vienna’s great creative flowering at this period. There are two important reasons. The first is that the world of Mahler, Strauss and Schoenberg looks so different once the contribution of women is understood. It starts to become clear that Vienna was not as uniformly misogynist as it’s sometimes been depicted; that the questioning of convention that it is famous for included a questioning of the place of women in society; that Freud, Klimt and Schnitzler were working in a world where the old certainties about gender and sex were beginning to shift and crack. And as such, it’s part of a bigger programme of recognising women’s contribution to the arts and society through the centuries, reversing the all-to-common erasure and ignorance of their voices.
The other reason is simply the quality of the music. It’s beautifully crafted, the harmony is subtle and fascinating, and the composer’s response to text and to instrumental colour is absolutely assured. This is a voice that deserves to be heard.
Dr Carola Darwin 8th March 2021
Carola Darwin combines a career as an opera and concert singer with research and writing about music. She trained at Royal Northern College of Music, and went on to gain a PhD from the University of Sheffield. Carola is currently an Academic Professor at the Royal College of Music, where she teaches History of Music, including a course on Women in Music. She was selected in 2016 to research the life and work of the Viennese composer Johanna Müller-Hermann, as part of the BBC/AHRC’s 'Forgotten Women Composers' project. She is also working on a book 'The ‘I’ of the Other: Women, music and creativity in Alma Mahler’s Vienna.'