One of the Powerful Woman | #WhatIfMM submissions that caught our attention in a big way was a photo that musicologist Susanne Wosnitzka submitted, which depicted not only herself but a pioneering woman conductor and the name of a renowned woman composer. We interviewed her to get some background about her submission, as well as her take on identity, and what she thinks makes a powerful woman.
Why did you choose the image you did to submit to Powerful Woman | #WhatIfMM?
I chose this image because I wanted to send a message with it: without the knowledge of history (or “herstory”) we wouldn’t be able to have this awareness of the importance of women’s activities today.
The image is composed of several factors: at the left you see the name of Fanny Mendelssohn. She’s known as „sister of“ [Felix] but she was an independent woman – and without her advice her brother Felix wasn’t able to publish his own pieces. The siblings lived in a symbiotic relationship, and today he’s the superstar, and she isn’t.
In the middle you see one of the first women conductors, Elke Mascha Blankenburg. One time she was in a masterclass to learn how to conduct with about 70 other (male) students, and when she went on the conductor’s stand the teacher was very angry and pushed her brutally away with the words, “You are a woman! Get out of the way! Go and serve in the kitchen!” But she was very angry [at this]. This rage was her impulse for her ideas finding music of unknown and unperformed women composers.
I’m on the right: I am the link between the music of Fanny Mendelssohn, the heritage of Elke Mascha Blankenburg, and I bring their knowledge to the future. Three generations: the woman composer, the woman discoverer, and the woman musicologist and supporter.
The placards featured in my image are from the “Archiv Frau und Musik” (Archive for Women in Music) at Frankfurt/Main (Germany).
The image is composed of several factors. How does this reflect your identity?
These women are my musical ancestors. In school I learned nothing about emancipation, the women’s suffrage movement, women in history, women composers, or the power of women. I felt lost – I studied musicology at Augsburg University and the music was an all-male marathon. In this time I discovered my lesbian identity with the help of a women’s library, and suddenly there was a huge cosmos consisting of women’s history, women’s actions and so much more to explore.
Today my identity is the identity of a knowing woman, ready for fight for women’s rights, especially in music, and especially for women composers and conductors.
You talk about the Archiv Frau und Musik. Could you tell us more about this project?
The “Archiv Frau und Musik” (Archive for Women in Music) is – since 1979 – the oldest, largest, and most important archive for women’s music worldwide. It has documented more than 1,800 women in music from 52 countries, from 9th until the 21st century. We have more than 23,000 media units like grey literature (flyers, news, concert programmes, placards), dissertations, books, sheets, handwritings, etc.
We collect estates of women composers, too – we have the “pre-mortem” sheets of Violeta Dinescu and Tsippi Fleischer. But we are in peril due to extensive financial cuts. We can’t fulfill all our planned work. We [are still able to] support young women composers with a composer in residence project (a 3-month-stay in Frankfurt), we want to buy estates of women composers to rescue them of oblivion, and we provide these treasures to researchers. We produce the only German-speaking special magazine [on this topic], VivaVoce, but today we aren’t able to continue with it. We and the women composers lose important PR.
Why is this project important to you personally?
It’s important to me because without this archive the world’s memory of women musicians is in peril. Without this music my fight (and the fights of my musical ancestors) would be for nothing. I see wonderful and fluent working archives (for predominantly male history) – there must be a possibility to support this women’s archive. We’re working on it but it’s so difficult without money and publicity.
Tell us about Elke Mascha Blankenburg and how she inspired you.
She never gave up, she fought until her death in 2013. She impressed me with her persistence. I’ve never met her, but she‘s a role model for me. And so I never want to give up.
Why do you consider yourself a powerful woman?
I’m born as biological girl, and I’m also [at times] transgender: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (Simone de Beauvoir).*
I was born into a musical rural family near Ulm, Germany. In my family no one studied [at university], no one spoke a foreign language. My grandfather was a prisoner of war in Siberia – in the camp he survived with the help of music and theatre plays. I was an anti-girl. Early on I saw that to be a girl was more difficult than to be a boy. I went to school in my home village, and I can’t remember a woman who was able to be a “role model” for me. So I read, and read, and read – everything I could reach. This helped me to survive in a world full of apparently straight people. And I learned that boys have more opportunities. I was a rebel. I didn’t look like a “girl.” Once I had a woman teacher who preferred boys and gave unfair grades to girls.
[Later] my parents let me go into the Realschule.** Within half a year I became one of the best pupils of my class. After finishing this school I trained as carpenter. In this job I learned that women are “scum” – I had a misogynist boss. Then I found a job as a furniture restorer and was happy to work with wonderful old objects and bring them to new life. Later I sang in a choir and came into contact with people who went to college. I wanted this, too.
I did my diploma qualifying for university, left my home village and went to a completely unknown city to study musicology and a few other subjects. And I began my struggle again and found out that in the last few centuries there was an emancipation movement and a lot of apparently hidden women’s history. Suddenly I was “on fire”. I found my well of power – justice and equality for women who can’t bring equality to themselves because they are dead and/or unheard of.
This is why I think: yes, I fought a lot for myself, so I can fight now for other people, too. And I have the might to change the world with my strength and patience – and with some more women and men fighting for equal rights, with a strong group of like-minded people.
How can one define a powerful woman?
Find your roots and you’ll see it – charisma, self-confidence, open to learn about the world.
What makes a powerful woman in the context of art?
Life is art – art is life. Find the trigger… let it flow. If anybody has a problem with it, it’s his or her problem. The power to trigger other people, to move their heartstrings – with your utter conviction. I love the work of Marina Abramovic [as an example].
How do you think women can use art to express their identities?
Sculptures, pictures, words, and music are powerful instruments – like earth, wind, fire, and water. Find out where and what your strength is. I think “art” isn’t singular. Music often causes pictures, or some composers are impressed by strong pictures. It’s a flow. Your mind and/or your body is/are able to be a pot for this bundled elements. Often it’s a long inner journey to find the perfect expression of your inner feelings. If art looks “easy” – it was definitely hard work. Be yourself and you’ll find your audience.
*Note: this is how Susanne defines herself, and the closest official definition might be “genderqueer.”
**a type of secondary school in Germany.
Featured image: courtesy of Susanne Wosnitzka.