by Ute-Gabriela Schneppat
by Ute-Gabriela Schneppat
(* 14 May 1812 in Friedland; † 10 April 1883 in Berlin)
Emilie Mayer is probably the first professional female composer. In contemporary reviews she was celebrated as a “female Beethoven”. Nevertheless, the German composer Emilie Mayer is little known today. At the end of the 1980s, this outstanding composer began to be remembered again through the essay by Martina Sichard (Auf den Spuren einer vergessenen Komponistin). A comprehensive examination of the life and work of Emilie Mayer is the dissertation by Almut Runge-Woll, published by Peter Lang Verlag in 2003.
Emilie Mayer comes from a family of pharmacists and grew up in Friesland. Her mother, who was only 24 years old, died when she was two. She grew up with three biological siblings and a half-brother from her father’s first marriage. The father did not marry again. The children were cared for by the service staff and educated by private tutors. As the eldest daughter, she was therefore – as was customary at the time – responsible for her father’s household as soon as she reached the appropriate age. Despite this obligation, her musical talent was encouraged from childhood. Thus she received piano lessons from the age of five.
The unexpected suicide of her father in 1840 became the decisive turning point in her life.
Unmarried and financially secured by her inheritance, she decided to move to Stettin and train as a composer. At that time, women were denied access to university studies. Nevertheless, Emilie Mayer found leading music theorists who taught her composition. She trained with the great ballad composer Carl Loewe in Stettin and in later years, on Loewe’s recommendation, with the Beethoven biographer Adolf Bernhard Marx (counterpoint) and the then very well-known military reformer and composer Wilhelm Wieprecht (instrumentation) in Berlin.
Like all female composers of the time, she always had to deal with (male) critics. Women were often denied creativity per se. Many female composers therefore published their works under pseudonyms. Not so Emilie Mayer: unperturbed by conventions, she devoted herself to all musical genres. Even the musical genres considered “unfeminine” for women, such as symphonies or concert overtures.
An extraordinary concert
The performance of her compositions on 21 April 1850 is considered the beginning of her career as a composer. The concert took place in the concert hall of the Königliches Schauspielhaus in Berlin. A special feature, because the use of the hall had to be approved by the Prussian king.
The “Vossische Zeitung” wrote about it in 1850:
“A lady, Mademoiselle Emilie Mayer, will have a number of her compositions performed in the concert hall of the Königliches Schauspielhaus … such a concert programme, brought to life entirely by a female hand, is, according to our experience and knowledge at least, up to now a unicum in the musical history of the world.” 
Well known throughout Europe
Emilie Mayer’s works were performed throughout Europe during her lifetime. She herself remained unmarried and changed her place of residence between Berlin and Stettin. It is assumed that she initially moved back to Stettin for economic reasons after several years in Berlin. In 1876 she once again moved into her own flat in Berlin.
She was acquainted with many important social and aristocratic figures in Berlin.
At the end of 1880, at the age of almost 70, she achieved another great success: her orchestral work “Ouverture zu Faust op. 46” was performed in Berlin and other European cities after its publication.
Emilie Mayer was an honorary member of the Philharmonic Society in Munich and co-chair of the Berlin Opera Academy. She also received an order from Queen Elisabeth of Prussia for her musical merits. She died in Berlin on 10 April 1883.
After her death, her works fell more and more into oblivion. It is only since the early 2000s that her plays have been increasingly performed again.
“Miss E. Mayer is a rare phenomenon. The female sex may have numerous great achievements to show in musical reproduction and may compete with the male sex for the palm – production is the domain of the male creative spirit, and only rarely does a female personality show that this rule is not without exception. Here is such an exception, here shows us a female composer who not only writes for the pianoforte, but also solves the difficult task of orchestral composition, teeming with thousands of mysteries – and how solves it!” 
Emilie Mayer was one of the best-known female composers of the Romantic period and probably the only professional composer among the well-known female composers of her time. Many of her composing contemporaries were first and foremost performers – and also composed. What was unusual about Emilie Mayer’s work was that, as a woman, she also devoted herself to the composition of symphonies.
While her first compositions of the 1840s, under the influence of her teacher Carl Loewe, were mainly singspiels and songs, she soon wrote her first chamber music pieces and symphonies. In doing so, she confronted male critics who denied women the ability for complex compositions. Her works include eight symphonies and nine string quartets.
Emilie Mayer’s style was significantly influenced by her teacher Adolf Bernhard Marx. Marx supported her in her stylistic exploration of Beethoven. Her extensive preoccupation with Beethoven’s works is evidenced by her handwritten music book entitled “Musikalisches Allerley”.
Her works have a clear structure. Especially in the transitional passages of her chamber music works, classical elements and influences can be found, such as fifth-fall sequences. Her later works are more complex and free in their harmonic structure.