Great Women Composers: Exploring a world of music


For five years, musicologist Claire Detels has presented a Great Women Composers concert here in Taos in celebration of March as Women's History Month. This year's sixth concert, under the auspices of Taos Soundscapes, was planned for Saturday (March 21), but has been canceled in light of efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus. It is the first time Taos Soundscapes has ever canceled a concert.

This year's concert was scheduled to include music by the women composers Isabella Colbran (1785-1845), Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-47), Elizabeth Turner (c. 1720-56), Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704), Marian McPartland (1938-2013) and Consuelo Velasquez (1916-2005). The program was to feature musicians Claire Detels (piano, harpsichord), Mark Jackson (baritone), Renee Hemsing (violin, Baroque viola) Rebecca Caron (cello).

I caught up with Detels both before and after the concert cancellation to discuss the importance of having concerts like Great Women Composers, which celebrate the works of historical women composers. Detels has a long history of presenting these concerts, first in Arkansas where she taught musicology at the University of Arkansas (1982-2008) and later in Taos.

Why do you do these concerts?

I love music. And, I just love presenting music in Taos. But, beyond that, I started doing these Great Women Composers concerts probably back in the early '90s and I had just reached the realization - it dawned on me pretty slowly, too - that we didn't present enough music of women composers, and it was creating the impression that there wasn't any, or that there was some but it wasn't as good [as works by men]. Those messages really affect people in ways way beyond what they realize. … There was even a music psychologist, his name was Carl Seashore who explained when asked why there are no women composers, that men create and women procreate. I grew up with that, not thinking it was that bizarre, and wondering if maybe we could change that. Back when I was in school there was women's tennis but no other competitive sports that women played. There were all kinds of ways in which you thought women were on a different, lesser plane than men, and the music was a big part of it … Leonard Bernstein would appear on CBS and talk about great composers and there was never a woman among them. You know, that makes an impression. When I started doing these concerts I didn't call them Great Women Composers concerts. It was just assumed there was some music by women, but they weren't great. And, then I decided, no, these are great composers and we are going to present them as such and take their music very seriously. Once you start doing that, and you do it the next year, and the next year, and you're never repeating the same music, and the music becomes more available - the movement among women musicologists especially to do the research and the publication of music they've found, makes more music available every year - it becomes a huge world, but one that still needs women and men to get out there and perform it. You feel like you're doing something important.

Who are your all-time favorite women composers?

Hard question, because the focus of Great Women Composers has been to show how many great women composers there are, but if pushed I guess I would say Clara Wieck Schumann. My historical specialty is 19th century music and my performance specialty is the piano, and she is a key figure in both categories, better known and 40 years longer lived (to 1896, rather than 1856) than her now more famous husband Robert. Her music is haunting, heartfelt and structurally and stylistically compelling.

What is the field of musicology, and what were your reasons for entering it?

My MA and PhD are actually in the field of Historical Musicology, which is a fancy, scientifically-oriented way of saying music history, and a division of musicology. The musicology field started in the 19th century in Germany as "Musikwissenschaft" (music science) and does have a lot of techno-scientific aspects, like reading and translating different historical types of music notation, and analyzing the structures of various musical practices. American musicology was patterned on the German model, thus the scientific orientation. The reason I was drawn to the field in college was that I had two major passions at the time, music and anthropology, and they came together in a fascination in how musical styles change and differ from one historical period to the next and between different cultures of people.

How long have you been associated with Taos Soundscapes? What is your role with the organization?

I joined the Soundscapes Board in 2015, a year after my arrival in Taos, and I'm currently the Secretary. I also have performed as pianist and harpsichordist with the organization since 2016.

What else is Taos Soundscapes planning for 2020?

There will be a May concert if coronavirus fears are over, and a late September concert featuring string instruments made by David Caron, a famous instrument maker, as well as spouse to our Artist Director, Rebecca Caron. Details are still being finalized.

In addition, to her role with Taos Soundscapes, Detels is also Music Director of El Pueblito Methodist Church and founding member of PianoTaos. She is a co-producer with Mark Jackson of First Friday concerts at First Presbyterian Church in Taos where Jackson serves as Music Director. For more information on Taos Soundscapes, please visit


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