Discover these pioneer female composers of the 19th century

Open any classical music collection and you’ll find an extensive list of male composers. In fact, there was numerous more male than female composers in the history of classical music, but it’s not like there aren’t any composers. It’s just that they were usually left out of the history books.

Many of these women have lived extraordinary lives and crossed societal barriers to follow their calling. We lift the veil on history to highlight some of these women of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Make musical discoveries every day during Women’s History Month! Listen to our report on Women’s History Month daily at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Teresa Carreno (1853-1917)

Teresa Carreno

Venezuelan Teresa Carreño has inspired generations of women in music and captivated audiences around the world. The pianist was something of a superstar in her time, similar to Franz Liszt. At age eight, she was one of the first female pianists to tour the United States and composed her first work at age nine, writing 80 piano pieces and other works in her lifetime. She performed at the White House at the invitation of President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

Carreño championed American composers, as evidenced by works dedicated to him, such as Edward MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Amy Beach’s Piano Concerto in C# Minor. Carreño also conducted and sang opera, having studied with the great opera composer Gioachino Rossini. Politics thwarted her attempt to start her own opera company in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, but she remains musical royalty there to this day. The city one central theater bears his name as one of the best youth orchestras in Venezuela’s world-renowned “El Sistema” music education system. ~ Monika Vischer

Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)

Louise Farrenc

It’s not hard to see why Louise Farrenc was eclipsed during her lifetime. His contemporaries included Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Giuseppe Verdi and Franz Liszt. She was in the company of titans.

But the social norms of the time also pushed Farrenc into the shadows. Girls were meant to be wives and mothers, not career women.

In her time, the music of Louise Farrenc was generally neglected in favor of the works of her male counterparts. The praise was often condescending. Fellow composer Hector Berlioz said one of her pieces was “well written…and orchestrated with a talent rare among women”.

But she was not deterred. In the early 1840s, Farrenc innovated at the Paris Conservatory by becoming the first female piano teacher there. Farrenc stayed for three decades and fought for – and received – equal pay to her male counterparts. ~Jean Inaba

Discover more female composers with conductor Marin Alsop’s list of 10 contemporary female composers she wants you to listen to right now.

Augusta Holmes (1847-1903)

Augusta Holmes

Augusta Holmés was born into a family of artists in 1847, but none supported her in her pursuit of music. Holmés’ mother forbade her musical aspirations and it was only after her mother’s death that she began her studies.

Although she was refused entry to the Paris Conservatory, she had big names in her corner to encourage her work, namely her friend Franz Lizst and her mentor Cesar Franck. Holmés wrote over 100 songs, 12 symphonic poems and four operas, and his music became the talk of the town of Paris. She was even commissioned to write a play for the 1900 World’s Fair.

Holmes was unusual because she did not adopt the common tactic of writing under a pseudonym. Instead, she published her own works under her own name. During his time, Holmes caused a stir and clearly lived up to his own words: “I have to show the men what I’m capable of!” ~Jessie Jacobs

Elfrida Andrée (1841-1929)

Elfrida André

When Swedish composer Elfrida Andrée was a teenager, her father suggested she study the organ. But, because of the weather, she had to enroll as a private student. Women were not allowed to officially enroll in the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.

Twelve years later, Andrée was one of eight candidates – and the only female candidate – for the position of organist at Gothenburg Cathedral. Not only did she get the job, but she stayed there for over 60 years!

Andrée was an advocate for women’s rights and became the first woman in Sweden to be trained as a telegrapher. Soon after, women were allowed to apply for these jobs, and it became a popular career choice.

Andrée is known to have been the first woman in Sweden to conduct a symphony orchestra. She also composed symphonies, melodies, cantatas, chamber pieces, choral masses and an opera. ~Matt Weesner

Henriette Bosmans (1895-1952)

Henriette Bosmans

Henriëtte Bosmans was as talented as she was resilient. The Dutch pianist and composer was born into a musical family, but her father, a cellist with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, died when she was a child. His musical talents were nurtured by his mother who was a piano teacher at the Amsterdam Conservatory.

Bosmans enjoyed a solid reputation, particularly as a pianist, performing regularly with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. But when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, Bosmans was eventually banned from performing because her mother was Jewish. With no income and with an elderly mother to support, Bosmans performed at “black evening” concerts, clandestine house concerts strictly prohibited by the Nazis. It was around this time that she started composing again, writing the song ‘Here Come the Canadians’, about the liberation of the Netherlands which helped her recover after the war. ~ Karla Walker

Read and listen to about 10 other female composers.

Peggy Stuart Coolidge (1913-1981)

Peggy Stuart Coolidge has written music for sport, conservation, film and the concert hall. She was a pianist who played all over the world, as well as in hospitals for wounded soldiers. She also started a music therapy program in a psychiatric hospital.

Peggy Stuart was born in Massachusetts and spent most of her life in the Boston area, graduating from the New England Conservatory. His 1937 ballet, “Cracked Ice”, was the first to be written for ice skating. The Boston Pops premiered the piece that led to more premieres with the Pops, making her one of the first female composers to have works performed in the concert hall.

During World War II, she played the piano for wounded soldiers and founded an orchestra which she led for many years in Boston. She used those same skills to start an early music therapy program for patients at a New York-area psychiatric facility.

His greatest recognition came from abroad. In fact, she became the first American composer – male or female – to have her works performed in the Soviet Union. Shortly after this Cold War feat, she became the first American composer to have a recording entirely devoted to her orchestral music, the 1976 Vox Publications album, “American Reflections.” Despite his many premieres, there are no current recordings of his music in print today. ~Marilyn Cooley


Enjoy some of these women’s works with our Spotify playlist:

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