10 female composers whose music you need to hear
The following composers were chosen for their resilient artistry, encapsulating the strength of all women
1. Clara Schumann (1819-96)
“I once thought I had a creative talent, but I gave up on that idea; a woman must not want to compose – there has never been one able to,” Clara remarked later in life. ‘Do I have to be the only one? It would be arrogant to believe that.
Despite her lack of self-confidence and a turbulent private life, Clara Schumann’s musical career stopped for 61 years. Among her dominant career as a pioneering concert pianist, Schumann was also a talented composer. Admired by her colleagues, her compositions attracted the attention of Brahms, Mendelssohn, Chopin and her husband Robert Schumann. Over time, Clara became consistently known as Robert Schumann’s “wife” (and the subject of some speculative gossip with Brahms!), to the detriment of her own accomplishments.
Today, a century later, his compositions are gaining the recognition they deserve. His works are championed by eminent musicians such as Isata Kanneh-Mason, Lucy Parham and Tasmin Little.
His most notable works include: Piano Trio in G minor, Piano Concerto, Lieder and several pieces for solo piano.
Clara Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 7 (1835)
Isata Kanneh Mason pf Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Holly Mathieson
2. Louise Farrenc (1804-75)
In 1970, the Equal Pay Act came into force, prohibiting pay discrimination based on sex. However, the subject of equal pay is a question that appeared well before the 1970s.
In the 19th century, French pianist and composer Louise Farrenc was appointed professor at the Paris Conservatory. During her first decade at the conservatory, Farrenc was paid less than her male colleagues. After persistent protests, Farrenc was finally granted equal pay. To set an inspiring example for women around the world.
Farrenc had a large portfolio of compositions: symphonies, overtures and works for solo piano. Her chamber music seduced Parisian audiences and critics, and in 1861 and 1869 she received the prestigious Chartier prize from the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Written in 1849, Farrenc’s Third Symphony has been described as a rebellion. A challenge to the 19th century belief that women could only compose small-scale works for the domestic setting. Farrenc’s symphony is bold and energetic, worthy of the concert hall.
The symphony knows no boundaries between traditional genres of musical characteristics. The strings have shocking and bold “masculine” interruptions, fluidly interwoven with graceful “feminine” melodies found in the woodwinds.
Louise Farrenc Symphony No. 3 (1849)
Insula Orchestra / Laurence Equilbey
3. Ethel Smith (1858-1944)
Suffragist Ethel Smyth wrote The women’s march in 1910. An anthem of the suffragette movement and the women’s social and political union, “The Call to Battle” has served women around the world.
During Smyth’s lifetime, women’s march was performed at several venues across the UK, including the Royal Albert Hall. Perhaps more particularly, the March was performed at Holloway Prison, where in 1912 conductor Thomas Beecham found a number of imprisoned suffragettes led by Smyth herself “walking around [the courtyard] and vigorously singing their war song as the composer, beaming with approval from an upper window overlooking, beat time in an almost bacchanalian frenzy with a toothbrush.
Ethel Smith Women’s March (1910)
4. Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-69)
Grażyna Bacewicz, played a vital role in transporting Polish music from the 19th century to the 20th century. Bacewicz fused indigenous folk songs from Poland with a modern style, creating an inspiring approach to music.
Composing during a time of war and socialist regimes, Bacewicz’s compositions are a tribute to her strength and resilience as a musician.
1943 by Bacewicz Opening was written in the middle of World War II and premiered in Krakow at the end of the war. The work encapsulates the struggle and tensions felt at the time, with looming snare drums and dark brass fanfares. Yet in this malaise we find a message of hope: Morse code for “V” (dot-dot-dot-dash), a heartbeat drummed on the timpani, a symbol of victory.
Grazyna Bacewicz Overture (1943)
Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Łukasz Borowicz
5. Augusta Holmes (1847-1903)
Despite her mother’s active discouragement, Augusta Mary Anne Holmès resolutely pursued her right to become a musician. The Franco-Irish composer will wait until 1857, the year of her mother’s death, to begin her musical education.
By 1875, Holmès was a highly respected composer in Paris cultural circles, winning the admiration of her audiences and close friends, including Franz Liszt.
The entrepreneur Holmès becomes the editor and sole owner of his compositions. Her grandiose works deviated from societal expectations of women and impressed with their powerful, large-scale strengths, suitable for the concert hall. From choral works to operas, Holmes’ energetic works challenged the dominant works of her male counterparts.
In 1889, Holmès was commissioned to compose triumphal ode, commemorating the French Revolution. Holmès used his works to speak to national causes, the symphonic poem Ireland, is a plea for freedom, a showcase of national grief and triumph. In Ireland, a long melancholic clarinet solo, is followed by a joyous jig and finally passes to an overwhelming quotation from Let Erin remember, a native Irish folk song.
Augusta Holmes Ireland (1882)
Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Samuel Freidmann
6. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b1939)
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich is the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for her work. She is the first woman to receive a doctorate from the Juilliard School and the first to hold the chair of composer at Carnegie Hall.
A prolific figure, Zwilich’s compositions range from full-scale symphonies to solo works. The works are renowned for their vigour, assertiveness and ability to challenge both performer and audience.
Symphony No. 1, composed in 1982, won Zwilich the Pulitzer Prize.
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Symphony No. 1 (Three movements for orchestra) (1982)
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra / John Nelson
7. Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)
The turn of the 20th century was a pivotal period in the art world. The art was evolving and new voices were emerging, including the 20th century masters Debussy, Stravinsky and Ravel. At this time, the composer Germaine Tailleferre also emerged. Known as the only female member of the “Six” – a prominent group of 20th century composers, which included Poulenc, Milhaud, Honegger, Auric and Durey. Writing most of his famous works during the 1920s, Tailleferre became a figure of exceptional talent and musical prowess. His compositions are characterized by their freshness, spontaneity and charm.
Composed in 1924, his piano concerto was premiered by pianist Alfred Cortot and was described by the pianist as follows: “Here is no less beautiful than Bach”.
The Concerto evokes elements of the Baroque era with its flowing, continuous melody, which contrasts with the 20th century use of poignant and innovative harmony. Culminating in a composition that could only belong to the 1920s.
Germaine Tailleferre Piano Concerto (1924)
Josephine Gandolfi pf California Parallel Ensemble University of California, Orchestra of Santa Cruz / Nicole Payment
8. Errollyn Wallen (b1958)
Errollyn Wallen’s engaging compositions have been heard around the world and commissioned by the most prominent institutions including the BBC, Royal Opera House and Wigmore Hall. From chamber works to songs for voice, his compositions are versatile and have an authentic approach to music. Wallen’s music is free of constraints, his group Ensemble X has the motto: “We don’t break down barriers in music… We don’t see any”.
Maze is a composition by Wallen for voice and ensemble.
Daedalus and his son Icarus are characters from Greek mythology. Trapped in the Labyrinth of the Labyrinth by King Minos, the duo desperately sought to escape. Daedalus created two glorious sets of wings, father and son learned to fly and soared to freedom.
However, despite his father’s prior warning, Icarus is delirious with euphoria and rushes towards the sun. Soon his wings melted, Icarus fell into the sea and drowned. The Icarian Sea and the small island Icaria are named after Icarus.
Wallen’s compositions are written from Daedalus’ point of view and allude to another facet of the mythological figure. Wallen relies on his murder of Perdix, Daedalus’ nephew and apprentice, whose inventive talent threatened to eclipse Daedalus’ work.
The work appears alongside Björk, Sting, Elvis Costello and Meredith Monk on the Brodsky Quartet album Mood swings.
In 2007, Errollyn received an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honors List for services to music, and a CBE in 2020.
Errollyn Wallen Daedalus (2004)
9. Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)
“I was his only student, and it was considered something quite unusual…” said composer Rebecca Clarke.
Born in 1886, British-born American Clarke achieved what she called “a whiff of success” with her 1919 Viola Sonata. Her composition spans a range of 20th-century styles and is renowned for her passion and prowess.
In his time, Clarke was a recognized talent. However, of his multiples (nearly 100) compositions, only 20 have been published. Scholarship and interest in her work was rekindled in 1976, and the Rebecca Clarke Society was formed in 2000 to promote the study and performance of her music.
The sonata shows a side of the alto, which can be soft and feminine but also singing, wild and powerful. His writing is a tribute to the variety of tones and colors found in the string instrument.
Rebecca Clarke Sonata for viola (2007)
Philip Dukes Virginia Sophia Rahman pf
10. Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Nineteenth-century attitudes toward female education saw female musicians, like Amy Beach, unable to receive the same opportunities as her male counterparts. Despite this, Beach began her composing career at an early age and became the first woman in America to have her symphony published and performed. The “Gaelic” Symphony was premiered in 1896 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The symphony is inspired by the songs of the British Isles, the homeland of Beach’s ancestors. In doing so, Beach became the first composer in America to use folk songs as thematic material in a symphony.
Amy Beach is considered one of the most remarkable musicians of the 19th and early 20th centuries today.
Amy Beach Symphony in E minor, Gaelic Symphony
Detroit Symphony Orchestra / Neeme Järvi