Who were the greatest female classical composers in history?
When we compiled our lists of the world’s greatest classical and contemporary composers, we did so by aggregating rankings from other publications. Originally, we wanted to do the same for our list of the greatest female classical composers in history. However, when researching the internet, we struggled to find the number of listings needed to provide a comprehensive overview.
This tells us two things: (1) The number of female composers in previous centuries was extremely low; and (2) these female composers still receive far less media attention than their male counterparts. Before we get to the results, it’s important to ask why female composers have been largely overlooked despite their undoubted contributions to the art form.
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“While women have long been recognized as great exponents of music,” explains the historian Eugene Gates, “the field of composition has traditionally been dominated by men.” It underscores the outdated assumption that women are incapable of producing great art – an assumption that has misled music teachers, music historians, and parents of musically inclined girls through the ages.
Although this hypothesis has since been dispelled, the world of classical music remains dominated by men. In 2012, only 14% of members of the Performing Rights Society for Composers, Songwriters and Music Publishers were women. In 2021, meanwhile, Classic FM learned that women “compose only five percent of the scheduled pieces in classical music concerts today”.
“For some reason, it takes a lot longer than literature and visual arts to achieve balance,” Kerry Andre was writing about the music world ten years ago. She traces the problem back to modern music education, where, on average, classes are made up of 33% women. If schools replaced the study of dead white male composers with a more diverse curriculum, she argues, they might encourage more girls to apply.
Despite the varying degrees of adversity they have faced in life, several inspiring women have managed to carve out a place for themselves among their male peers. From medieval nuns to mixed-race musicians from the Deep South, the cultural and socio-economic backgrounds of these female composers were far more diverse than those on previous lists, a testament to their talent and perseverance.
Hildegard of Bingen
One of the first great female composers in history was Saint Hildegard von Bingen, a German abbess of the High Middle Ages who, in addition to her ecclesiastical duties, also made a name for herself as a historian, philosopher and composer of liturgical songs. . For her various accomplishments and exemplary lifestyle, von Bingen was ultimately revered by the Catholic Church.
His surviving musical work is far greater than that of any other medieval composer. His best-known work is the morality piece Order Virtutum. Morality plays, popular in von Bingen’s life, center on human characters who encounter personified concepts such as chastity or envy. She was also revered for her monophonies – songs where the melody consists of a single instrument or singer.
Lili Boulanger’s tragedy is worthy of its own opera. A child prodigy born in 1893 into a family of Parisian musicians, Boulanger’s talents were revealed at the age of less than two years. The only thing standing in the way of a promising musical career was poor health. In 1912, Boulanger collapsed while participating in the Prix de Rome, a prestigious artistic competition created by King Louis XIV.
Boulanger returned the following year to become the competition’s first female winner with her cantata Faust and Helen. Unfortunately, she died of intestinal tuberculosis at the age of 24. In her later years, she worked on an opera titled The Princesa Maleine, which she was unable to complete. Had Boulanger lived longer, she would surely have become one of the most accomplished female composers of all time.
Clara Schumann was the wife of German classical composer Robert Schumann. Her musical career began long before she married her husband, whom she met while playing the piano at Ernst Carus, the director of the psychiatric hospital at Colditz Castle. Robert was studying law at the time, but left school to pursue music in order to be closer to her.
Schumann performed all over Europe. Her patrons included people like Goethe who, after hearing her perform, presented her with a medal. “The appearance of this artist can be considered an era”, a reviewer wrote of a performance that Schumann gave in Vienna when she was only 18 years old. “In his creative hands, the most ordinary passage, the most routine motif acquires significant meaning.”
Francesca Caccini lived and worked in Florence during the early Baroque period. His first recorded musical performance was in the presence of none other than the city’s influential Medici family. For them, Caccini sang as part of an ensemble alongside other members of his artistically inclined and well-educated family. Eventually, she became the highest paid musician in the Medici court.
Although few of Caccini’s works survive, his legacy endures through The release of Ruggiero, the first known opera written by a woman. In addition to composing music, Caccini often wrote the accompanying poetry. Her work was unique among Baroque artists like Monteverdi or Jacopo Peri in that many pieces, especially those by her first bookengage in a metatextual dialogue with each other.
Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre
Born in 1665 into a wealthy and progressive family in France, Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre was fortunate to receive the same quality education as her brothers. This paid off because, at the age of five, her musical talents caught the attention of Louis XIV, whose court she would join as a teenager. Today, de la Guerre is known as the only great classical composer of the old regime.
At the time, his music was known for its variety as much as for its originality. De la Guerre composed everything from operas to sonatas. According to colleagues at court, she could improvise behind the piano for several hours at a stretch. His first published work, First Book of Harpsichord Pieceswas written for the harpsichord — a tribute to his father and grandfather, both instrument makers.
Louise Farrenc was born in Paris in 1804 to Jacques-Edme Dumont, sculptor. She received piano lessons from an early age. When, at age 15, she began to show serious promise as a classical composer, her parents enrolled her in the city Conservatory, where she studied with Bavarian music theorist Anton Reicha. Her future husband, Aristide Farrenc, became one of France’s leading music publishers.
Farrenc’s first compositions received praise from Robert Schumann. The majority of her music was written for the piano, but she also composed overtures and symphonies which were performed at the Conservatory. In 1842, Farrenc entered the Paris Conservatory as a piano teacher, a position she held for more than 30 years.
Fanny Mendelssohn grew up in Berlin at the start of the 19th century and studied under Ludwig Berger and Carl Friedrich Zelter, two influential German musicians. As prodigious as she was industrious, she wrote more than 125 pieces for piano, 250 lieder (“songs”), four cantatas, a piano trio, a piano quartet and even an orchestral overture.
Unlike many of the women mentioned in this list, Mendelssohn rarely performed in public. Her conservative father refuted her work, proclaiming that it could never become her career but “only an ornament.” Several of her compositions were published under the name of her beloved brother Felix Mendelssohn who, after his sister’s death, assured her the recognition she deserved.
Florence Price lived from 1887 to 1953. She grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, in a mixed-race family. She gave her first performance (on the piano) at the age of four and published her first composition at the age of 11. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she passed as Mexican to avoid discrimination for her. ethnic group.
Price is remembered as the first African-American woman to be recognized as a great American classical composer. Upon graduating from Boston, Price became head of the music department at the historically black Clark Atlanta University. She later moved to Illinois to escape racial violence in the Deep South. There she became an integral part of the Chicago Black Renaissance.
The fourth of eight children, Ethel Smyth was born in 1858 in Sidcup, England. Although his actual birthday was April 22, the family has always celebrated April 23, the day William Shakespeare was born. Smyth’s early influences include Richard Wagner and Hector Berlioz. Throughout her long career, she has composed piano music, chamber music, orchestral works and operas.
His opera The Wreckers is now considered one of the greatest ever written. In Smyth’s day, however, his music was often criticized for sounding too masculine. In order to escape the pejorative label of “classical composer”, she became an active member of the women’s suffrage movement and put his music career on hold for about two years to fully commit to the cause.