“Were there female composers before the modern era?”
– Katherine, Pacific Palisades
The short answer is yes! While the classical music landscape has long been dominated by male artists, there have been female composers throughout history whose works are still played today (and likely many more whose contributions have been lost).
Here is a brief and incomplete list of a few notable women from classical music history:
HILDEGARD VON BINGEN (1098–1179)
Also known as Saint Hildegard and Sibyl of the Rhine, Hildegard was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, and polymath. She is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. A composer of Christian music, over 70 of her original works survive to this day, comprising one of the largest repertoires of any medieval composer.
FRANCESCA CACCINI (1587–1641)
An Italian composer, singer, lutenist, poet, and music teacher of the early Baroque era, Francesca wrote music for at least sixteen staged works. Her only surviving work, La liberazione di Ruggiero, is widely considered the oldest opera by a female composer.
FANNY MENDELSSOHN (1805-1847)
Sister of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny composed over 460 pieces of music, including several books of solo piano works. A number of her songs were originally published under her brother’s name, in his opus 8 and 9 collections. Many of her piano works carry the name Lieder für das Pianoforte (Songs for the piano), a parallel to Felix’s Songs without Words.
CLARA SCHUMANN (1819-1896)
Considered one of the most distinguished composers and pianists of the Romantic era, Clara exerted her influence over a 61-year concert career, changing the format and repertoire of the piano recital. She wrote her first Piano Concerto at age 14, and went on to write a vast body of piano concertos, chamber works, and choral pieces. However, in middle age, she questioned whether it was even possible for a woman to find success as a composer, saying “A woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?”
She was married to composer Robert Schumann.
DAME ETHEL SMYTH (1858–1944)
Ethel was an English composer and a member of the women’s suffrage movement. Her extensive body of work includes the Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra, and the Mass in D. Her opera The Wreckers is considered by some critics to be the “most important English opera composed during the period between Purcell and Britten.” Another of her operas, Der Wald, mounted in 1903, was for more than a century the only opera by a woman composer ever produced at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
AMY BEACH (1867-1944)
Amy Marcy Cheney Beach was an American composer and pianist. She was the first successful American female composer of large-scale art music. Her Gaelic Symphony, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1896, was the first symphony composed and published by an American woman. She was one of the first American composers to succeed without the benefit of European training, and among the most acclaimed American composers of her era.
REBECCA CLARKE (1886-1979)
Rebecca Clarke was an English classical composer and violist best known for her chamber music featuring the viola. She was born in Harrow and studied at the Royal Academy of Music and Royal College of Music in London, later becoming one of the first female professional orchestral players when she joined the Queen’s Hall Orchestra in 1912.She was not well known at the height of her career, however, scholarship and interest in her compositions began to build near the end of her life. The Rebecca Clarke Society was established in 2000 to promote the study and performance of her music.
FLORENCE PRICE (1887–1953)
At age 14, Florence graduated from high school as valedictorian, and enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music. In 1910, she became the head of Clark Atlanta University’s music department in Atlanta, Georgia. Florence was the first African-American woman to have a composition played by a major orchestra, when her Symphony in E minor was debuted by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. A number of Price’s other orchestral works were played by the WPA Symphony Orchestra of Detroit and the Chicago Women’s Symphony. She was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers in 1940 for her work as a composer.