Female Composers in Western Classical Music

About: Women composers’ names are still largely absent from music textbooks and concert programs that constitute the Western canon, even though a large number of women have composed music. The reasons for women’s exclusion are various.

The musicologist Marcia Citron speculated that women composers were deemed less important than men because women typically wrote smaller works, such as art songs, rather than large works, such as symphonies, for public performance in large halls. Female composers were long barred from the profession, owing in part to the essentialist notion that women could not, in Citron’s words, “control emotion with logic and reason, masculine attributes requisite for composition.” Women were systematically denied access to compositional training and musical performances, and were castigated by critics for writing music that was either too feebly feminine or too unbecomingly masculine. Because the discrimination against women composers is related to general societal attitudes about gender or perceived roles of men and women, many  musicologists and critics have come to incorporate gender studies in assessing the history and practice of the art.

Some notable Western female composers and musicians include:

Name Notes: Playlist of Excerpts 
Clara Weike-Schumann   (1819-1896), Romantic, German
  • wife of Robert Schumann
  • considered one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era.
  • She was the first to perform publicly any work by Brahms.
  • Posting on Maestro68.com
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hansel  (1805-1847), Romantic, German
  • sister of Felix Mendelssohn
  • composed over 460 pieces
  • Posting on Maestro68.com
       Amy Beach (1867-1944)        20th Century,  American
  • 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.
  • first American composer to succeed without the benefit of European training
  • Posting on Maestro68.com
 Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) 20th Century, English
  • best known for her chamber music featuring the viola
  • becoming one of the first female professional orchestral players.
  • Posting on Maestro68.com
     Hildegard of Bingen      (1098-1179), Medieval, German
  • One of her works as a composer, the Ordo Virtutum, is an early example of liturgical drama and arguably the oldest surviving morality play.
  • Wikipedia Page
     Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) Romantic, French 
  Ethel Smyte (1858 -1944)     20th Century, English 
  • Full name & Title: Dame Ethel Mary Smyth, DBE, becoming the first female composer to be awarded a damehood
  • a member of the women’s suffrage movement
  • Wikipedia Page
  Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962)     21st Century, American
  • 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her Violin Concerto
  • two Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Classical Composition
  • Wikipedia Page
  Lili Boulanger (1893 -1918)     20th Century, French 
  Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952)    20th Century, Finnish
  • In 2008, she was named ‘Composer of the Year’ by Musical America.
  • Wikipedia Page
  Florence Price  (1887–1953)    20th Century, Finnish
  • first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer
  • first African-American woman to have a composition played by a major orchestra
  Barbara Strozzi  (1619-1677) Baroque, Italian
  • was an Italian singer and composer.
  • Her Baroque compositions were published in her lifetime.
  • said to be “the most prolific composer – man or woman – of printed secular vocal music in Venice in the Middle of the century.”
           Francesca Caccini                   (1587-after 1641)         Baroque, Italian
  • She was also known by the nickname “La Cecchina”, given to her by the Florentines and probably a diminutive of “Francesca”.
  • singer, lutenist, poet, and music teacher
  • daughter of Giulio Caccini

List of Female Composers

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