Being a female composer has always been a challenge; even now, a Classic FM survey last year of 100 of the world’s top orchestras revealed that only five percent of the music scheduled in their concerts is composed by women. The study took in 4,857 events scheduled by orchestras and over 88% of them didn’t represent female composers at all.
Chief exec of the Royal Philharmonic Society, James Murphy, said, ‘Music can enliven and empower us all. But people are less inclined to engage with it if they don’t see themselves in it. That risks marginalising and diminishing something that ought to be universally cherished.’
He added, ‘History’s done a brilliant job of making us think classical music is white and male. It’s not.’
So, who have been the most famous female composers through history? Our list takes in everything from a medieval abbess to a Turkish pianist who’s bringing classical and rock music together.
- Hildegard von Bingen
- Francesca Caccini
- Barbara Strozzi
- Isabella Leonarda
- Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre
- Marianna Martines
- Louise Farrenc
- Fanny Mendelssohn
- Clara Schumann
- Teresa Carreño
- Cécile Chaminade
- Ethel Smyth
- Lili Boulanger
- Florence Price
- Anne Dudley
- Judith Weir
- Debbie Wiseman
- AyseDeniz Gokcin
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
Hildegard was a true trailblaizer – an abbess, a visionary, a poet, a dramatist, herbalist and composer. She has a musical legacy of nearly 80 surviving works – one of the largest of any Medieval composer. She never formally studied musical notation or singing, but her music is tremendously bold, with ecstatic melodies and a dramatic use of flowing lines. One of Hildegard’s compositions, the Ordo Virtutum, is acknowledged as the oldest surviving morality play.
Francesca Caccini (1587-1640)
The daughter of the great Renaissance composer Giulio Caccini was a singer, lutenist, poet and teacher known as ‘La Ceccina’. She became one of Europe’s most influential female composers, but sadly, little of her music survives. Her work, ‘La Liberazione di Ruggiero’ is considered to be the first opera by a woman, first staged in 1625.
Francesca is known to have composed 32 songs and at least 16 stage works; she also provided music for court and liturgical settings.
Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677)
Barbara Strozzi was said to be, ‘the most prolific composer – man or woman – of printed secular vocal music in Venice’ in the mid-17th century. She was the composer of 8 volumes of dramatic vocal music during the Baroque period. Her first book of songs were settings of her father’s lyrics. Guilio Strozzi was an enlightened dramatist and librettist who encouraged both Barbara’s performing as a singer and her composing. Her works – three quarters of which were written for soprano – have a lyrical sound and her lyrics were often poetic; she published one known work of religious pieces.
Strozzi also broke new ground as the first woman to publish her music under her own name, instead of using a male pseudonym.
Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704)
Leonarda spent her life – from the age of 16 onwards – in a convent, where she worked on her compositions and taught her fellow nuns. Her published compositions span a period of 60 years – she’s credited with producing nearly 200 compositions in the Baroque era. She wrote music in nearly every sacred genre, from motets and sacred concertos to sacred Latin dialogues, psalm settings, Magnificats and masses. Her ‘Sonata da Chiesa, Op. 16’ was the first published instrumental sonata by a woman.
Leonarda’s music is notable for its intricate use of harmonies; she was educated in formal counterpoint, and uses it in many of her pieces. Her sonatas were unusual, often departing from the standard four movement form; Sonata 4 has as many as 13 movements.
Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729)
Parisian harpsichord prodigy Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre was born into a family of musicians. She played for Louis XIV at the age of five and a contemporary chronicler described how, ‘sometimes she improvises one or another for a whole half hour with tunes and harmonies of great variety and in the quite the best possible taste, quite charming her listeners.’
She mainly composed for the harpsichord, and Cephale et Procris in 1694 was the first opera by a woman to be staged in France. She also created dramatic violin sonatas, noted for their bold, structural freedom.
Marianna Martines (1744-1812)
Marianna Martines’s neighbour in Vienna was Joseph Haydn. Her family arranged for the precocious Marianna to have a wide-ranging education – including piano lessons from Haydn - and the prodigy performed in front of the imperial court and played with Mozart.
Marianna wrote everything from masses to motets and three litanies for choir. She wrote in the Italian style, which was typical for the early Classical period in Vienna. Her music became known throughout Europe and she became the first woman to gain admission to the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna in 1773. Her list of surviving works comprises two oratorios; four masses; six motets; psalm cantatas; secular cantatas; three keyboard sonatas, three keyboard concertos; and a symphony.
Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)
France’s first major female composer of the 19th century was also influential as a performer and Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire for 30 years. She married flautist Aristide Farrenc, and he founded Editions Farrenc, which led to the publication of her works – it became of one of France’s leading music publishers for nearly 40 years. Farrenc’s compositions in the Romantic period include three symphonies, a few choral works, numerous chamber pieces and a wide variety of piano music.
She progressed from composing exclusively for the piano in the 1820s and 1830s to branching out into orchestral and chamber music – the latter is regarded as her best work.
Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)
The German sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn composed more than 450 works, including a piano trio, 250 lieder (art songs) and several books of piano pieces and songs. She grew up in Berlin and received a thorough musical education from teachers including her mother and composers Ludwig Berger and Carl Friedrich Zelter. Zelter wrote to Goethe that Fanny, ‘could give you something of Sebastian Bach. This child is really something special.’
In 1841, Fanny composed a cycle of piano pieces depicting the months of the year, Das Jahr. In a letter she revealed that, ‘I have been composing a good deal lately, and have called my piano pieces after the names of my favourite haunts, partly because they really came into my mind at these spots, partly because our pleasant excursions were in my mind while I was writing them. They will form a delightful souvenir, a kind of second diary. But do not imagine that I give these names when playing them in society, they are for home use entirely.’
Her music was strongly influenced by Beethoven’s later music in terms of form, tonality and fugal counterpoint. There’s been renewed interest in Mendelssohn and her works from the 1980s onwards, with the Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn Museum opening in 2018 in Hamburg.
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
Clara Schumann composed virtuoso piano music from a young age, including her Variations on a Theme by Bellini when she was just 16. Married to Robert Schumann, Clara’s career as a composer was undoubtedly hampered by having to support their eight children.
Clara enjoyed a 61-year concert career during the Romantic era, but lost confidence in her composing in her mid-30s: ‘I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea. A woman must not desire to compose – there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?’
Nevertheless, Classical-music.com declared that, ‘A towering musician, Clara Schumann’s influence on the repertoire, on the recital format and on an approach to the piano that favoured searching musicianship over display are as important legacies as her music.’
Having written piano pieces in her youth, after her marriage, she turned to lieder and choral works. Most of her music was never played by anyone else, and largely forgotten until a resurgence of interest in her work in the 1970s.
Teresa Carreño (1853-1917)
Hailing from Venezuela, Carreño was a pianist, singer and composer who performed for Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1863. She composed at least 75 works for solo piano, voice and piano, choir and orchestra and instrumental ensemble.
Carreño had a 54-year concert career and became internationally famous, often referred to as the ‘Valkyrie of the piano’, as she played the works of Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Schumann, Beethoven, Schuber, Mendelssohn and more.
Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)
Chaminade was a French composer and pianist who in 1913 became the first female composer to be awarded the Legion d’Honneur, and of whom Ambroise Thomas said, ‘this is not a woman who composes, but a composer who is a woman.’
In 1869, she performed some of her music for Georges Bizet, who was impressed with her talents. From 1878 onwards, she only performed her own works at concerts. Having performed concerts in the US in 1908, her compositions became favourites with the American public. She went on to compose the ballet music for Callirhoe and other orchestral works.
Her most popular piece is the Flute Concertino in D major, Op. 107, composed for the 1902 Paris Conservatoire Concours. Describing her own style, Chaminade wrote, ‘I am essentially of the Romantic school, as all my work shows.’
Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
Ethel Smyth was an English composer and suffragist – her 1911 composition, ‘The March of the Women’, became an anthem of the Suffrage Movement (she even served to months in Holloway Prison for breaking a window.)
As you’d probably expect from a suffragist, Smyth wasn’t interested in composing ‘feminine’ songs or piano miniatures. Her work instead embraced ambitious, large-scale forms, including the Double Concerto for horn and violin, the Mass in D and six operas. Der Wald was staged at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1903; it remained the only opera by a woman composer produced at the Met till 2016.
Smyth’s opera The Wreckers is considered by some critics to be ‘the most important English opera composed during the period between Purcell and Britten.’ In 2022, it was performed at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera – the first professional production in its original French libretto.
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
Marie Juliette ‘Lili’ Boulanger was a French composer and the first female winner of the Prix de Rome composition prize at the age of just 19. Lili was a prodigy whose talent burned brightly – but was extinguished when she died aged only 24.
Gabriel Fauré, a friend of the family, discovered that Boulanger had perfect pitch when she was two years old, and her parents encouraged her musical education. Boulanger and her sister, Nadia, were both influenced by Debussy and her music fits easily into what was becoming defined as a post-Romantic style.
Florence Price (1887-1953)
Price was a pioneering force in the US, overcoming tough odds to become the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and, in 1933, the first whose work was played by a major orchestra.
Her prolific output resulted in around 300 works – including four symphonies, four concertos, choral works and chamber music - many of which weren’t discovered until years after she had died. In 1940, Price was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for her work as a composer.
Anne Dudley (b. 1956)
Anne Dudley originally made her name as a session musician, working with producer Trevor Horn on albums such as ABC’s The Lexicon of Love. She was a founding member of Art of Noise, who helped to pioneer sampling within pop. After a lengthy career working with and producing pop acts, she turned her hand to composing for the orchestra, with Northern Lights, a 14-minute reflection of Norway’s Aurora Borealis for a full orchestra, in 2005.
As well as claiming an Oscar, Dudley also has a Grammy award, two BRIT awards, and three Ivor Novello Award nominations.
Judith Weir (b. 1954)
Judith Weir CBE trained with John Tavener, and her music often draws on sources from medieval history, as well as traditional stories and music from her native Scotland. Best known for her operas – Blond Eckbert and Armida – and theatrical works, she has also composed orchestral and chamber works.
Weir became the first woman to hold the office of Master of the King’s Music when she was appointed in 2014 by Queen Elizabeth (when the post was known as the Master of the Queen’s Music.) She was commissioned to compose an a capella work for the state funeral of Elizabeth II and wrote a setting of Psalm 42, ‘Like as the Hart’; her piece ‘Brighter Visions Shine Afar’ was performed at King Charles III’s Coronation. She won the Ivors Classical Music Award at the Ivor Novello Awards in 2015.
Debbie Wiseman OBE (b. 1963)
Classic FM’s Composer in residence is one of the UK’s most successful female music ambassadors. Over the past 20 years, she’s amassed over 200 credits for both the big and small screen.
Debbie has been nominated for two Ivor Novello Awards and won an RTS Award. She was one of 11 composers chosen to compose music for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant and was the official composer and musical director of the Platinum Jubilee Celebration at Windsor in May 1922.
In 2022, Debbie was voted the most popular living British composer for the first time in Classic FM’s Hall of fame, with seven entries, including The Mythos Suite.
AyseDeniz Gokcin (b. 1988)
AyseDeniz Gokcin is a Turkish classical crossover pianist and neo-romantic composer. She started playing piano aged five and was considered a child prodigy. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Eastman School of Music, she completed a master’s degree at the Royal Academy of Music in 2011.
She has recorded an EP of her arrangements for solo piano in the style of Liszt of Pink Floyd tracks, Pink Floyd Lisztified, a Nirvana album and a classical album recording of Chopin, making her one of today’s composers who are taking inspiration from the classical greats to push the boundary of what it means to be a ‘classical composer’.
She told NetInfluencer.com that she feels strongly that everyone should be able to listen to as many types of music as they’d like, which is why she does a lot of rock covers and composes her own music – to inspire others to listen to different genres and styles of music.
When it came to her own compositions, she said, ‘I started doing more original compositions because I thought, “Okay, why not? Since I’m doing all these arrangements [that] are very different than the originals, I could definitely compose my own things”… the album I recorded became top two in the US classical charts and in the UK as well.’
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