Every good part of history has its dark points, and while there are so many wondrous developments throughout the history of music, it certainly has its tragedies as well. One of the most glaring errors is that for most of Western music history, women composers have been dismissed, neglected, or outright repressed. Composition was seen as a man’s world, and women were often confined to roles as dutiful housewives who might play a little piano for friends.
While full equality has yet to be achieved, the world of composition has come a long way in recent decades, with women like Joan Tower and Sofia Gubaidulina creating irrepressible music that has paved the way for a new generation of talent that cannot be ignored. This month we are highlighting the contributions of the women composers throughout history who have battled tremendous odds to become our Leading Ladies.
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1. Alma Maria Mahler-Werfel – 5 Gesange: No. 2 Ekstase – When Alma Maria Schindler married Gustav Mahler in 1902, she agreed to his insistence that she cease composing so she could focus on raising their children. Years later, during a difficult point in their marriage, Gustav sought the advice of Sigmund Freud, who convinced him to stop curtailing her composition. They remained married until his death in 1911.
2. Dora Pejačević – Piano Concerto in G Minor: III. Allegro con fuoco – Pejačević was born in 1885 to a noble family in Croatia, and she is remembered as an important regional composer who helped introduce the orchestral song to Croatian music. Before she died at 37 from complications during childbirth, she composed over a hundred works, a number of which have been recorded in recent years.
3. Louise Farrenc – Symphony No. 1 in C Minor: IV. Allegro assai – Farrenc achieved fame first as a pianist, which allowed her to take a position as Professor of Piano at the prestigious Paris Conservatory. Of course, she was paid considerably less than her male counterparts, and it wasn’t until one of her compositions was triumphantly premiered by famed violinist Joseph Joachim that she was finally able to convince the school to pay her equally.
4. Grażyna Bacewicz – Violin Concerto No. 3: III. Vivo – Bacewicz was a talented violinist who performed both as a soloist and as the principal violinist of the Polish Radio Orchestra, a position which facilitated the performance of many of her works. Her compositions were highly respected in Poland in her day, and she received several lifetime achievement awards through the 1950s.
5. Kassia – O Vasilevs tis doxis Christos – Legend has it that 9th-century Byzantine emperor Theophilos was about to select Kassia as his empress when he made a comment that through a woman (Eve) sin entered the world. Unfazed, she reminded him that through a woman (the Virgin Mary) salvation also entered the world. Embarrassed, the emperor selected another woman, and Kassia later joined a convent.
6. Amy Beach – Bal masque – New Englander Amy Beach was the first successful female composer in the United States. She was a child prodigy, able to sing dozens of songs by her first birthday and improvise counter-melodies by her second. Following her husband’s wishes, she limited her performance career, but she was then able to devote herself fully to composition, soon earning a place as one of the major American composers of her day.
7. Mélanie Bonis – Les gitanos – Mel Bonis was born into a family that did not understand her musical ambitions, and they forced her to marry a wealthy businessman. Much of her time was occupied running the household and performing her socialite duties, but she still found a way to compose. One telling response to her music came from Saent-Saëns: “I would never have believed that a woman could be capable of writing that.”
8. Florence Beatrice Price – Symphony No. 1 in E Minor: IV. –– - Price became the first African-American woman to be acknowledged as a symphonic composer, and to have music performed by a major orchestra. She was friends with writer Langston Hughes and singer Marian Anderson, and her music blended traditional European Romantic technique with the rhythms and other elements of African-American spirituals.
9. Nadia Boulanger – 3 Pieces for Cello and Piano: No. 3 Vite et nerveusement rythmé – Nadia Boulanger’s compositions, though excellent and well received, were overshadowed by those of her younger sister Lili. Shortly after her sister’s death at the age of 25, Nadia gave up composition entirely and focused on teaching, counting many of the greatest 20th-century composers as her students.
10. Sofia Gubaidulina – Serenade – Gubaidulina frequently pushed the limits of what the Soviet music establishment would permit, earning disapproval for her exploration of alternative tunings and for her unapproved participation in Soviet music festivals in the West. Nevertheless, she continued to follow her own muse, and in 1992 she was able to leave Russia and make her home in Germany.
11. Missy Mazzoli – Magic With Everyday Objects – Born in 1980, Missy Mazzoli has established herself as a prominent composer in New York City, and she’s had her music performed by the Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird, Maya Beiser, the Minnesota Orchestra, and may other artists prominent today. In 2016 she is expected to premier a new opera based on Lars Von Trier’s classic film Breaking the Waves.
12. Elisabetta Brusa – Symphony No. 1: III. Allegro moderato – Italian composer Elisabetta Brusa composed her Symphony No. 1 towards the end of the 1980s, and it was her first work written for a large orchestra. She works within a generally tonal sound world influenced by composers of the late Romantic Era, and her work has a unique mystical melodicism that stimulates the imagination.
13. Clara Schumann – Piano Concerto in A Minor: I. Allegro maestoso – Clara Schumann was one of the more prominent figures in German music during her lifetime. Not only did she have a 61-year career as a pianist, during which she established the now-commonplace custom of performing from memory, but she composed alongside her husband Robert and was a noted champion and mentor of Johannes Brahms.
14. Ethel Smyth – Serenade in D Major: II. Scherzo: Allegro vivace – Allegro molto – Like many other female composers, Ethel Smyth first had to battle the opposition of her father, then the judgments of a musical world that would call her loud, powerful works unladylike, then dismiss her softer music as trivial. She was an active participant in the suffragette movement, even spending a couple months in prison for her activism.
15. Hildegard of Bingen – O magne Pater – Medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen was a nun in Germany who penned one of the largest known oeuvres from the twelfth century. Her melismatic melodies and wide pitch range were progressive for the day, and her Ordo Virtutum is possibly the oldest surviving morality play. Not only did she compose music, but she also wrote several books on theology, science, and medicine.
16. Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel – Das Jahr: No. 4 April – Growing up, Fanny Mendelssohn’s music teacher considered her to be more notable than her younger brother Felix, but due to prevailing attitudes towards women in that day, she was not permitted by her father and brother to pursue a career in performance or composition. Her husband was more supportive, at least of her writing, and she left us more than 460 pieces of music.
17. Germaine Tailleferre – Pastorale in C Major - Tailleferre changed her surname from Taillefesse as a little act of resistance to her father’s disapproval of her musical ambitions. Her work was championed by Ravel, and she was a member of the group of young composers known as Les Six. Her work from the 20s and 30s is best-known, but she composed right up to her death in 1983.
18. Maria Theresia Von Paradis – Sicilienne – Maria Theresia Von Paradis was blind from a very young age, though as a teenager her condition showed improvement until her doctor was fired by her family, either because of fear of scandal or loss of disability pensions. This didn’t prevent her from becoming a tremendous pianist who was able to commission works from Mozart, Haydn, and Salieri.
19. Rachel Portman – Oliver Twist: Fagin’s Loot – English composer Rachel Portman is primarily known for her film scores, which include Oliver Twist, Chocolat, Emma, and The Cider House Rules. She is one of only two female composers to win an Academy Award for a film score (for Emma in 1996), and she remains the only woman to receive multiple nominations in that category.
20. Jennifer Higdon – Amazing Grace – Higdon is one of the most frequently performed contemporary American composers, with her tone poem blue mountain alone earning performances from over 400 orchestras since its 2000 premier. Among a growing array of accolades, Higdon has won both a Grammy Award and a Pulitzer Prize. To close this playlist we selected her string quartet arrangement of the hymn Amazing Grace.
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