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Tooth and nail: talented women composers in classical music history




If you go to a classical music concert, chances are you’ll see a some amazing pieces performed… and chances are the entire concert will be written by white men. “Don’t get me wrong, these people wrote some incredible music,” says cellist Milo Nieves in our interview on Zeitgeist Radio. But at the same time they were gaining fortune and fame, “women were writing music, and fought tooth and nail to get their music performed and published.”


For literally over 1000 years women have contributed to the Western musical tradition. Here are a very select few whose names you may see around, but there are many more!



HILDEGARD VON BINGEN


Hildegard von Bingen, also known as Saint Hildegard, was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, and visionary of the 12th century. She was born in 1098 and died in 1179. She’s an OG in the Western musical tradition!


Hildegard seemingly did everything. She founded two monasteries, wrote theological and scientific works, composed music, and is said to have received visions that she recorded in her works. She was also a respected advisor to popes, bishops, and kings, and was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church in 2012.


She composed chants and hymns, which were written in a style that was distinct from the Gregorian chants of her time. She composed a collection of 77 hymns, known as the "Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum" (Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations). These hymns are written in a style that is similar to the Gregorian chant, but with a distinct “Hildegardian” style.


Her most famous musical work is "Ordo Virtutum" (Play of the Virtues), which is considered to be one of the earliest surviving works of musical theater! A "morality play," it tells the story of a soul's journey to God, and features allegorical figures such as the Virtues, the Devil, and the Soul.



BOULANGER SISTERS

The Boulanger sisters, Nadia Boulanger and Lili Boulanger, were both French composers and musicians in the early 20th century.


Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was a composer, conductor, and music teacher who was widely recognized as one of the most influential music educators of the 20th century. She taught many of the leading (white male) composers of the era, including Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, and Philip Glass. As a composer, Nadia Boulanger wrote mostly chamber music, choral music, and songs. As a teacher, her methods and philosophies continue to influence music education today.


Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) was Nadia's younger sister and also a composer. She is considered to be one of the most promising composers of her generation, despite her short life. Lili Boulanger won the Prix de Rome in 1913 for her composition "Faust et Helene," becoming the first woman to win this prestigious award. She wrote in a variety of styles, including choral music, songs, and orchestral works. Lili Boulanger died tragically at the age of 24 from tuberculosis.



CLARA SHUMANN


Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was a German pianist, composer, and music educator of the Romantic era. She was born Clara Wieck in Leipzig, Germany, and was a child prodigy, giving her first public performance at the age of nine.


As a pianist, Clara Schumann was renowned for her technical skill and musicality. She was one of the most prominent concert pianists of her time and toured extensively throughout Europe, earning critical acclaim for her performances.


As a composer, Clara Schumann wrote a variety of works, including solo piano pieces, songs, and chamber music. Her compositions were highly regarded (rare) during her lifetime, and she was praised for her skillful blending of traditional forms with “modern” (at the time) harmonies and melodies.


In addition to her performing and composing careers, Clara Schumann was also a dedicated music educator. She taught piano to a number of students and was known for her rigorous and demanding teaching style. Many of her students went on to become accomplished musicians in their own right.



FANNY MENDELSSOHN


Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) was a German composer and pianist. She was born in Hamburg, Germany, into a wealthy and highly cultured family.


Fanny showed an early talent for music, and she received a thorough musical education from her mother and private tutors. She began composing at a young age and wrote hundreds of works, including piano music, chamber music, choral works, and songs.


Fanny also played an important role in the cultural life of Berlin. She hosted musical salons (gatherings) at her home, where she performed her own music and that of other composers, and she supported many emerging artists and musicians.


Some big-name contemporaries (i.e successful male composers), including Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt, praised her skillful use of harmony and her ability to express deep emotion through music.


That wasn’t enough, though, because despite her talent and dedication Fanny was not allowed to pursue a professional career as a musician. Many of her works were published under her brother Felix's name, or remained unpublished.




AMY BEACH


Amy Beach (1867-1944) was an American composer and pianist. She was born in New Hampshire and showed a remarkable talent for music at a young age. She began composing at the age of four and gave her first public performance as a pianist at the age of seven.


As a composer, Amy Beach was largely self-taught. She wrote more than 300 works in a variety of genres, including orchestral music, chamber music, songs, and choral works.


While she had some success as a composer, Amy was discouraged from pursuing a career as a concert pianist, and her husband did not support her musical aspirations. Nevertheless, she continued to compose throughout her life, and she became an important figure in the cultural life of Boston, where she lived for many years.


In addition to her work as a composer, Amy Beach was also a respected pianist and a dedicated music educator. She taught piano to many students and was an active member of the musical community in Boston. She was a trailblazer for women in music, and she did a lot of work dedicated to paving the way for later generations of female composers and musicians.



HENRIETTA BOSMANS


Henrietta Bosmans (1895-1952) was a Dutch composer and pianist who was born in Amsterdam. She showed a great musical talent from a young age and began composing music as a teenager.


Henrietta studied piano at the Amsterdam Conservatory. She quickly established herself as one of the most promising young composers of her generation in the Netherlands.


She composed music in a variety of genres, including chamber music, orchestral works, and songs. She was also a virtuoso pianist and performed extensively as a soloist and chamber musician throughout Europe.


Despite her success as a performer, Henrietta struggled to gain recognition as a composer. Same song, 1000th verse.


THAT’S ONLY A TASTE


There are so many more amazing women who had talent, training, and as much right as anyone to stand alongside the greats like Beethoven or Mozart. But because of the strong oppressive cultures standing in their way, they are relegated to being known more for the novelty of being a “woman composer” rather than for their nuanced artistry.


We have this story that the “greats” in music became so because of talent, early music education and training, and studying under other masters in the field. But if you look at the biographies of these women, they all start the same as the men. They were recognized as children for their musical talent. They had prestigious music education and training from a young age. Many studied music in universities alongside their male counterparts. Some were family with famous male composers, and still couldn’t get social traction!


And as the decades go by, their struggles disappear into a vague assumption that women weren’t writing music, or that it wasn’t as good as the music written by men… when really, the only thing setting them apart is a society that simply didn’t want to see, hear, or think about them.


Luckily, we have people like Milo and others working to bring these women and their music back to life. “I guess part of my ‘thing’ is trying to incorporate more music by underrepresented composers in my own repertoire,” says Milo. “The only way it's going to change is if people perform it…if we want something to change we have to be part of that change.”


I for one am looking forward to a world where we can just call them “composers” instead of “women composers,” and where posts like this don’t need to be written.


Listen to my interview with Milo and learn more about some amazing women in the history of classical music!


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