Music Monday: Female Composers in Classical Music

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
collage of portraits from female composers

March is Women's History Month, so this week, we honor some of the female composers who have contributed to classical music. As in many fields, it has often been difficult for women to develop their talents to the fullest. Women often didn't have access to musical education or training; they may have had less time to devote to composition; and their efforts were not always taken seriously by the men who dominated the musical world.

Today, we offer brief sketches of fifteen composers, a small sampling of the women who overcame those obstacles to make significant contributions to our musical history, with links to some of their music. Unless otherwise noted, links are to music available for streaming or download at Freegal or Hoopla, where you can find additional music by these women and many others.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Hildegard was a German abbess and philosopher who wrote about her divinely inspired visions, which had begun in early childhood. Hildegard reported that God had told her to "write down that which you see and hear," which led to her musical compositions. About 70 works survive, one of the largest bodies of work for any medieval composer. Her Ordo Virtutum dates from about 1150; it's a morality play in which the Virtues and the Devil struggle for control of the human soul.

Francesca Caccini (1587-1641?)

Caccini was born into a musical family; in her childhood, Caccini performed with her parents and siblings in a popular musical ensemble. As an adult, she was the most highly paid musician in the Medici court, where she worked as a singer, teacher, and composer. Her La liberazione di Ruggiero (1625) is the earliest known opera composed by a woman. Caccini's music was noted for its harmonic sophistication. Sadly, much of her work has been lost; O Viva Rosa is a program of her songs and arias.

Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)

Mendelssohn was a skilled pianist, and began composing while still in her teens. Some of her early works were published under the name of her brother, Felix, who greatly valued his sister's advice on his own compositions. It was only shortly before her death that she published a collection of songs under her own name. Mendelssohn wrote primarily songs and piano music, smaller and more intimate forms that were considered more appropriate for women at the time. Elzbieta Sternlicht is the pianist in this collection of Mendelssohn's music.

Amy Beach (1867-1944)

As a young woman, Beach performed as a pianist in Boston. After her marriage, she turned her focus to composition. She was mostly self-taught, studying every composition textbook she could find, and even translating important French texts herself. During her life, Beach's most popular pieces were her songs, but in recent decades, interest has grown in her large-scale works, which include a mass, a piano concerto, and the "Gaelic" Symphony, the first symphony to be written and published by an American woman.

Florence Price (1887-1953)

Price studied piano and organ at the New England Conservatory of Music, and skillfully blended the music of her southern and African-American heritage with European classical traditions. In 1933, her first symphony was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the first music by an African-American woman to be played by a major orchestra. Much of her music was lost for many years, until scores were discovered in an abandoned house in 2009. Price's work includes four symphonies, music for piano and organ, spiritual arrangements, and two violin concertos.

Johanna Beyer (1888-1944)

Beyer's music was not often performed during her lifetime, but has since been acknowledged as an important contribution to the American modernist movement, ahead of its time in many ways. Her 1938 Music of the Spheres is the first known piece of electronic music written by a woman, and she wrote several pieces in the 1930s for percussion ensemble. Beyer's music was distinctive for its sense of humor and for her use of experimental compositional and performance techniques. Sticky Melodies collects a large sampling of Beyer's chamber music.

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953)

Crawford Seeger traveled in some of the same musical circles as Beyer, and in her music of the 1930s she was among the first American composers to explore the serial techniques of Arnold Schoenberg. In the 1940s, Crawford Seeger and her husband, Charles, worked at the Library of Congress, gathering and collecting American folk music. Most of her later compositions were arrangements and interpretations of that folk music. The "American Masters" series offers a selection of Crawford Seeger's chamber music.

Thea Musgrave (b. 1928)

Musgrave is a Scottish composer who often takes historical figures as the subjects for her operas – Harriet Tubman, Simon Bolivar, Mary Queen of Scots. She has written several concertos, which call for great virtuosity from their soloists; in her clarinet concerto, the soloist is asked to wander through the orchestra, exchanging musical ideas with the different sections. Musgrave's horn and clarinet concertos are included in this collection of her music, along with some of her piano music, played by Musgrave herself.

Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931)

Gubaidulina draws a strong connection between music and spirituality, and much of her music is intended as exploration of mysticism and human transcendence. She often works with unexpected combinations of instruments, or with traditional instruments not usually found in the orchestra; one piece is written for 30 kotos, a Japanese instrument somewhat like a zither. Two of her major works are gathered in this recordingCanticle of the Sun, for cello, choir, and percussion; and The Lyre of Orpheus, for violin, percussion, and strings.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939)

Zwilich's career in music began as an orchestral violinist, and it wasn't until the 1970s that she began seriously focusing on composition. The pieces of her first decade are mostly atonal, but since the 1980s, her style has become more neo-romantic; she calls the change "communicating more directly with listeners."  Most of Zwilich's music is orchestral, though there are some vocal and chamber works. In 1983, she was the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music, for her Symphony #1.

Meredith Monk (b. 1942)

Monk is principally known for her vocal music, much of it written either for herself or for her ensemble of musicians. She utilizes unusual vocal techniques, and her music is often wordless, making use of the full range of sounds the voice can make. Monk is also trained as a dancer, and many of her pieces combine music, dance, and theater. She has recorded a great deal of her own music; the 1971 piece Key is described as an "album of invisible theater."

Tania León (b. 1943)

León was born in Cuba, and her ancestry strongly influences her music. Several of her early works were ballet scores, written for the Dance Theater of Harlem. León's body of work is mostly chamber music, but she has recently begun to write pieces for full orchestra. She is also a conductor and educator, and an advocate for the work of other Latin American composers. Several of León's chamber works are collected in Indigena.

Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952)

Saariaho is a Finnish composer whose first important works grew out of her studies at IRCAM, a Paris institute devoted to the study of computer and electronic music. Her music of the 1980s and 1990s frequently combined live performance with pre-recorded electronics; in the 21st century, she has focused more on the traditional orchestra. In 2016, her L'Amour de loin was only the second opera by a female composer to be performed by the Metropolitan Opera. The organ concerto Maan varjot (Earth's Shadows) is a fine example of her recent work.

Unsuk Chin (b. 1961)

Chin is a South Korean composer, and Asian music – particularly, she says, the Balinese gamelan -- has been an important influence for her. Like Saariaho, Chin had early training in electronic music, and has included electronic elements in pieces throughout her career. Her body of work includes several large vocal pieces, for which she often uses experimental poetry as texts. Her 2001 violin concerto has been one of Chin's most frequently performed pieces; it is paired on this recording with her orchestral work Rocana.

Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962)

Higdon began her composing career writing mostly chamber music, often featuring the flute, the instrument that she plays. But it is the orchestral music she began writing at the turn of the century that has brought her wide recognition. That music includes several concertos, many for instruments that don't often get a moment in the spotlight – soprano saxophone, trombone, and viola among them. Higdon's first opera, Cold Mountain (on CD), premiered in 2015; it's based on Charles Frazier's novel.