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Top Five Women Composers

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Earlier this year, The New York Times’ chief classical critic, Anthony Tommasini embarked on a journey to name the top 10 composers in history. The only criteria was they could no longer be alive. Not one woman made his list—understandably so.

In honor of Women’s History Month, however, we’re using Mr. Tommasini’s same criteria to name the top 5 female composers in history. Here are a selection of ladies who might just have made the top 10 list if they had been afforded the same opportunities available to their male counterparts.

1. Clara Schumann’s father, Friedrich Wieck, had aspirations for that daughter to become a great pianist, and she met those lofty goals. While she toured through Europe, no lesser a pianist than Liszt championed her skills. Though the composing careers of her husband, Robert, and dear friend, Johannes Brahms, overshadow her own, she left behind a catalogue of works, much of it for solo piano, but also several chamber pieces and lieder that are regularly perfomed.

2. Fanny Mendelssohn also came from a musical family. Like her brother Felix, her talents in the art form were recognized at an early age. But unlike her younger male sibling, she was unable to continue her musical studies, which were thought unfit for a young woman. She did perform in private family concerts and left behind a substantial body of work—of many art songs, piano works and some choral pieces—which might have been greater had she lived past the age of 41.

3 Another piano prodigy, Amy Beach was invited to performing with the Boston Symphony by the time she reached 18. However, she scaled back her stage career at the request of her husband, a prominent Boston doctor. Instead she embarked upon one of the great composing careers for an American woman. When the BSO played her Gaelic Symphony in 1896, it is thought to be first performance of a symphonic piece by an American women.

4. A renaissance women three centuries before the Renaissance reached her native Germany, Hildegard von Bingen wrote more than 70 works as a nun in the Benedictine order. Though she is best recognized today as the composer of medieval songs, in her time she was known also as a mystic, theologian, diplomat, author, as well as musician. German director and feminist thinker Margarethe von Trotta celebrated her life in the 2009 film, Vision.

5. Lili Boulanger was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, the most prestigious award for composition in her native France for her cantata Faust et Hélène when she was only 20 years old. Frail from early childhood, she died five years later, leaving a small body of work that blended influences from Debussy and Fauré. Her sister Nadia, who was also a great musician and took second prize in the Prix de Rome competition, commemorated her sister with a memorial fund based in Boston that provides financial support to young composers.

Who are your favorite female composers? Leave a comment below: