Top Five Women Composers

Thursday, March 03, 2011

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:


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Comments [19]

Pacific moderate from Seattle

Well the sentiment is nice, but really, no Barbara Strozzi (as important as any contemporaneous male composer of Italian cantatas)? And no Ruth Crawford (the most important female composer of the modernist period, just as important as Cowell and Ruggles, among others)? Both of those, along with Hildegard, are genuinely important composers. Lili Boulanger wrote some promising music before her premature death. But the other three names on your list are minor composers aside from any name recognition matters.

May. 03 2016 02:35 AM
Thundarr from Buffalo

Peggy Stuart Coolidge was my favorite especially her American Reflections

Nov. 25 2015 08:06 PM

Don't forget Louise Farrenc's 3 symphonies, her 2 wonderful piano quintets (Schubert "Trout" instrumentation), and a host of other chamber and piano works...

Sep. 29 2015 02:34 PM
Yeou-Cheng Ma from United States

I love the music of Cecile Chaminade, Germaine Tailleferre, and Pauline Viardot

Mar. 02 2015 08:14 PM
michelle tellier from paris, france

Listen to Barbara Strozzi's works (XVIIth century) : such power, drama, expression, and harmonic depth !
I am uplifted by her, as I am moved by Monteverdi ; kindred spirits

Feb. 26 2015 05:05 AM
Steffan Aletti from New York City

Let's not forget Alice Mary Smith, arguably the first European woman to write a symphony. A student of Sterndale Bennett, she wrote two symphonies, the first one full of melodies that crazyglue themselves into your mind, a clarinet piece (originally for piano/clarinet but later orchestrated) and, of course, lots of songs. Her education was through the Royal Academy, and she eventually became the first professional female musician to be inducted into the royal Academy of Music. Alas, it appears she spent the latter part of her short life writing those big morally and religiously satisfying cantatas with multiple choruses that the Victorians so loved -- Sullivan's Golden Legend would be an example.

Her cantatas apparently were performed into the early 20th century, at least until the British public lost its taste for the genre. Happily, a new Chandos release of her two symphonies have rescued her from oblivion. Granted, like most British music of the mid to later 19th century, her work is Schubertian and Mendelsohnian in spirit -- i.e. like Sullivan's symphonic music it must have sounded a bit old-fashioned to concertgoers of the 1870s, but it is charming, melodic, highly-professional and very satisfying. Had she not died in her early 50s she might well have been that IMPORTANT female composer who didn't quite materialise and, despite Ms. Beach, Dame Ethyl etc. all the way up to Barbara Kolb and Elle Taffe Zwillich has, arguably, yet to appear.

Jun. 20 2014 02:39 PM
Sarah B.

Just a point on facts - Margaret Ruthven Lang was the first American woman to have a symphonic work performed, *not* Amy Beach. (Though Beach and Lang were friends in the Boston high society.) Lang's Dramatic Overture was premiered in Boston by the BSO under Nikisch's baton in 1893, three years before Beach's work was heard on the same stage.

Mar. 16 2011 07:33 PM
Michael Meltzer

Thinking about your first paragraph, before any music critic listed the top ten composers in history, shouldn't someone have listed the top ten music critics in history?

Mar. 10 2011 11:49 AM
Michael Meltzer

Victor Borge's punctuation system, hilarious as it was, was always grammatically correct in its story-telling application, even though his first language was Danish.
He had to leave Denmark at the beginning of the war when word got out about the comment in his night club act that "the difference between a Nazi and a dog is that a Nazi lifts his arm."

Mar. 08 2011 10:41 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

Oh how Victor Borge would have loved to jump in on the conversation regarding punctuation! I recall many years ago Johnny Carson mentioning a time when he dangled a participle but I too, digress!

Mar. 08 2011 07:21 PM
Neil Schnall

One can, arguably, make a case for the use of commas, here, there, or where'er they delineate a phrase, separate listed items, or establish a prepositional case. I have, frequently, been guilty of this awkwardness. That's not all I have been guilty of, such as, for example, the ending of a phrase with a preposition, but, I digress.

A good rule of thumb may be to determine whether the placement of a comma, or the lack thereof, alters the meaning of what is written. To improve flow, where possible, leave it out.

Mar. 08 2011 03:48 PM
Michael Meltzer

Ms. Angel is using many, many, many commas as though they were breath-marks, which in prose writing they are not.

Mar. 06 2011 07:57 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

Happy to see that Amy Beach made your list! Piano prodigy and gifted composer suppressed by a prominent husband during Mark Twain's "Gilded Age." Too bad her bff wasn't Alice Roosevelt - things may have turned out different! Still in all, a lengthy, prolific career even befriending John Philip Sousa along the way at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition with both dedicating compositions at the Expo and Sousa's Band "backing up" Mrs. Beach's choral dedication. A cordial friendship and a mutual admiration between the two was formed as evidence in two letters found in my personal collection of John Philip Sousa ephemera. Sousa was a champion of American composers - male and female, and promoted their works on a frequent basis.

Mar. 05 2011 10:26 PM
Michael Meltzer

Re-reading the WQXR guidelines, I seem to have made one error, Thea Musgrave is still alive.
Since that is a good thing, I won't apologize.

Mar. 05 2011 06:25 PM
Michael Meltzer

"Greatness" is a combination of originality, craft, longevity and acclaim. I think this site was designed to cite composers and works that meet the first three requirements and attempt to reverse the shortfall in the fourth. I believe there are such works and composers, I have cited two.
Nadia Boulanger always referred to her late sister Lili as "the talented one in the family," Hall's suggestion is suspect without a little explanation.

Mar. 05 2011 06:17 PM

There are no great women composers. Hildegard of Bingen did not write set pieces. Amy Beach was the most prolific. Boulanger's "Pie Jesu" is beautiful and likely in part the work of her sister, Nadia. Is it not enough that there are truly great women performers? This is more of the same tendency to political correctness, now even in the arts. Do check for the five great women architects.

Mar. 05 2011 04:27 PM
Louise from Brooklyn

Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen (1745-1818).
Her work used to be played on WQXR, but I have not heard anything of hers on WQXR in a long time.

Mar. 05 2011 10:51 AM

In my opinion, most of us not all that knowlegable in the field of classical music lile Mr. Meltzer don't really know enough or hear enough music by these female composers. QXR - How about a female composer week?

Mar. 04 2011 08:31 AM
Michael Meltzer

Of all the women composers I've heard aired on WQXR in the last year, the one that impressed me the most was Rebecca Clarke.
Of all the women composers I've NOT heard on WQXR, that would be Thea Musgrave, particularly her choral music.

Mar. 04 2011 06:19 AM

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