18 Women Composers You Should Know

Tuesday, March 07, 2017 - 05:21 PM

Jennifer Higdon, award-winning composer. Jennifer Higdon, award-winning composer. (Philadelphia Youth Orchestra/Flickr)

March is home to both Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. If you’re looking for some great sounds to celebrate the contributions women have made to society throughout human history, start with the music of these 18 composers.

Amy Beach

One of the most prolific American composers of all time, woman or not. Born in New Hampshire and recognized as a prodigy, she got her career start in Boston before later moving to Europe. She was especially celebrated for her secular and sacred choral work, including a setting of the Mass which helped propel her to fame. 


Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre

Like most of Europe, 17th century France was not exactly known for advancing the careers of aspiring women composers. Despite this environment, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre’s talent was so pronounced that her male contemporaries didn’t shy away from acknowledging it. Born in Paris in 1665, the young Jacquet de la Guerre was quickly identified as a harpsichord prodigy and even made King Louis XIV a fan of her work. Her musical education was overseen by the King’s mistress, Madame de Montespan. Among Jacquet de la Guerre’s published works were a set of compositions for harpsichord — notable because of the period’s lack of published music for the instrument — and the opera Céphale et Procris. While the latter’s lukewarm reception may be credited for her decision not to write another opera, she came back with some innovative harpsichord music and two books of cantatas.

Henriette Renié

This woman holds the distinction for essentially writing the (literal) book on what it means to be a premier harpist. She fell in love with the instrument at a young age, and began to take lessons under the tutelage of renowned harpist Alphonse Hasselmans. Renié would go on to be a respected master of the instrument, but her musical ambitions didn’t stop at performance. A large part of her life was dedicated to teaching; she began giving harp lessons from the age of nine. Naturally, many of her pupils were much older than her; however, this early start gave her even more time to cement her reputation. During World War II, she committed to writing down her harp method. Méthode Complète de Harpe was published the year after the war, and has remained an influential text for the instrument.

Ethel Smyth

Like many furiously creative artists, composer Ethel Smyth intertwined her music with politics. She was a member of the woman’s suffrage movement, and was active within the Women’s Social and Political Union. In fact, Smyth’s song, “The March of the Women,” went on to become the organization’s official anthem. In 1912, she was arrested after several members of the party smashed politicians’ windows  — including that of the Prime Minister — who opposed universal suffrage, and served two months of prison time. Smyth remained just as productive in her musical endeavors, writing six operas, dozens of art songs, and both orchestral and chamber works.


Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

The Miami-born composer has held a firm grip on the attention of her audiences since the last quarter of the 20th century. In 1975, Pierre Boulez conducted the premiere of her Symposium for Orchestra, and less than a decade later she became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in Music. Her music has captivated a variety of listeners, thanks to the accessibility of her adventurous, forward-thinking creative spirit.


Dora Pejačević

Born into an old, noble family, the talented pianist would grow up to become one of the most influential figures in Croatian music. During her short life (she died in childbirth at the age of 38) she composed 57 completed works, including a hefty ouvre for solo piano, sixteen chamber works, and dozens of lieder. But she made her mark with the human voice; Pejačević is credited with bringing orchestral song to Croatian late-Romantic music.


Alma Mahler

This composer was a woman bursting with her own career goals, but her ambitions were often stifled by her husband, a man named Gustav. Though their courtship was straight out of the puppy love handbook, Alma’s husband demanded that she cast aside her love of music to focus instead on being a mother and wife. This didn’t go over so well with Alma, who grew increasingly distant. When her husband spoke with psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, he realized that (surprise!) his condescending attitude was to blame. He encouraged Alma to embrace her creative output — not that she needed that encouragement, because she had written enough music to publish it as a collection once her husband got off her back.


Marianne Martines 

She was well known for her voice, but it was her natural flair for breathing life into the Viennese music scene that kept her in the spotlight. Martines was thrown into a musical education beginning in her childhood, and she had two of the best teachers any aspiring pianist or composer could want: Nicola Porpora and Joseph Haydn. When she grew up, Martines’ salons attracted top talents from all over town, including her keyboard tutor Haydn and the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At one such gathering, Irish tenor Michael Kelly was dazzled by her piano skills when he witnessed Martines playing a Mozart four-hand sonata with the composer himself. Excellent company, indeed.

Clara Schumann

When the young Clara Wieck was still a girl, her father Friedrich recognized her musical talent and took it upon himself to make sure his daughter would become a leading concert pianist. This got a bit complicated once another young pianist named Robert Schumann moved into the Weick household and later began courting the young musician. Although Friedrich was initially opposed to the idea of Clara and Robert all buddied up, he eventually relented and the two went on to become the 19th century’s musical power couple. Clara’s skill as a concert performer earned her rightly due fame, but she also composed original works as well. She also happens to be, at least partially, responsible for the now-common practice of pianists performing their concert pieces from memory.

Fanny Mendelssohn

A pianist born into an influential German-Jewish family, Mendelssohn demonstrated a stunning musical aptitude that compelled her parents to provide her with a musical education. She first studied with a student of Bach, and later with the French pianist Marie Bigot. By the time she was thirteen, she could already play the entirety of the Well-Tempered Clavier from memory; she would also develop into an able composer. However, because of the many obstacles that made it near-impossible to be a woman whose life revolved around music, several of her original compositions were published under the name of her brother, Felix. Despite this, she remained a fixture of the Berliner musical scene.


Augusta Holmès

Born in France to Irish parents, the young Holmès grew up in a household that embraced art and creativity, so long as it wasn’t expressed musically. The staunchest opposition to a musical life came from her mother, but when she died Holmès’ father allowed his daughter to explore her musical impulses. Despite her talent, she was denied acceptance into the male-dominated Paris Conservatoire, so she continued her education in private. She went on to compose several orchestral works; including Irlande, a tribute to her ancestral home, and the opera La Montagne Noire. But one of her most interesting works might be Ode Triomphale. Written for the Paris World's Fair of 1900, the gargantuan work requires the might of 900 singers and a 300-piece orchestra.


Hildegard von Bingen

The legendary abbess had a knack for serving up some righteous sacred work. Technically “composer” is only one label to affix to the holy woman — her writings crossed into philosophy, theology, science and medicine. And since she decided that she would really be the one to do it all, Hildegard also created a new alphabet. But today, we most remember her for the music. It was profoundly spiritual, and some of it was said to have been inspired by divine visions.


Alice Mary Smith

This English composer died at the age of 43, but managed to be quite prolific during her time on earth. Among her works are five cantatas, four concert overtures, four piano quartets, two symphonies, three string quartets and a clarinet trio. She was recognized for her work by being elected Female Professional Associate of the Royal Philharmonic Society and — in her last year —an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music.


Katharine Parker

The Australian National University’s biographical entry on Katharine Parker specifies that “her musical activities were affected by her personal misfortunes.” Although she displayed promise as a pianist, first in Tasmania and later England, she lost much of that attention to her husband, tenor Hubert Eisdell. She eventually gave up composing, and her contributions as an ambulance driver during World War II further distanced her from music. After the war, illness made a return to the piano difficult. Nevertheless, several of her original songs were published, including her best-known work, Down Langford Way.


Rachel Portman

In her world, the movies are home. A graduate of Worcester College at Oxford, Portman got her career start by scoring BBC television dramas. She has gone on to provide the music for over 100 movies, including Mona Lisa Smile (2003), The Manchurian Candidate (2004) and Grey Gardens (2009).

Louise Farrenc

Her father and brother Jacques-Edme Dumont and Auguste Dumont, respectively, were known for sculpting. But Farrenc made music her craft. Her piano works attracted the attention of music critic and composer Robert Schumann, and as her experience grew she began writing for larger ensembles. She wrote several orchestral pieces — including two symphonies — but many of her efforts were concentrated on chamber works. Farrenc was consistently denied equal pay for her work, and only received it after an enthusiastic reception to the premiere of her nonet.


Maddalena Sirmen

A composer of the classical era and a student of Giuseppe Tartini. She achieved wide renown and popularity as a violinist, and during a concert tour of Italy she met her future husband. They eventually performed together as a duo, but Sirmen’s skill eclipsed her husband’s performance. She was an able harpsichordist as well, and eventually tried her hand at a vocal career. Her singing stint was a disaster, and it is considered to be a large factor for the end of her career.

Jennifer Higdon

In 2009, the American composer won a Grammy; the following year, she earned a Pulitzer Prize in Music. She is currently on the faculty of the Curtis Institute, where she teaches composition. Marin Alsop and Leonard Slatkin are among those who have conducted Higdon’s music, and over the course of her career she has also received awards from ASCAP, the NEA and more.


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Comments [23]

Margot Dilmaghani from Purchase NY

The Norton Grove Dictionary of Women Composers(pub.1995) lists 875 women composers of Classical music. As a life long musician seeking to record women's music on the harp and piano, I relied on this rich reference book, small publishing houses and university libraries. Koharik Gazarossian, Germaine Tailleferre, Lili Boulanger, Maria Szymanowska wrote exceptionally beautiful piano compositions. Complex harmonies, lyrical melodies and deeply touching.

Also, many Mid-West American women composed rags and cake walks during the Golden Age of Rag. Those are fun, accessible pieces.

Mar. 22 2017 01:36 PM
Mel Ahka from Bloomfield, NJ

How could we forget Sarah Peptaze and Mary O'nettz??

Mar. 13 2017 09:51 AM
Lisa Ragsdale from Minneapolis MN

Here are just a few more living composers; some previously mentioned, some not: Hannah Lash, Kathryn Salfelder, Polina Nazakinskaya, Wang Jie, Alex Temple, Mari Esabel Valverde, Libby Larsen, Carol Barnett, Edie Hill, Elizabeth Alexander, Abbie Betinis, Jocelyn Hagen,Janika Vandervelde, Katherine Bergman and, uh, me (Lisa Renee Ragsdale)

Mar. 12 2017 06:43 PM
Gregory from New York

Very interesting list. However, I'm not as worried about the omissions as others are. A number of the "missing" are already well known. It was good to hear about women who, for the most part, I'd never heard of before.

Mar. 11 2017 02:31 PM
Ferdinand Gajewski from New Jersey

A conspicuous omission. Shame on you.


Mar. 09 2017 11:56 PM
Mat Dirjish from NYC

How about Judith Lang Zaimont?

Mar. 09 2017 09:37 PM
Franklin from California

There really are a fair number of women composers, but I need to add that only a very tiny percentage of composers' work gets noticed or performed, so while it looks like women aren't being fairly represented, there are thousands upon thousands of male composers whose work never sees the light of day. It's exceedingly difficult to be heard, and since the days of Nadia Boulanger and others, there's no good reason why women composers can't be performed. However: the list of women composers before 1900 is very short, so performers have a rather narrow time period to choose works from. The greater bulk of music (serious concert music) by women was written just over the last 75 years or so. That's a pretty small body of work considering that there are thousands of string quartets. A composer is always competing with the long-established repertoire that many are slow to change.

Mar. 09 2017 08:11 PM
Kevin Scott from Wappingers Falls, NY

To Robert Sacino - I am glad you mentioned the name Philippa Duke Schuyler. Her compositions "Manhattan Nocturne" and "Rumplestiltskin" were both performed by the New York Philharmonic back in the 1940s, the second one at Lewissohn Stadium, the orchestra's summer home on the campus of the City College of New York in Harlem.

Suffice it to say, all of Schuyler's music is in the archives of the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center, including her Sleepy Hollow Sketches (which was praised by Virgil Thomson) and her two versions of the Nile Fantasy for piano and orchestra, the second (and more expanded) version performed by her in Africa and Europe.

John McLaughlin Williams and myself have taken the interest in trying to record these scores, which have languished far too long. Schuyler is a very pivotal figure in the late part of the Harlem Renaissance.

And this leads me to mention other women composers of color who have not been mentioned by anyone, namely Tania Leon, Nkeiru Okoye, Jessie Montgomery, Courtney Bryan, Regina Harris Baiocchi, Dorothy Rudd Moore, Undine Smith Moore, Shelley Washington, Judith Baity, Dolores White, Lettie Beckon Alston, Erica Lindsay, Julia Perry, Errolyn Wallin and, last but not least, Florence Price, whose first symphony was the first by a woman of color to have been premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1932.

And to the many others who have listed the composers omitted from this list, thank you, but there are still others: Roxanna Panufnik, Adrienne Albert, Karen Amrhein, Marti Epstein, Kathryn Salfelder, Alex Shapiro, Gloria Coates, Arlene Sierra, Gabriela Lena Frank, Elizabeth Maconchy, Elisabeth Lutyens, Grace Williams, Jean Coulthard, Sophie Carmen Eckhardt-Grammante, Julia Smith, Radie Britain, Vivian Fine, Ina Boyle (a real find!), Chen Yi and many, many others that deserve more recognition and performances!

Mar. 09 2017 04:59 PM
Jake from AL

Ruth Crawford Seeger, Sofia Gubaidulina, Betsy Jolas, Kaija Saariaho,Joan Tower, and Pauline Oliveros should definitely be on this list as well.

Mar. 09 2017 04:24 PM
Lillian Marek from New York

May I add two members of the extraordinary Benda family: Juliane Reichardt and Louise Reichardt, daughter and granddaughter of Franz Benda.

Mar. 09 2017 04:07 PM
Stefan Ehrenkreutz from Melbourne, Australia

Certainly needed to mention Grazyna Bacewicz--Lutoslawski's rival.A student of Nadia Boulanger, her post-neo-classical music is particularly impressive.

Mar. 09 2017 02:36 PM
Robert J. Sacino from New Rochelle, NY

Dear WQXR – thanks for this list of accomplished women composers which I look forward to listening to over the next few days.
Question: Would you happen to have in your archives a musical composition by the extraordinarily talented, 13-year old Philippa Schuyler titled “Manhattan Nocturne”? According to Kathryn Talalay, Ms. Schuyler biographer (“Composition in Black and White,” Oxford University Press, 1995), WQXR taped her composition as part of a “NY Philharmonic Young People’s Concert” broadcast on April 7, 1945.
If so, would sincerely appreciate hearing a broadcast of this composition or any of Ms. Schuyler’s work sometime in the future. Thanks again. RJS

Mar. 09 2017 12:52 PM
Danielle Miller from Yonkers

Thank you for this list! Who did the beautiful singing on the Hildegard example?

Mar. 09 2017 12:46 PM
Ani Aznavoorian from Santa Barbara, CA

This is a terrific list, but I truly think that Lera Auerbach should be included as well. I am certain her music will stand the test of time.

Mar. 09 2017 12:46 PM
Eric S Klein from Palmer, PA

Mazzoli, Tower, Monk, Keating, Wolfe...All exceptional. Thanks for the list:)

Mar. 09 2017 12:46 PM
Douglas from New Orleans

Augusta Read Thomas?

Mar. 09 2017 09:24 AM
Michel from The Netherlands

Living and up-and-coming: Svitlana Azarova https://azarova.com/ - her new opera "Momo" premieres in Copenhagen, October 2017 on Holmen's big stage.

Mar. 09 2017 01:48 AM
JPS from nyc

Wow, three count 'em three living composers

Mar. 08 2017 06:54 PM
Tim Heimerle from Seattle, WA

How about Joan Tower?

Mar. 08 2017 06:10 PM
Stephanie Borrmann from New York

How about Rebecca Clarke?

Mar. 08 2017 02:24 PM
Byron from NYC

With all due respect, you didn't mention the great contemporary composer,Thea Musgrave. She even received a CBE from the Queen!

Mar. 08 2017 11:25 AM
Joss from Winter Park, FL

I agree, Jeff. This is the most comprehensive list I've seen, and what a good idea to have these works easily available for us to listen to. Thanks!

Mar. 08 2017 10:34 AM
Jeff from Jerusalem, Israel

I'd add one other name to this impressive list: Sofia Gubaidulina. Some of her music is thorny (and would probably be played on Q2) but at the same time very impressive.

By the way, this particular list should be posted as a permanent feature on WQXR to give people a chance to listen to this music in the future.

Mar. 08 2017 02:06 AM

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