Thinking of some of classical music’s most famous composers is easy. Almost anyone can name Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and so on, even if they’re not a musician! But if you were asked to name specifically a famous woman classical composer? That’s a lot harder. Believe it or not, they do exist, even though they have often been overlooked - and there are some pretty important ones too! If you’re looking for some new material, maybe it’s time to check out their work.
Today is International Women’s Day, and March is officially Women’s History Month in the USA; what better time than now to explore who some of the famous women composers in classical music history were? For the purposes of this blog, we’re going to look at just six of the best composers pre-1950s that many of you might not know, but there are so many more that are worth studying so we hope you are inspired to dig even deeper on your own. Without further ado though, let’s take a look at some of these amazing women in history together!
#1. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
Hildegard von Bingen was a visionary in her time, and made huge contributions and innovations to not only music, but also to science, poetry, philosophy, medicine, and more. More chants composed by Hildegard have survived on record than any other composer from the entire Middle Ages! She is also one of the few composers from this time that we know wrote both the music and the words. Considering these two facts about Hildegard (plus so much more), it’s no wonder that she is the best-known composer of sacred monophony, as well as the most historically recorded. The Ordo Virtutum, one of her works, is arguably the oldest surviving morality play. While it’s not known exactly when Hildegard’s compositions were written, experts think the Ordo Virtutum could have been written as early as 1151. Hildegard von Bingen was an incredibly impressive and influential woman, and we hope you read more about her.
Check out a video of some of Hildegard’s works below!
#2. Francesca Caccini (1587-1640)
Francesca Caccini was an Italian composer, singer, lutenist, poet, and music teacher of the early Baroque period. Francesca was also the daughter of the famous Renaissance composer, Giulio Caccini! It’s not hard to guess where she got her musical foundation. She was a key part of pushing the Baroque era forward in music, and her style was considered to be innovative. Sadly, very little of her music still survives today, including only one stage work: La liberazione di Ruggiero. However, that’s a great work to have survived - it’s thought to be the first opera composed by a woman!
You can see a recording of a small piece of this opera below.
#3. Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677)
Barbara Strozzi was said to be 'the most prolific composer – man or woman – of printed secular vocal music in Venice' in her century. Most of her works are considered secular, and she had only one volume of sacred songs, which was very unusual for composers of the time. Nearly three-quarters of all of her works were written for soprano, though she did write for other voices too. If you’re a soprano looking for some amazing new pieces, definitely look for something by Barbara! She was renowned for both her poetic ability and compositional talent, and her music is a joy to listen to.
Check out a recording of one of her works below!
#4. Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)
Fanny Mendelssohn was a German composer and pianist, and she did her writing during the early Romantic period. Fanny composed more than 460 works, including a piano trio, a piano quartet, an orchestral overture, four cantatas, more than 125 pieces for piano, and over 250 lieder. The majority of her work was not published during her lifetime, and some of it was even originally published under her brother’s name - Felix Mendelssohn (who I’m sure many of you may recognize). Fanny’s piano works were often in song style and titled “Song without Words”. This particular piece style was successfully developed by Felix Mendelssohn, but some people think Fanny actually got this genre started first, just with less recognition. Fanny has become much more well-known in recent years than she used to be, and the Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn Museum even opened in Germany in 2018!
Listen to one of Fanny’s piano compositions below.
#5. Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
Clara Schumann was one of the most distinguished pianists of her time, boasting a 61-year long concert career! Not only that, she composed solo piano pieces, a piano concerto, chamber music, choral pieces, and songs. Clara was a child prodigy, trained by her father, and she eventually married Robert Schumann (who is also a very well-known composer). Clara and Robert had a close relationship with Johannes Brahms, and she premiered many works by both Brahms and her husband over the years. Clara once wrote that, "composing gives me great pleasure... there is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound.” Later on however, she ended up saying, "I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose – there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?" Her eight children took much of her time, and her compositions stalled. Most of her work was never played by anyone else and was largely forgotten about until the 1970s, when suddenly there was a new surge of interest. Her pieces are now becoming increasingly popular to both perform and record!
Check out one of Clara’s works below!
#6. Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Amy Beach is considered to be America’s first successful woman composer! Her Mass in E flat major was performed in 1892 by the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra (which was the first time since its founding in 1815 that it performed a piece by a woman), and just a few years later her Gaelic Symphony became the first symphony composed and published by an American woman. She was one of the first American composers - man or woman - to succeed without European training, and she is truly one of the most acclaimed and respected American composers of the era. Amy was also an accomplished pianist, who after her husband’s death ended up touring Europe playing her own compositions! While her style was mainly Romantic, she did end up experimenting with more unusual harmonies and techniques in her later works. Amy composed symphonic works, choral works, chamber music, and solo piano pieces, but she’s most well-known now for her songs, of which she wrote around 150. Her song, “The Year’s at the Spring” is probably her most famous.
You can listen to “The Year’s at the Spring” below!
Music is for everyone, and we’re fortunate to have so many great works available to us from so many talented composers throughout the years. We hope you’ll be inspired to take a new look at music history going forward and see all of the great contributions that so many amazing women have made!
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