Feel you don’t listen to enough music composed by women? We’ve got a great place to start with this selection of ten of our favourite female composers.
Women are still hugely underrepresented in the programming of concert halls and, especially, opera houses, but there are a wealth of recordings of superb music to listen to any time. Here's a selection of ten female composers to get exploring, with a playlist featuring a hand-picked selection from their works. This is just a starting point, though: you can find a whole load more on our special Women's History Month page on IDAGIO.
Louise Farrenc (1804–1875) – During her lifetime, Louise Farrenc enjoyed a considerable reputation as a composer, teacher and a brilliant performer. She was a central figure in Parisian musical life and the only woman to hold a full chair at the Paris Conservatoire. But her work never really achieved the acclaim it deserved and fell into oblivion shortly after her death. Interest in her was revived in the 1980s with the publication of a biography, and since then her music has once again found its way into the spotlight and on to concert programmes.
Fanny Hensel (1805–1847) – Despite being one of the more well-known female composers, Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn) remains a mystery in many ways. Much of her work remains unpublished, available only in manuscript form in private collections. Her younger brother Felix, though he encouraged her musical activities, discouraged her from publishing any of her compositions. It wasn't until Fanny married in 1829 (the painter Wilhelm Hensel) that she began to publish herself – encouraged to do so by her husband. She died suddenly from a stroke on 14 May 1847 aged just 41.
Dora Pejačević (1885–1923) – Born in Hungary into a Croatian noble family, Dora Pejačević started composing at the age of 12 and was largely self-taught. Now regarded as one of the most influential figures in Croatian music, she is credited with bringing orchestral song to Croatia and wrote many beautiful works in the late-Romantic style, including lieder, piano miniatures, a symphony, and chamber works, all mirroring her wide intellectual horizons. Her writing for piano is particularly fine, revealing a clear appreciation of the expressive capabilities of the instrument.
Amy Beach (1867–1944) – Amy Beach was famed as a pianist in her teens, but when she married, at the age of 18, she gave up performing in public and devoted herself to composing, supported by her husband who helped publish and market her work. She achieved considerable success in her lifetime: her "Gaelic" Symphony was the first symphony composed by an American woman to be published, and was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1896.
Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979) – Rebecca Clarke was internationally renowned as a viola virtuoso, touring extensively with chamber music ensembles and becoming one of the first female professional orchestral players. Her compositional output, although relatively small, is big-boned and emotionally rich. Her Sonata for Viola and Piano (1919) is regarded as one of the greatest works in the instrument's repertoire, and her compositions reflect many trends of 20th-century music.
Florence Price (1887–1953) – Born in Little Rock in the Southern US state of Arkansas, Florence Price (née Smith) occupies a pivotal position in the history of North American 20th-century music. In 1933, she became the first black woman to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered her First Symphony, but her reputation declined quickly after her death in 1953. Much of her music was either simply unknown or presumed lost until several boxes of manuscripts and other documents were found in 2009. Recent years have seen the Price discography explode as more and more artists take an interest in her works.
Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983) – The only female member of the "Les Six" group of French composers (which included Poulenc, Milhaud and Honegger), Germaine Tailleferre enjoyed a long career as a composer. But membership of "Les Six" was a double-edged sword: it advanced her music and brought it to wider public attention, but she was singled out as the only female member, which she found degrading and unnecessary. The music she composed in the first part of the 20th century is bold and original, while her more mature works reveal a taste for the avant garde.
Grażyna Bacewicz (1909–1969) – Recent years have seen the music of Polish-Lithuanian composer Grażyna Bacewicz – a powerful and individual forging together of several styles – gain significant international standing. A violinist and pianist as well as composer she was leader of the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra for a short stint and premiered many of her violin works, as well as her Piano Sonata no. 2. Bacewicz's compositional voice is strong, uncompromising and distinctive, with her seven string quartets perhaps her greatest achievement.
Meredith Monk (b. 1942) – The vocal music of Meredith Monk is redolent of Hildegard von Bingen, performance artist Laurie Anderson and Liz Fraser of The Cocteau Twins, all rolled into one. Her piano music contains the meditative repetitions, loops and pulsations of minimalism, while her chamber music reveals striking dissonances and unusual instrumentation. But, as one of America's coolest composers, Meredith Monk defies categorization, her music direct yet lyrical, accessible yet otherworldly, serene yet challenging.
Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) – To experience Kaija Saariaho's music is to step into a strange, magical world in which the senses of taste and sight merge into that of hearing. Saariaho was raised in Helsinki, the world's second northernmost capital and a city in which sunlight can be in short supply. Her music often treats light as a commodity to be cherished, and views translucence as an aspiration. After she moved to Paris in 1982 (where she still lives), Saariaho gained a new perspective on Nordic light and nature while her embracing of electronics infinitely expanded the ways in which her view of those elements could be captured in music.
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