Women in Classical Music
- 15 May 2023, Monday
Historically, women were expected to master classical music instruments. It’s therefore no surprise that they have been active in all various aspects of classical music, including composition, orchestral conducting, or vocal and instrumental performance. However, it wasn’t until the late 19th - early 20th century that it was socially acceptable for women to publicly perform or be taught music at a conservatory level.
Although there has been a meaningful shift in the representation of female musicians in classical music, the overall imbalance in the genre remains significant. This article is therefore dedicated to (really just a few of many) trailblazing female artists who have strongly influenced the development of classical music.
The position of women in classical music genre
Although gender inequality has been present in any field of the music industry, likely no other genre has experienced it as evidently as classical music. As already mentioned in our introduction, women were traditionally led to learn to play classical music instruments in the privacy of their homes, since taking on music was seen as rather feminine. Yet they were not allowed to perform in public for centuries, being banned from orchestras and choirs.
What’s more, they were also widely discouraged from composing music. In the 18th century, although not commonly occurring, compositions written by women were generally acceptable in Europe and the UK. In the USA, however, such pieces were mostly unattributed or disregarded.
The first fundamental changes in the centuries-long attitude towards female classical music artists could be noticed in the second half of the 19th century. Women started to take more jobs, mostly teaching positions, in the field of classical music. Slowly, they were also being incorporated into opera to sing female parts in prominent compositions and started joining orchestras, too, mainly after the end of World War II.
To put it all into perspective, women were hired by a major orchestra for the first time in 1913 (In the USA it was in 1930). Three decades later, in 1947, women made up only 8% of symphony orchestras and in 1982, the percentage increased to 26,8%.
While the number of women playing in orchestras and symphonies has been on the rise ever since female musicians still make up less than half of most orchestras both in Continental Europe and the USA. In fact, there are symphony orchestras that didn’t recruit women to play there until 20-30 years ago – for instance, at the Vienna Philharmonic women could not audition for a position in the orchestra until 1997.
It’s not only female musicians who are widely underrepresented in classical music, female composers are, too. A study conducted between 2020-2021 showed that in the world’s 100 top orchestras, only 5% of music scheduled to be performed is written by women (and just 1% is by Asian and Black female composers).
While history has made us think that classical music is predominantly white and male, the reality is that women have just not been given the opportunities to record, publish and perform. In fact, there are currently more than 5,000 female composers that we know of dating back to 450 BC.
Although less known, female artists aren’t any less important than their male counterparts, and neither is music by female composers secondary in quality. The following 10 classical female artists are the perfect proof of that.
1. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
Hildegard of Bingen (Source: Wikipedia)
Hildegard of Bingen was a German Benedictine abbess, who is nowadays considered not only a saint in several Christian religions but also one of the first known female composers. Hildegard is said to have composed around 70 works, out of which Ordo Virtutum is believed to be the oldest surviving morality play (a genre of Medieval and early Tudor drama).
In addition to Ordo Virtutum, Hildegard was an author of several liturgical songs which were later collected into a musician cycle called Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum. Her music is generally described as monophonic, meaning that it consists of only one melodic line, melismatic, which means that its text (or single syllables) is often sung while moving between several various notes in succession and strongly lacking tempo and rhythm. On top of composing the melodies, she was also writing the texts for her music. True talent in many ways.
2. Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677)
Barbara Strozzi (sourse: Wikipedia)
Barbara Strozzi was another composer, this time coming from Venice, Italy. Even in the 17th century, she was determined to go against the norms. During her lifetime she composed and also published eight volumes of her own music and had more secular music in print than any other composer of her time, both female and male. It’s important to note that Strozzi achieved that without any financial support from the church or any consistent support from the nobility.
For her talent and craft, she was said to be ‘the most prolific composer – man or woman – of printed secular vocal music in Venice in the middle of the 17th century’. In addition to that, she was praised for her singing abilities.
In terms of her music, the majority of her works were written for sopranos and as already mentioned before, she was composing predominantly secular music, with the exception of one volume of sacred songs. While writing her own melodies, she utilized text from poets of her era, mainly from the Italian poet Marino. It is said that these texts were used to channel her visions and also challenge her role as a woman in the society of her time.
3. Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896)
Clara Wieck Schumann (Source: Wikipedia)
While Robert Schumann is widely considered as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era, his wife, Clara Schumann, was regarded as one of the most distinguished pianists of that time. It’s even said that hearing her play at a home concert was what inspired Schumann to quit law school and study music instead.
Throughout the course of a 61-year-long concert career, Clara was not only an inspiration to other fellow pianists and composers but also a significant influence on changing the format and repertoire of solo piano recitals. Her aim was to lessen the importance of entirely virtuosic works. On top of that, she was one of the first classical pianists to memorize music for her performance.
During her husband's life, Clara premiered many of his works (as well as works by the composer Johannes Brahms). However, she herself was a composer, too. She was mostly known for composing solo piano pieces (including her Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 7, chamber works, choral pieces, and other songs.
4. Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Amy Beach (Source: Wikipedia)
While we’ve already mentioned some renowned European female composers, Amy Beach came from New Hampshire, the USA. She was the first American woman to be recognized as a composer of large-scale art music. It’s also notable that Beach was for the most part self-taught and did not in any way benefit from then-renowned European education.
Beach came to prominence with her Mass in E-flat major, which was, for the first time, performed in 1892 by the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra. This was the first time since its foundation that the orchestra performed a piece composed by a woman. The amount received critical acclaim and was widely compared to Masses by Bach and Cherubini. In 1896, the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered her ‘Gaelic’ Symphony, the first ever symphony written and published by an American woman.
As an acclaimed pianist, she was also concertizing and touring, particularly after the death of her husband in 1910. A good friend of hers was an American opera singer Marcella Craft who would often perform her songs, including Beach’s best-known work, ‘The Year’s at the Spring’,
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5. Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
Ethel Smyth (Source: Wikipedia)
Born in an area of southeast London, called Sidcup, Ethel Smyth was an English composer and an eager campaigner, most famously known as a member of the Women's Suffrage Movement. Her composition ‘The March of the Women’ from 1911 even became an anthem of the movement. It was famously ‘performed’ by activists in the courtyard of the Holloway Prison with Smyth vigorously conducting the crowd with a toothbrush while leaning out of a window. She herself was serving two months in prison for breaking a window of a politician, Lewis Harcourt, who publicly opposed votes for women.
During her lifetime, it seemed that as a female composer, she could simply never do well enough. She was criticized for composing music regarded as ‘too masculine’. Yet when she would produce more delicate and nuanced compositions, she was regarded as just a ‘lady composer’, whose music works could never measure up to those of her male counterparts.
However, there were also many that praised her talent and the music she produced, too. For example, her opera ‘The Boatswain's Mate’ was described by some as ‘one of the most delightful comic operas ever put on the stage’. In 1922, she was honored as a ‘Dame’ of the British Empire. She was the first female composer to be granted a damehood.
6. The sisters Boulanger
Lili Boulanger (Source: Wikipedia)
It may be not easy to come across sisters (or brothers, huh) who would shine with such talent as the sisters Boulanger. The younger one, Lili (1893-1918), was considered a child prodigy since she was 2 and quickly rose to fame as an acclaimed French composer. She was only 19 years old when she became the first woman to ever win the renowned Prix de Rome composition prize for her cantata 'Faust et Hélène'. Unfortunately, she suffered from a chronic illness and tragically died at the age of 24.
Unlike Lily, her older sister, Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), believed she had no particular talent to become a composer, and so decided to be a music teacher instead. She became highly influential in that area, teaching generations of young promising composers, soloists, and conductors, too, especially those from the USA or other English-speaking countries. Some of her most renowned students include the Argentine-born conductor Daniel Barenboim, a Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz or an American record producer Quincy Jones.
Besides her teaching career, Nadia would also perform as a pianist or an organist, and, most importantly, as a conductor. She was the first woman to conduct several major orchestras across both America and Europe, including the Boston Symphony, BBC Symphony, or the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Nadia Boulanger (Source: Wikipedia)
7. Florence Price (1887-1953)
Florence Price (Source: Wikipedia)
We’ve already mentioned Amy Beach, the first American woman to be regarded as a composer of large-scale art. Florence Price is another female trailblazer in American history, being the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer. Her first symphony, Symphony No. 1 in E minor, won the well-known Rodman Wanamaker Competition in 1932.
Besides that, Price was also the first African-American female composer whose music was performed by a major orchestra (which was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra).
As a composer, she led a very fruitful life and produced more than 300 works, including symphonies, orchestral works, concertos, choral songs, chamber songs as well as music for solo instruments. Most of her works and papers were discovered in her abandoned summer house in 2009, more than 50 years after she passed away.
8. Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)
Rebecca Clarke (Source: Classic FM)
Born in England to an American-German family, Rebecca Clarke was a composer and, most importantly, a renowned viola virtuoso. For that, she was one of the first women to become professional orchestral players.
Composing came second to her playing and her overall compositional output was not particularly large. Long after her passing, it was said that Clarke had suffered from a chronic form of depression, which, in addition to a lack of encouragement she was given for her work, made her unwilling to compose. She eventually stopped composing completely after her marriage.
Throughout her life, she gained most recognition for her chamber music, which she essentially wrote for herself or for the all-female chamber ensembles she played in. Besides chamber pieces, Clarke also produced songs, choral works, a Viola Sonata and the Piano Trio.
To this day, over half of her compositions and most of her writings remain unpublished and are in the private possession of her family. Although more of her compositions were printed and recorded after her death, mostly in the early 2000s, it is unknown whether we’ll ever be able to lay our hands on her complete repertoire.
9. Judith Weir (b.1954)
Judit Weir (Source: Daily Mail)
Moving more into the present, Judith Weir is one of the greatest female composers of contemporary classical music (alongside with Kaija Saariaho, Meredith Monk, Unsuk Chin, and many others),
Weir is best known for her operas, such as Blond Eckbert, Amida, or The Black Spider, and theatrical works, like The Skriker. Her music is largely inspired by medieval history, traditional stories as well as music of Scotland, where her parents are from.
In 2014, she was appointed by Queen Elizabeth II as Master of the Queen's Music (now Master of the King’s Music). Appointed for a decade, Weir is the first woman to hold that post, writing music to commemorate important royal events, such as coronations, birthdays, weddings, or anniversaries, and advising in relevant music matters.
While we've mentioned 10 amazing female artists in classical music, the list can continue. That's because women have excelled in any genre over the centuries and continue to do so. If you'd like to learn more about female artists in different genres, check out our article about female artists who shaped electronic music or other content yet to come!
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