By Catherine Hua
When people are asked to name a famous composer off the top of their heads, their answers may vary from Bach and Beethoven to Mozart and Schumann. Yet the composers named often have three qualities in common. They are talented, white, and predominantly male.
So where are the women? Why have none been remembered in the way that Bach and Beethoven are glorified? One factor may be that there were fewer women composers to start with.
In the previous centuries, much female musical talent lay unused due to society’s beliefs about proper female occupations. Few women had the resources to learn music to start with, and those who did were more likely to be high-born. The same societal factors that encouraged them to learn and play music for friends and family also encouraged them to focus on their households and marriage over any “unsuitable” occupations such as composing.
Even the prodigy and virtuoso Clara Schumann, who toured throughout Europe giving popular performances, did not feel like she could focus on composing. She, like many other determined female composers, had even published a portion of her work under a male alibi (in her case, under the name of her famous husband, Robert Schumann). However, she stopped writing music at the ripe, old age of 36.
“I once believed that I possessed creative talent,” she wrote, “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?”
If even a lauded female pianist could not move past the mindset of the society around her, it is no wonder that there were so few female composers, much less any who were able to reach a “Mozart” level of fame.
Although women currently do not face the same amount of societal pressure, men and their works still dominate the composing industry. In 2011, the Performing Right Society for Music estimated that its membership consisted of only 14% women. Moreover, it found that only 4.1% of works performed at the 2010 BBC Proms were composed by women.
An article written last month by ABC Classic FM’s presenter Emma Ayres discussed why women composers were so underrated by the public during a recent poll on film music. Ayres wrote that firstly, women are heard too rarely on musical programs—Classic FM, for example, plays music by women maybe only once or twice a week. Also, because fewer women compose, there is less music circulated to make a name for women. If Ayres is correct, the current situation is similar to a bad cycle—girls may grow up without even considering composing as a possible job.
Thankfully, women have still made progress in the previous decades. More women play in professional orchestras, and famous women such as Unsuk Chin and Lisa Gerrard serve as role models. There are so many living famous female composers that they deserve a separate article in which they can be featured.
The following list is comprised of famous composers from the past. Listed by order of their birth date, these early adventurers will hopefully be joined by many more women who follow their path.
1. Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 17 September 1179)
Born in 1098, Saint Hildegard was a German nun who wrote multiple works of theology, medicine and musical compositions for liturgy along with the play Ordo Virtutum. She learned music by studying psalms, and her own compositions were monophonic and often set to her own text.
2. Louise Farrenc (31 May 1804 – 15 September 1875)
Louise Farrenc studied piano from an early age with masters, and learned composition from Anton Reicha, the composition teacher at the Conservatoire. She not only had a successful career as a concert performer but also held the position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory for thirty years. She composed for both the piano and for orchestra but did not compose for the opera, which was the only way to attract attention from the French public at the time. For this reason, she was not publicly known well as a composer and her works became largely forgotten after her death. However, among musicians she was highly regarded for her work, especially for her chamber music pieces such as Trio, Op. 44.
3. Fanny Mendelssohn (14 November 1805 – 14 May 1847)
German pianist and composer Fanny Mendelssohn enjoyed the same musical education as that of her famous brother Felix Mendelssohn, and both impressed visiting musicians with their musical ability. However, although Felix later supported her composing and performing, both he and their father did not believe that composing was a viable profession for her. Fanny published a few of her works under Felix’s name, and a year before she died, published a collection of her songs under her own name.
4. Josephine Lang (March 14, 1815 in Munich – December 2, 1880)
The gifted daughter of a musical family, Josephine Lang had an early musical education that later led to a career as a court singer. After the death of her husband, she taught music in order to support her family but struggled to get her music published. However, famous artists such as Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Ferdinand Hiller helped her work gain the interest of publishers. With the assistance of Clara Schumann, the relatively large-scale publication of her work Lieder ensured her success as a composer.
5. Cécile Louise Stéphanie Chaminade (8 August 1857 – 13 April 1944)
French composer Cécile Chaminade experimented with composition during childhood—a job she would do for the rest of her life as she toured Europe as a renowned composer. She mainly wrote piano character pieces and salon songs, and her pieces such as Scarf Dance were widely popular, even in the United States. She broke into new echelons of success by being the first female composer to receive the Légion d’Honneur, but many of her pieces were forgotten after her death.
6. Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (September 5, 1867 – December 27, 1944)
The prodigy Amy Beach established herself as one of the top American composers after the successful performance of her Mass in E-flat Major. She toured Europe as a performer and composer, and later led many organizations such as the Society of American Women Composers. Her art songs, such as Three Browning Songs, Op. 44 were extremely popular.
7. Ruth Crawford Seeger (July 3, 1901 – November 18, 1953)
American composer Ruth Seeger was the first woman to be awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship. While she mainly wrote atonal works in her twenties and early thirties, she later created arrangements and interpretations of American Traditional folk songs. Her work Three Songs, which sets to music the poetry of Carl Sandburg, represented America at the ISCM Festival in Amsterdam in 1933.
Catherine Hua is the Marketing Intern at Sheet Music Plus. She has practiced piano for twelve years and enjoys playing piano versions of popular songs.