For Women’s History Month, I’d thought I’d take a look at some of the female composers from the past. As a musician and composer myself, this is important to me not just for historical reasons, but I’d like to pay tribute to the women who paved the way, the women who time forgot, and the women who were forever overshadowed by men.
1 Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
Hildegard von Bingen, a German abbess, composer, author, poet, mystic, pharmacist, was truly a jack of all trades. She was born to a noble family and was a student of the holy woman Blessed Jutta for 10 years. When Hildegard was 18, she became a Benedictine nun at the Monastery of Saint Disibodenberg. As a composer, she wrote over 80 pieces including what could be considered a “medieval opera”, a morality play called Ordo Virtutum. She never formally studied music and musical notation, yet she was able to become one of the most important Medieval composers. She also suffered from visions which caused her to see humans as “living sparks.” Her music is characterized by the use of perfect fourths and fifths with melodies soaring high above an octave.
2 Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)
Born to a family of musicians, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre was a prodigy harpsichordist. She played for King Louis XIV at the age of just five. He was so impressed that he became her patron, supporting her music. She is credited to have written one of the first collections of harpsichord music published in 1687. She is also the author of the first opera written by a woman to be put on in France (Céphale et Procris, 1694).
3 Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831)
Polish composer Maria Szymanowska was one of the first piano virtuosos of the 18th century. She toured throughout Europe, and eventually settled in St. Petersburg, Russia, where she composed for the Russian imperial court. She composed about 100 piano pieces, including miniatures, songs, etudes, and nocturnes. She also wrote some chamber works. Her style is what is known as stile brillant and Polish Sentimentalism. She had a widely known reputation as a performance artist, which led her to befriend some of the greatest composers and poets of the century such as Gioacchino Rossini, Johann Hummel, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the latter was rumored to have been in love with her.
4. Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
Clara Schumann is considered to be one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era. She was a child prodigy who was taught by her father, Friedrich. At the age of 11, Clara left for a concert tour of European cities. She married composer Robert Schumann, who was also a student of her father. At 14, she wrote her first piano concerto. She was one of the first pianists to play by memory for concerts. She was also the first to publically play works by Johannes Brahms. Her teaching spread her influence on music worldwide from England to Julliard.
While this is by no means a comprehensive list of women composers, these are some composers I feel have led the way in music.