Celebrating Female Composers
March 16, 2021
March is Women’s History Month and there is no better way to celebrate it than showcasing female composers we think you should know. These six composers are just a small handful of the incredible women who have made extraordinary contributions to the world of music.
The illegitimate daughter of an Italian poet, Barbara Strozzi became recognized for her musical prowess when she was just 12 years old. Strozzi’s father formally adopted her at the age of 16 and was instrumental in publicizing her talented singing and lute playing. From then on, Strozzi began performing and composing pieces for solo and ensemble voice. She is notable not only because of the volume of pieces she published, but also because of her ability to do so without patronage or support from the church, an unheard of feat for any composer of the time period.
The daughter of a noted piano teacher and a famous singer, Clara Schumann began receiving piano instruction when she was just four years old. She began performing publicly at age nine, meeting Robert Schumann, who was nine years older and a law student. Robert was so impressed by her performance that he gave up law and began studying piano under the tutelage of Clara’s father. They were married in 1837 when Clara was just 18 years old. Clara continued performing and composing music throughout their marriage and past Robert’s death in 1856. From the age of 11 on, Clara composed approximately 8 pieces per year; She briefly stopped composing from 1848 to 1853, but began again with renewed vigor after meeting Johannes Brahms (she composed 16 pieces that year!). After Robert’s death, she spent the next 43 years transcribing Brahms’ and Robert’s pieces for circulation.
You can hear Schumann’s Romanze in A Minor, Op. 21, No. 1 performed by Dominic Cheli during the 2020-2021 Rising Stars series here.
Born in Sidcup, England, Ethel Smyth was the first female composer to be granted a damehood. A peer of Dvořák, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky at the Leipzig Conservatory, Smyth composed many operas, including Der Wald and The Wreckers (named by critics as one of the most influential operas composed during that period). Der Wald was the only opera written by a female composer to be produced at New York’s Metropolitan Opera until 2016. An outspoken suffragette and openly bisexual woman, Smyth was both praised and panned by her contemporaries for writing work that was considered too masculine for a female composer. Today, she is revered.
Amy Beach was a musical prodigy from birth. At age one, it is said that she could sing up to forty songs accurately; by two, she was composing counter-melodies. She began performing works by Beethoven and Chopin, as well as her own compositions, at age six. Instead of being sent to a European conservatory for study, Beach’s parents decided to hire American piano teachers for her, making Beach one of the only “American-made” composers of the period. Beach’s Gaelic Symphony became the first symphony composed and published by an American woman in 1894 and was premiered by the Boston Symphony in 1896.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas to a dentist father and music teacher mother, Price had her first piano performance at the age of four and her first composition was published at age 11. She graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in 1906 with degrees in piano and organ. Price taught in Little Rock and Atlanta before moving to Chicago in 1927, where she continued studying composition, orchestration, and organ and started composing extensively. She became friends with fellow composer Margaret Bonds, who connected her to writer Langston Hughes and contralto Marian Anderson. After submitting her Symphony in E Minor to the Wanamaker Foundation and winning first prize, Price became the first African-American female composer to have a piece performed by a major orchestra (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). She often used traditionally African-American melodies and rhythms in her pieces, composing chamber works, organ anthems, piano pieces, symphonies, piano concertos, and even a violin concerto. Following her death, much of her work was thought to be lost until its discovery in a run-down house in St. Anne, Illinois in 2009.
You can hear Price’s Meditation performed by Mackenzie Melemed during the 2020-2021 Rising Stars series here.
Born in New Rochelle, New York but raised in Bolivia, Joan Tower’s musical talents grew after her geologist father insisted she study piano. Tower moved back to the United States to attend Bennington College in Vermont and Columbia University in New York, receiving her doctorate in 1968. She continued composing, receiving many prestigious residencies before winning three Grammy Awards for the recording of her composition, Made in America, recorded by the Nashville Symphony, in 2008. She currently serves as the Asher B. Edelman Professor of Music at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.