As we celebrate female trailblazers this month with Great Performances: Ann and Great Performances – Gloria: A Life, we’re highlighting five female composers who helped pave a musical pathway into the future.
Who are your favorite female classical composers? Let us know in the comments and listen to the music of these five women here.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
Living in a monastery for most of her life, Hildegard wrote poetry and manuscripts in addition to music for the nuns. She also wrote that she experienced visions that inspired her to carry on with her work. When Pope Eugenius III heard of this, he read her writings and gave her his blessing to continue. Perhaps one of the first composers in the history of Western music, she did not receive much recognition until an album of her music was created in the 1980s by Gothic Voices. She was canonized as a saint in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI.
Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)
Born in Germany and the older sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Mendelssohn wrote over 450 pieces of music including works for the piano and chamber music, though it is said that several works were published under her brother’s name that Fanny had written. Not achieving the career she may have had due to her father’s beliefs and the conventions of the time, Fanny was a skilled pianist and hosted popular salons for royalty and fellow musicians.
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
Known as a gifted pianist, she played concerts for about 60 years and musically collaborated with her husband, fellow composer Robert Schumann. Though she wrote her first concerto at age 14 and wrote around 23 pieces, she stopped in her mid-30s after expressing doubt over her own talent as a woman: “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, 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?”
Cecile Chaminade (1857-1944)
Cecile began composing very early in her life around the age of seven. She became a touring concert pianist achieving popularity in the United States, often playing her piano compositions and salon songs which inspired women to form their own musical societies they called “Chaminade clubs.” She wrote over 400 works including an opera, a ballet, and a piano sonata.
Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Known as the first American female composer, Amy was a pianist who played her own work on tour in Europe. Mostly self-taught, she was the first known American woman to compose a symphony. When fellow composer Antonin Dvorak said women did not possess the “creative power” to compose, Amy listed dozens of female composers and added “more women are interested in the serious study of the science of music as well as the art.”