When asked to name famous composers, most people list off the big names—Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Debussy, Copland, etc. What do these most commonly played, heard, and talked about composers have in common? Aside from being successful composers whose beautiful music has been heard and enjoyed by millions of people around the globe, they’re all men. Historically in western classical music, women were often discouraged from pursuing a career in composing, though many had careers as performers, or were not taken seriously in their craft.
This post highlights some amazing, trailblazing female composers. All are good examples for your children to know that they can be whatever they want to be with hard work and perseverance, just like these composers.
(In order of birth date)
Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1179)
Hildegard von Bingen was a German Catholic abbess (superior in a community of nuns) as well as a visionary, poet, herbalist, and a composer. Hildegard stands out in music history as a pioneer in many fields including music, theology, science, and philosophy. As an abbess, she founded two convents where music was an essential part of religious life.
Hildegard wrote more than 70 chants and hymns as well as numerous poems and books. She claimed her writings and compositions came to her in visions from God, which she had experienced since the age of 3. Because of the supposed divine intervention and instruction, Hildegard’s music was taken seriously by the religious men in her life.
Fun fact: Hildegard was also a botanist, proving that people with many skills can pursue more than just one of their interests! Listen to a recording of Hildegard von Bingen’s change, Spiritus Sanctus:
Clara Schumann (1819 – 1896)
Before marrying famed composer Robert Schumann against her father’s wishes, Clara Schumann (née Weick) was a well-known pianist and is now considered one of the best pianists of the Romantic era. Clara came from a musically-talented family. Clara’s father was also a renowned pianist and oversaw her musical training. Beginning at a young age, it was clear that Clara was gifted and she performed concerts in her hometown of Leipzig, Germany from the age of 8.
Clara began taking piano lessons from Robert Schumann when she was 11 years old and the two became friends. They became a couple after a few years and married when she was 21. Clara earned most of the money in the Schumann household by performing in concerts and teaching piano lessons. She was instrumental in shaping how piano concerts were performed and was one of the first performers to play without music. Clara wrote a number of songs, piano pieces, a piano concerto, a piano trio, choral pieces, and three Romances for violin and piano.
Fun fact: Clara was respected by and friends with many other composers and musicians of the time including Felix Mendelssohn and Joseph Joachim. Listen to her Nocturn in F major, op. 6, no. 2:
Nora Holt (1885 or 1890 – 1974)
Nora Holt (née Douglas) was an American singer, composer, and music critic. Nora was born in Kansas City, Kansas around 1885 but her exact birth date is not known. An accomplished scholar, Nora graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music in 1917 and went on to get her master’s degree in music at Chicago Musical College in 1918, becoming the first African-American woman to earn a master’s in the United States. She also studied music education at the University of Southern California.
Nora composed over 200 works including orchestral music, chamber music and art songs, but nearly all of her manuscripts were stolen from storage while she was travelling in the 1930s. For four years, Nora’s music criticisms were published by the Chicago Defender and in 1919, she co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians. Nora also played an important role in the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural, social, and artistic movement considered to be a rebirth of African-American arts that took place in Harlem, New York during the 1920s.
Fun fact: Nora was a world traveler and spent twelve years abroad in Europe and Asia, where she sang at nightclubs and private parties. There are no recordings of Nora Holt’s music online, but you can read more about the composer here and see a page of one of her remaining pieces of music from Negro Dances here.
Florence Price (1887 – 1953)
Florence Price was a classical music composer and the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer as well as the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Florence pursued her interest in music from a young age and took piano lessons from her mother. In 1903, she began her studies at the New England Conservatory, where she studied music theory, organ, and piano performance. After her graduation, she moved back to Arkansas to begin teaching and continued composing.
Florence, her husband at the time, and their two children moved from Arkansas to Chicago in the late 20s because of racial violence in their community. She composed numerous songs and performed odd jobs to make ends meet for her family in the 1930s, but had a major breakthrough with the composition of her Symphony in E Minor, which won the 1932 Wanamaker Price, and was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the following year.
Fun fact: Florence worked as an organist for silent film screenings and composed songs for radio ads under a pen name. Listen to Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement:
Chen Yi (Born 1953)
Chen Yi was born in Guangzhou, China in 1953 to a family of doctors with a strong interest in music. Chen Yi began studying piano and violin at the age of 3, but it became hard for her to continue her musical studies when the Cultural Revolution began in China in the 1960s. At 15 years old, she was sent to the countryside and forced into labor, where Chen Yi worked for two years. During this time, she found a connection with Chinese folk culture, which is an inspiration in her music. At 17 she returned to Guangzhou and began working as a concertmaster in the orchestra of the Beijing Opera Troupe.
Chen Yi went on to study composition and earn her master’s degree from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, making her the first Chinese woman to do so, as well as her DMA from Columbia University in New York. She has also received many honorary doctorates from universities in the United States. In addition to composing numerous orchestral works, she has also written choral pieces and chamber music, some written for traditional Chinese instruments. Dr. Chen Yi is currently a Distinguished Professor of Music at UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance and continues to compose pieces of music that blend Chinese and Western traditions.
Fun fact: Chen Yi has won numerous awards for her compositions and is also an advocate of new music, American composers, Asian composers, and women in music. Listen to Chen Yi’s Prospect Overture for Orchestra:
These amazing composers prove that no matter your gender, where you’re from, or what you look like, anyone can make amazing music if they set their mind to it. It is impossible to mention all of the amazing, trailblazing composers who also happen to be women in this post—for more information on these incredible composers, check out the links below:
- Our recent post on Music as Stress Management to hear the music of Louise Farrenc
- Kids Music Corner – Clara Schumann
- ‘Her Music: Today’s Emerging Female Composer’ – wxqr.org
- ‘10 female composers you should know’ – classical-music.com
- ‘10 Trailblazing Composers of the Past (…Who Also Happen to be Women)’ – wfmt.com
- ‘The great women composers’ – classicfm.com
- Google search: ‘top female composers’
- ‘Top 10 Composers: The Female Factor’ – The New York Times