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Women Composers in Classical Music You Should Know About

News 2021-03-08

Women Composers in Classical Music You Should Know About

If you’re an avid classical music fan, you’re probably well versed with composers like Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn. At the end of February we introduced you to two wonderful women composers in our Naomi Woo Conducts Haydn & Farrenc concert: Marianne von Martinez and Louise Farrenc. WSO RBC Assistant Conductor Naomi Woo performed the Canadian premiere of Martinez’ gorgeous piano concerto while conducting the orchestra at the same time.

In celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day on March 8th, here are some more women composers from the classical music world you should know about.


Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

She was born over 900 years ago and for most of her 80-plus years was shut away in an obscure hilltop monastery in the Rhineland. Not only did she compose some 70 works, Hildegard von Bingen was a writer, mystic and visionary. This remarkable woman had left behind a treasure-trove of illuminated manuscripts, scholarly writings and songs written for her nuns to sing at their devotions. As a Benedictine Abbess, she founded two monasteries. One of her compositions, the Ordo Virtutum, is the oldest surviving morality play. Today we think of von Bingen as one of the first identifiable composers in the history of Western music (most medieval composers were “Anon”). But there were no mentions of her music in any reference book before 1979 and she barely warranted an entry in the 1990 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music.


Chiquinha Gonzaga (1847-1935)

Gonzaga was a Brazilian composer and the first recognised female conductor in the country. Her main instrument was the piano, and she composed her first piece when she was 11 years old. After a turbulent marriage, she devoted her time to composition and became known as a prolific composer of many different styles, including tangos, waltzes and polkas. Some of her most famous compositions include the polka, Atraente (1877), the waltz Walkyria (1884) and Ó Abre Alas (1899). She created the first society for copyright protection in Brazil called The Brazilian Society of Theatrical Authors (SBAT). In 2018 Google honoured her with her own Google Doodle on her birthday October 17th.

Learn more about Gonzaga here!


Teresa Carreño (1853-1917)

Born in Venezuela in 1853, Teresa Carreño was an internationally acclaimed pianist, singer, composer and conductor. She debuted very early. At only 10 years old, she performed for Abraham Lincoln – and moved to Europe in 1866, where she toured as an opera singer and pianist. She composed, among other things, more than 40 works for piano, but her greatest hit was a piece called Tendeur. Carreño also lived a rather interesting personal life. She was married no less than 4 times and had altogether five surviving children.

As luck would have it, she recorded some music in 1905 so we can actually here her play today. Among the pieces she recorded is the Chopin Ballade No. 1 in G minor Op. 23. She was Claudio Arrau’s favourite pianist and Franz Liszt once told her after hearing her play a work of his . . . “I didn’t know my music was so nice”. Carreño died in 1917 in New York City. Today, the second largest theatre in South America, the Teresa Carreño Cultural Complex in Careras,Venezuela, carries her name, as does, remarkably enough, a crater on Venus.


Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)

 Chaminade was composing from an early age, even playing some of her music to Georges Bizet when she was eight. She wrote mostly pieces for piano and salon songs, which were hugely popular in America. She composed a Konzertstück for piano, the ballet music to ‘Callirhoé‘ and other orchestral works. The composer Ambroise Thomas once said of her, ‘This is not a woman who composes, but a composer who is a woman.’


Amy Beach (1867-1944)

America’s first successful woman composer, Amy Beach was an accomplished pianist who agreed, after her marriage, to limit her piano performances to one charity recital a year. After her husband died, she toured Europe as a pianist, playing her own compositions to great acclaim. Her music is mainly Romantic, although in her later works she experimented with more exotic harmonies and techniques. Her most famous works include the Mass in E-flat major and the Gaelic Symphony.


Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)

Tailleferre was the only woman in the group of French composers, Les Six. Encouraged and inspired by her friends – including Poulenc and Ravel – she wrote many of her most important works during the 1920s, including her first Piano Concerto, the Harp Concertino, the ballets ‘Le marchand d’oiseaux‘ and ‘La nouvelle Cythère‘. She was composing and playing piano right up until her death at the age of 91.


Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)

Boulanger’s talent was evident at the age of two, when Gabriel Fauré discovered she had perfect pitch and became one of her earliest teachers. Her parents encouraged her musical education. At the age of 19 she won the Prix de Rome composition prize for her ‘Faust et Hélène‘, becoming the first woman composer to win the prize. She died tragically young. Boulanger suffered a severe case of pneumonia when she was two and she was susceptible to illness all throughout her life. Not the least of which was what they knew back then as intestinal tuberculosis. Today we know it as Crohn’s disease. The asteroid 1181 Lilith was named in her honour. If the name sounds familiar, it might be because her older sister Nadia Boulanger was the legendary French composer, conductor, and teacher who taught many of the leading composers and musicians of the 20th century. What a family!


 Violet Archer (1913-2000)

Born in Montreal, Violet Louise Archer (born Balestreri) was a composer, teacher, pianist, organist, and percussionist. A composer of marked individuality, Violet Archer was widely recognized for her command of both traditional and contemporary music techniques, and for her large and diverse body of work. She composed more than 330 compositions, many of which have been performed in over 30 countries. Her Piano Concerto (1956) is considered one of the finest concertos composed by a Canadian. She was respected internationally for her dedication to bringing 20th century classical music to young audiences and for being a leader among women composers.

A Member of the Order of Canada, Archer commuted to New York in the summer of 1942 for private study with the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, who introduced her to Hungarian folk tunes and to variation technique, and instilled in her an abiding interest in folk music. She taught at the McGill Conservatory from 1944 to 1947; and then studied composition at Yale University from 1947 to 1949. Paul Hindemith was her principal professor there.

This Saturday, (March 13) the WSO will be performing Archer’s Fantasy in the form of a passacaglia for Brass and Timpani. This will be part of the Mozart, Cimarosa & Bartók concert. Get all the details and your livestream ticket here.


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