Quietly, in places ranging from convents to conservatories to farms, extraordinary women have written innovative music without the benefit of fame. Historical archives hint at the challenges they have faced. Critics called composer Ethel Smyth a “little woman” with “utterly unfeminine” works, and Florence Price echoed the concerns of other minority women when she penned in a famous letter: “To begin with I have two handicaps – those of sex and race.”
Over time many talented men have landed in the history books, including Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. But what about female composers? In this blog and another one in June, we look at the accomplishments of 19 women composers.
Two of the earliest composers on our list – St. Kassia and St. Hildegard – wrote for religious reasons. As St. Hildegard noted, “I composed and chanted plainsong in praise of God and the saints even though I had never studied either musical notation or singing.”
Later women composers often had family connections that provided a gateway to music education. Numerous child prodigies also made their mark because their talent could not be ignored. And some talented women ended up composing simply because their love of music surpassed the limitations of their time or location.
Regardless of how they started, many women composers needed resilience when life tested them. Various musicians on our list overcame prejudice, illness, the death of loved ones, poor education, or the barrier of being a woman in a male-dominated field. Yet they have left a legacy of changing music, winning awards, and altering lives.
Here are the first 10 female composers on our list:
St. Kassia, also known as Kassiana: 810 – 865
Why unique: Kassia is the earliest female composer for whom we have preserved music.
St. Kassia was a Byzantine composer who came from a wealthy family in Constantinople. She was an abbess who wrote sacred hymns and is a recognized saint in the Eastern Orthodox church. About 24 of her pieces survive today, including The Fallen Woman, also known as The Hymn of Kassiani. It is sung on Holy Wednesday in the Eastern Orthodox faith and is said to include a line written by Emperor Theophilos, who had loved Kassia but rejected her earlier in his life.
St. Hildegard von Bingen: 1098–1179
Why unique: Hildegard von Bingen’s music was not only innovative in its time, but it’s also seen a revival in recent decades.
Like Kassia, Hildegard von Bingen was an abbess, and she is a canonized saint in the Catholic church. She was born in Germany and wrote about 77 chants, along with a musical drama that’s similar to a modern-day opera. In her work, Hildegard did innovative things, including inventing her own language, and unlike other music of the time used melodic fourths and fifths so that her songs sometimes had ranges of up to two and half octaves. She also wrote songs that allowed a singer to move up and down on a single syllable. In 1994, her work was brought back to life in Richard Souther’s album Vision: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen, which won the Billboard Top Classical Crossover Album.
Barbara Strozzi, also known as Barbara Valle: 1619–1677
Why unique: She did what few other women did during the time she lived: she published her own works, allowing her to have an impressive number of pieces in print during the 17th century.
Barbara Strozzi was an Italian singer and composer, and the adopted daughter of poet Giulio Strozzi. Her father’s connections helped her become successful as a musician. He founded the Accademia degli Unisoni (Academy of the Unisons) that featured her as a singer and an instrumentalist, and she was allowed to preside over its meetings. Her detractors accused her of lewd behavior, but despite these allegations she became recognized as a leading composer of vocal music. Seven volumes of her works, including dozens of songs, survive to this day.
Cécile Chaminade: 1857–1944
Why unique: In 1913 she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur – the highest French order of merit for military and civil achievements. She was the first female composer to receive this award, which was established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte.
Cécile Chaminade was a child prodigy and wrote her first compositions at eight years old. During her lifetime, she created nearly 400 piano compositions, 125 songs, and several orchestral suites. She was popular in France and Britain and also made an American debut in 1908 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Her increasing recognition in the United States led to the creation of numerous Chaminade clubs. She also was one of the first pianists to record for the gramophone in 1901.
Dame Ethel Smyth: 1858–1944
Why unique: She pursued her passion for music everywhere she went, even when she ended up in jail as a suffragette. Her dedication led her to become the first female composer to be awarded damehood.
Ethel Smyth is an English composer who was respected by her peers but derided by critics. One of her best-known works is the opera The Wreckers. She also wrote The March of the Women because of her involvement in the women’s suffrage movement. She was among more than 140 women who were jailed after a window-smashing campaign against politicians. While in her prison cell, Smyth used a toothbrush to keep the beat as women sang her march song in the courtyard below.
Smyth composed six operas and a variety of chamber, orchestral, and vocal works, including her opera Der Wald that was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It remained the only opera written by a woman to be performed at the Met until the 2016-17 season. At the age of 64, she was awarded the honor, Dame of the British Empire.
Amy Beach: 1867–1944
Why unique: Beach was a child prodigy who later composed the first symphony by an American woman to be published.
Like Smyth, Amy Beach created full productions. She first published compositions as a teenager and was also a performer. When she married, her husband did not want her performing regularly, so she focused more on writing. She produced more than 300 published works, and in a newspaper article she defended the work of female composers who were accused of lacking “creative power.” In 1896, her Gaelic Symphony was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, making her the first female composer to have such a work performed by a major orchestra in the United States.
Zitkála-Šá (Lakota: Red Bird): 1876–1938
Why unique: Zitkála-Šá created the first opera written by a Native American.
Zitkála-Šá was born on the Yankton Sioux Agency reservation with the name Gertrude Simmons. She adopted her Native American name when she was a teenager. During her lifetime, she wrote extensively about her culture and became a spokesperson for Native American concerns.
Her interest in music flourished in college. She performed as a violin soloist, learned piano, and taught music. In 1913 she wrote the libretto and songs for the opera The Sun Dance, which was created in collaboration with composer William F. Hanson. The opera is based on sacred Sioux ritual, and it premiered in Utah with some dancing and parts performed by Ute Nation members. In 1938 it also was performed by the New York Light Opera Guild, but its publicity only credited Hanson as the composer.
Florence Price: 1887–1953
Why unique: She was the first African American woman to have a composition played by a major orchestra.
Florence Price was her high school valedictorian at age 14. She attended the New England Conservatory of Music, which was one of the few conservatories to accept African Americans at the time. After college her family moved to Chicago following a brutal lynching in her former Arkansas neighborhood. In Illinois, Price struggled financially and temporarily lived with a student who would become a great composer herself – Margaret Bonds.
Price created one of her most successful compositions after she was laid up with a broken foot. Her Symphony in E Minor was performed in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by Frederick Stock – one of the only directors who supported her at the time. The composition was the first work composed by an African American woman to be played by a major symphony, and it gave Price enough recognition to continue working. Overall, she created more than 300 compositions. Years after her death in 2009 a number of her works were found in an abandoned house in Illinois. Her newly discovered Fourth Symphony was performed and recorded by the Fort Smith Symphony in Arkansas in May 2018.
Nadia & Lili Boulanger: Nadia: 1887–1979; Lili: 1893–1918
Why unique: These sisters were daughters of a Russian princess. Nadia was the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic. Lili was the first female winner of the Prix de Rome composition prize.
The Boulanger family was filled with accomplished musicians. Nadia’s and Lili’s father was a voice teacher at the Paris Conservatory, which Nadia entered at age 10. She composed songs for solo voice, piano, and solo instrumental, along with large-scale vocal works and several orchestra compositions. Yet she stopped composing when her sister died; in an interview, Nadia indicated her doubts about her talent, saying “If there is one thing of which I am certain, it is that I wrote useless music.”
Nadia continued her career by concentrating on teaching and conducting. In 1921 she began an association with the American Conservatory, and her first American student was Aaron Copland. Nadia also taught numerous other famous composers, and she made her mark as a successful female conductor.
Lili Boulanger was first taught music by Nadia. Lili was a sick child who was also very intelligent and had perfect pitch. When she was 19, she wrote a 30-minute orchestra piece titled Faust et Hélène in only four weeks. The piece garnered Lili the Prix de Rome award, which was a prestigious honor for artists.
Over time, Lili composed about 20 notable pieces. Her inspiration was said to be related to her thoughts about a possible early death. While on her deathbed, Lili dictated to Nadia her final piece, Pie Jesu. In this song the performer asks the Lord to grant everlasting rest. Lili died at age 24.
In Part 2, we’ll look at the lives of nine female composers born after 1900 who have benefited from their predecessors’ accomplishments. To view pieces by women composers, browse some of our top-selling sheet music.