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, 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 top 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.
Margaret Bonds: 1913–1972
Why Unique: She frequently collaborated with poet Langston Hughes and overcame barriers as an African American composer.
Margaret Bonds’ mother often invited African American musicians to the house. By the time Bonds was a teenager she was taking lessons from Florence Price, who was featured in our earlier blog. When she was 20, she became the first African American soloist to appear with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Over time, her compositions were performed by many artists, including Louis Armstrong.
In 1941 Bonds wrote a musical piece for the Langston Hughes poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers. The two developed a partnership that included larger theatrical projects. Bonds was proud of her role in promoting African American culture, saying “If I deserve any credit at all, it’s that I have stuck to my own ethnic material and worked to develop it.”
Alice Parker: b. 1925
Why Unique: Parker has worked her whole life as a self-employed composer, conductor and teacher, producing more than 700 musical works, five books, and a series of recordings.
Alice Parker majored in composition but had trouble with 12-tone composing, which was counter to her intuitive nature. The teaching style convinced her that she was not a composer, and she stopped creating original pieces for 15 years thereafter. Instead, she worked with renowned conductor Robert Shaw for 20 years on a series of choral arrangements that are known around the world.
“I learned so much from him; topics we never touched upon in college – purely practical things, like when a person is going to breathe in the piece,” Parker said. While she was working with Shaw, Parker landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1947.
Parker started composing again when she was asked to write a piece for Mother’s Day. She says this simple topic “opened the gates again to writing” – this time to fulfill a need rather than to explore theoretical language. She has composed on commission ever since.
Her commissions range from operas to cantatas and solo songs for professional and amateur groups. She cherishes the shorter works, saying “You can’t do Thanksgiving every day. Sometimes you need applesauce and peanut butter sandwiches.”
No matter the music’s complexity, Parker says she has an “obsession with melody” that prompted her to create the organization Melodious Accord. The love of her work was evident when choral groups across the United States posted performances of her pieces on YouTube for her 90th birthday. Two years later she remains grateful, saying “I’m still here doing work I love.”
Toshiko Akiyoshi: b. 1929
Why Unique: Akiyoshi became a jazz fan after the American genre of music migrated to Asia. She has received 14 Grammy nominations and was named a U.S. National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master in 2007.
Toshiko Akiyoshi was discovered by Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson while she was playing piano in Japan. On his recommendation, Akiyoshi recorded for jazz musician Norman Granz, and she went to the U.S. to study. There she founded the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra to play her own compositions, and the band gained a reputation for being innovative. In an album review, jazz critic Leonard Feather penned, “… greatness is greatness, whether on the East Coast, the West Coast, in Tokyo or anywhere else in the world.”
Akiyoshi has written an autobiography titled Life with Jazz and has received numerous awards, including one from Japan’s Emperor in 1999. Overall, she has recorded more than 20 albums with the orchestra.
Carole King: b. 1942
Why Unique: King is the first woman to win multiple Grammys in the General Field categories.
Carole King has written more than 400 songs, resulting in 100 hit singles. She wrote her first #1 hit Will You Love Me Tomorrow at age 17. She reached the pinnacle when she created the solo album Tapestry in 1971. In a first for a female artist, Tapestry won four Grammy Awards – Record, Song, and Album of the Year as well as Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. More than 25 million copies have sold worldwide. She’s also had three other platinum and eight gold albums.
King was the first woman to be awarded The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. In January 2014, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical opened on Broadway. It won a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album as well as two Tony awards. In 2015 King received Kennedy Center Honors.
Gwyneth Walker: b. 1947
Why Unique: Walker spent 30 years hopping between her dairy farm and concert halls, helping put her more than 300 music compositions on stage for solo voice, choral, orchestra, and chamber music.
Gwyneth Walker’s father was an inventor, and as a child she liked “inventing” on the piano. When she was older, she got a teaching job, but she quit her job to concentrate on composing. She turned to commission work mainly for ensembles.
During the writing process, she says she starts by walking around to plan the piece. Her insight often comes from nature. “I just love living in the country,” Walker said. “When I look out the window it is definitely beauty coming in that is inspiring to me.”
Walker says the highlight of her career came when she combined her interests and wrote Match Point, a dramatization of tennis for orchestra or band that’s conducted with a tennis racket. Walker was thrilled when tennis great Billie Jean King conducted this piece at Lincoln Center in New York.
Rachel Portman: b. 1960
Why Unique: Portman was the first female composer to win an Oscar and a Primetime Emmy.
Rachel Portman, a British composer, started composing on the piano at age 13. She developed an interest in composing music for films at college, where she wrote music for student productions. She won an Academy Award for the score of Emma and a Primetime Emmy Award for the film score for Bessie. She also received two further Academy nominations for The Cider House Rules and Chocolat, which also earned a Golden Globe nomination. Overall, she has written more than 100 works for television, film, and theater as well as for symphony orchestra.
Julie Giroux: b. 1961
Why Unique: Giroux was the first female composer inducted into the American Bandmasters Association in 2009. She also was the first woman to receive the Distinguished Service to Music Award in Composition from the music fraternity Kappa Kappa Psi.
In the 1980s, Julie Giroux was hired as a conductor and arranger for an ESPN sporting event in Louisiana. There she met composer Bill Conti, who hired her to score the television miniseries North and South. Following that project, she wrote for numerous films and television shows and was on a team with Conti that won the 1992 Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Music Direction for their work on the 64th Annual Academy Awards broadcast. She was the first woman and youngest person to receive the award.
After years of television work, Giroux’s nephew got her back into composing for concert band because he wanted her to write him a part. To encourage younger artists in the band process, she now works with the American Bandmasters Association mentor program.
In June 2018 Giroux’s newest composition, Symphony No. V “Elements,” premiered. It includes three movements to represent sun, rain and wind – to “make the audience feel sunburned, drenched and blown out the doors,” she says. Giroux spent months on the project, throwing out nine movements and sweating every note. Such projects keep Giroux motivated.
“Music gets me up every day,” Giroux says. “I’m so excited about what I will get to do today, tomorrow and the next day.”
Rosephanye Powell: b. 1962
Why Unique: Powell was her high school valedictorian and a star athlete who dropped sports to pursue music. Over time she has become one of the United States’ premier composers of choral music.
Rosephanye Powell says it was challenging being an African American growing up in the South. Her family experienced racial attacks, including crosses burning in their yard, after her father founded an NAACP chapter. She says it made her want to overcome barriers. After an injury playing basketball, she began to focus fully on music.
Powell says she is inspired by numerous African American composers, including Florence Price, noting her works are “emotionally moving and well crafted.” Powell utilizes techniques that reflect her African American heritage, including layering songs with multiple lines, syncopation, and strong rhythmic emphasis. “I am grateful as an African American woman, who is one of the few being published, that I am able to express a voice for the black culture,” she says.
One of the more rewarding experiences for Powell has been the reaction to her song Still I Rise. She says when she’s visited college campuses, she’s had numerous students approach her to show her tattoos of the song title and tell her how the song gave them hope. Powell says, “It’s powerful to know music has that ability.”
Esperanza Spalding: b. 1984
Why Unique: Spalding was the first jazz artist to win the Grammy Award for Best New Artist.
Esperanza Spalding started playing violin in the Chamber Music Society of Oregon at five years old and became concertmaster at age 15. Because of a lengthy childhood illness, she was homeschooled for many years and went to college at age 16.
Spalding plays multiple instruments, and she sings in three languages – English, Spanish and Portuguese. In 2011, she beat out Justin Bieber for Best New Artist at the Grammys. Overall, she has won four Grammy awards. Spalding perhaps best summarizes the varied experiences of women composers when she notes that the journey is hard but worthwhile.
“There’s nothing wrong with struggle,” Spalding said. “Anytime I look back at a difficult phase of my life and see what grew out of it – the creative survival tactics – I think that the good is way better than the bad.”
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