Emmy-winning classical composer Julie Giroux says she didn’t know about any women composers when she was studying music, and when she first entered the field she didn’t meet any, either. Unfortunately, she is not alone in this experience. It’s only in the last few decades that women composers have begun to be recognized in some of the music industry’s top areas.
In a May 2018 blog, we focused on women composers who quietly made their mark on history. In the 20th and 21st centuries, some women started to break the highest glass ceilings in music. In this blog we focus on nine of them who’ve had major accomplishments. You may have heard of some of their names, and others you may not know. Regardless, these women are key players in their respective fields. Their music is played in movie theaters, high schools, and concert halls across North America and the world.
Here is a look at nine outstanding female composers born after 1900:
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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