10 female composers you should know
Our guide to the lives of ten brilliant female composers from the last 1000 years
When Clara Schumann wrote, ‘A woman must not desire to compose – not one has been able to do it, and why should I expect to?’ she can’t possibly have known about her illustrious predecessors, who include the 12th-century abbess Hildegard of Bingen, Francesca Caccini, jewel of the Medicis, or Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, France’s first female opera composer.
Clara was by no means alone yet, even today, female composers of the past are still not on equal footing with their male counterparts. Here's our guide to ten key figures whose music should be more widely appreciated than it is today....
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
Abbess, visionary, leader, poet, dramatist, herbalist and composer, Hildegard of Bingen stands out in music history as an artist in control of her context. Her musical legacy, of nearly 80 surviving works including a morality drama Ordo Virtutum, is one of the largest of any Medieval composer. She wrote for her own convents and nearby monasteries, supervising the copying of manuscripts. Immersed in her youth in the eight sung offices of the day, she seems to have learnt the skills of composing via osmosis: ‘I composed and chanted plainsong in praise of God and the saints, even though I had never studied either musical notation or singing.’ Her collection of pieces following the liturgical forms of antiphons, responsories, sequences and hymns is entitled Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations. Her musical style is characterised by great boldness, as ecstatic melodies vault upwards in wide intervals of fourths and fifths, and a dramatic use of flowing lines, with soaring arches encompassing more than an octave.
Francesca Caccini (1587-c1641)
Orazio Gentileschi The Lute Player. Though Gentileschi was a friend of Caccini's, there is no firm evidence that she is the sitter in this portrait.
Francesca Caccini’s works are often assumed to be by her father, Giulio. In fact, her songs have endured and can be found in many recorded collections of Italian Baroque. Known as ‘La Cecchina’, this composer, singer, lutenist, poet and teacher is thought to be the first Italian woman to have an ‘opera’ successfully staged: the ‘comedy-ballet’ La liberazione di Ruggiero, published in 1625. Born into the Medici court where her father worked, Francesca received a humanist education and music training. She sang at the wedding of Henry IV of France to Maria de’ Medici and so impressed him he requested she stay. But she returned to Florence where her carnival entertainment La Stiava led to her first position at court. She composed 32 songs, and at least 16 stage works to dramas by Michelangelo Buonarroti (the younger) and provided music for court and liturgical settings. At her career’s height in the 1620s, she was the highest paid musician in the court.
Barbara Strozzi (1619-77)
One of 17th-century Venice’s most famous singers, Barbara Strozzi was also the composer of eight volumes of dramatic vocal music. Probably the illegitimate daughter of a servant and Giulio Strozzi, the enlightened dramatist and librettist, she became his ‘elected’ daughter, and pupil. He encouraged both her performing and composing, setting up his Accademia degli Unisoni as a platform for both. Her first book of songs, settings of her father’s lyrics, was presented to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany in 1644, with a dedication which hinted at the pressures she was under: ‘I hope it may find protection… from the bolts of slander already preparing for it.’ After her father’s death she relied on composition for her livelihood. Chromatic tensions, expressive lines and long virtuoso runs mark her style, whose flamboyance hints at her own vocal powers.