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 the female composers from history whose music should be more widely appreciated than it is today….
While you’re here, why not also have a look at our round-up of the best living female composers making music today?
Who are the most famous female composers?
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
Abbess, visionary, leader, poet, dramatist, herbalist and composer, Hildegard von Bingen stands out in music history as an artist in control of her context.
How many works did Hildegard von Bingen write?
Hildegard von Bingen 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, Hildegard 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.’
What musical style did Hildegard von Bingen write in?
Hildegard von Bingen’s 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)
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.
Who was Francesca Caccini?
Born into the Medici court where her father worked, Francesca Caccini 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.
How many works did Francesca Caccini write?
Francesca Caccini 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.
Barbara Strozzi’s 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.
How many works did Barbara Strozzi write?
Barbara Strozzi wrote eight volumes of dramatic vocal music, as well as having a career as a highly successful singer.
What musical style did Barbara Strozzi write in?
Chromatic tensions, expressive lines and long virtuoso runs mark Barbara Strozzi’s style, whose flamboyance hints at her own vocal powers.
Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729)
Louis XIV, no less, was a patron of the Parisian harpsichord prodigy Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, born into a family of musicians. She played for him at the age of five, and was taken under the wing of Madame de Montespan until she married the organist Marin de La Guerre, which enabled her to pursue her career.
In his Le Parnasse français, the contemporary chronicler Evrard Titon du Tillet declared that, ‘Sometimes she improvises one or another for a whole half hour with tunes and harmonies of great variety and in quite the best possible taste, quite charming her listeners.’
What instruments did Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre write for?
Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre’s name appears in one of the first published collections of harpsichord music, dating from 1687. She also wrote secular Cantates françoises and the first opera by a woman to be staged in France, Céphale et Procris (1694).
Try La Guerre’s violin sonatas, with their bold, structural freedom and sense of drama, and which the Sun King reportedly found ‘most fine, but also original – a quality that today is extremely rare.’
Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (1739-1807)
There were plenty of female virtuosos and composers during the 18th century, but their lives were more restricted than before. Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel had the advantages of nobility and influence: born a princess (her grandfather was Frederick William I of Prussia), she became the Duchess of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, transforming her court into one of the most influential cultural centres in Germany.
Her husband, the Duke, survived only two years after their marriage, after which she took charge of her court, attracting visiting writers and dramatists such as Goethe and Schiller.
How many works did Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel write?
Among Anna Amalia’s surviving compositions are a symphony for two oboes, flutes, violins and double bass (1765), an oratorio, an opera Erwin und Elmire (1776) on a text by Goethe, and a Divertimento for Piano, Clarinet, Viola and Cello.
Are there any recording of Anna Amalia’s music?
The only available recordings feature Anna Amalia’s Flute Sonata and the overture and the entr’acte of her opera, which reveals a composer of zest, style and refinement.
Recommended recording: Ladies First! Simon Bucher (piano), Ana Ioana Oltean (flute)
Louise Farrenc (1804-75)
The 18 available recordings devoted to Louise Farrenc’s music are testament to the quality of her art. She’s without doubt France’s first major female composer of the 19th century, and also influential as performer and professor at the Paris Conservatoire.
Born into a family of sculptors, Louise Farrenc studied piano with Moscheles and Hummel and composition with Anton Reicha before embarking on a professional career in both performing and composing. Her marriage to flautist Aristide Farrenc opened many doors: they shared an interest in ‘early’ music scholarship, and he founded Editions Farrenc, resulting in the publication of her works.
How many works did Louise Farrenc write?
Among Louise Farrenc’s most popular pieces are two piano quintets, the beguiling and original Piano Trio with clarinet and flute, the Wind Sextet and the ambitious Nonet. She also wrote several symphonies, the Third praised by a critic as a ‘strong and spirited work’.
Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-47)
One has only to hear Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet to know how fiery a talent was lost through her early death. She and her famous brother Felix studied composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter who wrote to Goethe that Fanny ‘could give you something of Sebastian Bach. This child is really something special.’ Her own father was tolerant rather than supportive, while Felix, while respecting her talent, clearly felt ‘she is too much all that a woman ought to be for this’.
Did Fanny Mendelssohn ever get confused with her brother Felix?
Queen Victoria herself made the gaffe of ascribing her ‘favourite’ Mendelssohn song, ‘Italien’, to Felix, only to discover it was by his sister Fanny.
How many works did Fanny Mendelssohn write?
Fanny Mendelssohn penned 460 pieces, including the Piano Trio in D, Quartet in E flat, a Piano Sonata in G minor, exquisite songs and the piano cycle Das Jahr. She suffered her fatal stroke while conducting one of Felix’s oratorios.
Find out more about Fanny Mendelssohn and her works here
‘Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing.’ So wrote Robert Schumann, the man who both inspired and hampered his pianist-wife’s creative career, as did her ultimate need to support six children.
What musical style did Clara Schumann write in?
Clara Schumann composed her own virtuoso piano music from a young age, including her Variations on a theme by Bellini and bravura Piano Concerto in A minor, written at just 16. Her later, sombre, unfinished Konzertsatz in F minor and Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann Op. 20 reveal the blossoming of an individual voice, as does the graceful, rigorous G minor Piano Trio Op. 17, and quietly desperate Romances Op. 21/22.
A towering musician, Clara Schumann’s influence on the repertoire, on the recital format and on an approach to the piano that favoured searching musicianship over display are as important legacies as her music.
Find put more about Clara Schumann and her works here
A brave suffragette and a skilled composer, Dame Ethel Smyth refused to remain trapped by Victorian conventions. Cheerfully independent, she defied her father by studying composition at the Leipzig Conservatory though, disappointed by the standards, she moved on to study privately with Heinrich von Herzogenberg, who introduced her to Brahms and Clara Schumann.
What musical style did Ethel Smyth write in?
The salon world of ‘feminine’ songs and piano miniatures was not one for Ethel Smyth. From the off she was composing in ambitious, large-scale forms, including the Double Concerto for horn and violin, the Mass in D and six operas. Der Wald was staged at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1903, while her comic opera The Boatswain’s Mate drew contemporary praise for its delightful, conversational style.
Which works by Ethel Smyth have been performed at the BBC Proms?
Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham organised a festival in Ethel Smyth‘s honour in 1934 and Proms founder Sir Henry Wood was an admirer: there were 28 performances of her works at the Proms between 1913 and 1947. Her 1906 opera The Wreckers finally received its premiere at the Proms in 1994.
Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-53)
Ruth Crawford Seeger is a key figure in this list – not for the size of her output, but its radical originality. Here was a woman who could ‘sling dissonances like a man’.
Who was Ruth Crawford Seeger?
In March 1930 Ruth Crawford Seeger was the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to Europe. In Berlin she composed the visionary and wordless Three Chants, followed by her most famous work, the String Quartet (1931), an astonishingly original and coherent masterpiece which continues to influence composers today. In her works of this period one senses a mind interrogating the essential construction of music with a forensic focus and wild freedom.
The folk song collection years
After her marriage to the academic Charles Seeger, Ruth Crawford Seeger diverted her musical talent into the painstaking work of collecting American folk song for the Library of Congress, a project to which she was zealously devoted, and which led to her seminal 1948 collection American Folk Songs for Children. She only returned to serious composition with the Suite for Wind Quintet in 1952, just before she developed terminal cancer.
Maddalena Casulana (c1544-90)
The first woman ever to have her own volumes of madrigals printed, Casulana was under no illusions about the prejudices facing her as a female composer – in her dedication to her patron Isabella de’ Medici Orsini at the beginning of her First Book of Madrigals (1568), she writes of her aim ‘to show to the world the foolish error of men who so greatly believe themselves to be the masters of high intellectual gifts that they cannot, it seems to them, be equally common among women’. Not a great deal is known about Casulana’s life, other than that she was probably based in Vicenza in northern Italy for much of her life. She published 66 madrigals in all, many of which display her penchant for chromaticism, dissonance and careful attention to the text. A particularly fine example is the mournful ‘Morir non puo il mio cuore’.
Marianna Martines (1744-1812)
Although her music fell out of favour soon after her death, in her day Marianna Martines was a pivotal figure in the Viennese music scene. Martines’s father was a Spanish native of Naples who had come to Vienna as a Papal diplomat. An old friend, Metastasio, who had become Poet Laureate, lived with the Martines family, acting as a sort of godfather figure to the Martines children – for the young Marianna, who showed early promise as a musician, he arranged singing and composition lessons, and keyboard tuition from a young neighbour, one Joseph Haydn.
Martines’s music is typical of early-Classical Vienna (the musicologist Charles Burney described it as ‘neither common nor unnaturally new’). It is frequently virtuosic, with florid ornamentation. The composer gave many of the premieres, particularly of her vocal works, herself and the style of the writing suggests that she was an exceptionally accomplished performer. She was certainly respected as a musician, and was asked in 1773 to join the exclusive Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna. The weekly musical soiree Martines held at her home became the premier social event for musical Vienna. Among her regular guests was Mozart, who even composed some four-hand sonatas especially to perform with his hostess.
Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831)
During her relatively brief life, Szymanowska was feted primarily as a pianist. After making her debut in Warsaw in 1810, she went on to tour widely around Europe, enjoying huge acclaim and hobnobbing with the likes of composers Hummel, Rossini and Cherubini and the writer Goethe. In 1828, she finally settled in St Petersburg, where she continued to perform regularly and also ran a musical salon. Her compositions, of which there are around 100, were largely for piano (unsurprisingly) or voice. One of her major contributions was to introduce to her native Poland both nocturnes and piano studies – forms that were then famously developed further by Chopin, clearly influenced by his female forebear. Try, in particular, Szymanowska’s 20 exercises et preludes from 1819.
Adele aus der Ohe (1861-1937)
A German concert pianist and composer, Adele aus de Ohe was born in Hanover and was one of the few child prodigies accepted as a pupil by Liszt. She studied with him from the age of 12, staying with him for seven years. She made a name for herself in Europe and also in the US, with frequent concert tours. At the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891, she performed Tchaikovsy’s First Piano Concerto with the composer conducting. ‘There was a great enthusiasm, which it was never able to produce in Russia itself,’ wrote Tchaikovsky. As a composer, Adele aus de Ohe wrote numerous songs, including settings of US poet Richard Watson Gilder, as well as piano works and compositions for violin and piano. In 1901, a concert of her own pieces at London’s Steinway Hall, featuring her Suite in E, Op. 8, was praised by The Times.
Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)
During her lifetime, Chaminade published over 400 compositions and had an international following that included Queen Victoria. Born in Paris to musical parents, Chaminade studied with teachers at the Paris Conservatoire before embarking on a career as a virtuoso pianist. After 1890, she turned to composition almost full time, and the popularity of her character works led to Chaminade clubs being set up in the US specifically to champion her work. When she finally visited the US in 1908, Chaminade was subjected to a huge amount of criticism from the press, much to do with the idea of what sort of music a woman should or should not compose. When she composed lighter, sweeter music she was criticised for writing ‘overly-feminine’ music, but when she performed her larger-scale, more developmental music she was lambasted for attempted to write music in the style of a man. Her Flute Concertino remains a staple of the repertory today, and her other large works have been compared to the works of Wagner and Liszt.
Amy Beach (1867-1944)
By the time Amy Beach was one year old, she could sing over 40 songs. When she was five, she composed works for piano in her head (without an instrument), and aged seven she gave her first public recital of music by Chopin. This prodigious musical intelligence continued throughout Beach’s teenage years, though it was tempered first by her parents and then by her husband. After her marriage to Dr Henry Beach in 1885, she was encouraged by her husband to limit her performing career to just one charity concert a year. She turned to composition but, as Henry didn’t approve of her studying with a teacher, she had to teach herself. Her Mass in E flat major was the first by a woman to ever be performed by the Handel and Haydn Society, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered her Gaelic Symphony and Piano Concerto, with Beach herself as the soloist. Beach also wrote many chamber works and songs, two of which (Ecstasy and The Year at the Spring) sold thousands of copies and gave her an income for the rest of her life. After her husband’s death in 1910, she went on a concert tour of Europe, though she was forced to return by the outbreak of World War One. After that, she spent winters touring the US, and summers composing at her estate in New Hampshire until she retired to New York City in 1940.
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)
Rebecca Clarke was born in Harrow to a German mother and American father. Her early life was dictated by her controlling and often-abusive father who, she revealed in her late memoirs, would regularly beat his children for minor offences such as nail-biting. He withdrew Clarke from the Royal Academy of Music after her harmony teacher proposed to her, and later banished her from the family home, forcing Clarke to leave the Royal College of Music, where she had been CV Stanford’s first female pupil. She supported herself as a professional viola player, and in 1912 she became one of the six first female musicians to play in a professional orchestra when Henry Wood admitted her to his Queen’s Hall Orchestra. Clarke’s greatest composing success came during her years in the US when her Viola Sonata, was written for the 1919 Berkshire Festival of Music Competition in America, tied with a sonata by Ernst Bloch. Patron of the festival Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge eventually named Bloch the winner, but gave Clarke her first ever commission. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Clarke became stranded in the US, where she was forced to live with her brothers. Desperate for independence, she took a role as a governess in 1942, a move that marked the end of her composing career.
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
A prodigy who died at just 24, Lili Boulanger made history when, at 19, she became the first woman to win the Paris Conservatoire’s Prix de Rome with her cantata Faust et Hélène. In doing so she trumped her composer sister Nadia (who had entered four times, winning second prize in 1908), earned herself the prizewinner’s trip to the Villa Medici in the Italian capital and won a contract with the publishers Ricordi. Ill health plagued Boulanger’s short life – bronchial pneumonia as a toddler probably led to Crohn’s Disease – but she was ambitious, phenomenally gifted and determined to make her mark. Her music displays a voice of smart originality, an ear for piquant colour and atmosphere, and a flair for text setting. All these facets are particularly shown off in the haunting Vielle prière bouddhique and bold Psalm XXIV, or in the beautiful song-cycle Clarières dans le ciel. A five-act opera La princesse Maleine, setting Maurice Maeterlinck’s play with his enthusiastic blessing, was left incomplete at her death in 1918.
We named Lili Boulanger one of the greatest ever composers who died before 40
Florence Price (1887-1953)
As an African-American female, Florence Price had to overcome prejudice on two fronts to become a composer. And despite growing recognition for her music, most of her 300 or so compositions are yet to be published. Born in Arkansas, Price studied with her mother and then at the New England Conservatory and, privately, with George Whitefield Chadwick. She came to national fame in 1923, when her Symphony in E minor won the Wanamaker Competition; its premiere a decade later by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made Price the first African-American woman to have an orchestral work performed by a major American orchestra – an ensemble at the time peopled entirely by white men. Price wrote several other large-scale orchestral works, blending spirituals, African-American dance rhythms, jazz and classical idioms, and was also a prolific song composer. It was her arrangement of My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord that Marian Anderson sang at the end of her historic performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-94)
A blue plaque in the Essex village of Shottesbrook proudly lists Dame Elizabeth Maconchy as a former resident. She moved there in her 1950s, having already established herself as a prolific composer. Born in Hertfordshire, she spent her childhood in Ireland before returning to London to study under Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music. Her composing debut came in 1930 when the Prague Philharmonic performed her Piano Concerto. Maconchy’s chamber works range from a cycle of 13 string quartets to works for double bass and piano and for oboe and harpsichord. Her operas include The Sofa (1957), a mischievous story about a prince who is turned into a piece of furniture, and The Departure (1961), in which a mezzo-soprano plays the victim of a fatal car crash. Her choral works are no less diverse, ranging from carols, including ‘Nowell! Nowell! Nowell!’, to mystic pieces like Sun, Moon and Stars.
Ruth Gipps (1921-1999)
British composer Ruth Gipps was fabulously stubborn during her lifetime, refusing to be boxed in to a single category. Musically, she straddled various careers as a composer, conductor, pianist, oboist and teacher. As a composer too, she refused to follow the pack and turned her back on atonality and modernist trends that were dominating the music scene of the time. Instead, she mastered an unashamedly Romantic musical style, often celebrating the majesty of rural England.
After many years of neglect, her music finally saw something of a renaissance with her centenary year in 2021, when her Second Symphony was given its very first outing at the Proms.
We also included Ruth Gipps in our list of the best English composers of all time.
Check out our biography of Ruth Gipps, with her best recordings.
Written by Helen Wallace, Oliver Condy, Elinor Cooper, Rebecca Franks, Jeremy Pound and Freya Parr