Six of the most inspiring women in classical music
We celebrate six women who defied social norms to perform, compose, teach and conduct classical music.
First female composer Hildegard von Bingen
No-one, of course, really knows who the first female composer was – women have been inventing and singing melodies since the very beginnings of history. The first one, however, whose music has been written down and survives to this day is the 12th-century German abbess Hildegard von Bingen.
Something of a polymath – she was also an important writer, visionary and philosopher – Hildegard wrote over 70 works. The most famous of these is her morality play Ordo Virtutum (Order of the Virtues) from around 1150.
First female conductor Raphaela Aleotta
All sorts of female conducting ‘firsts' have happened with recent memory. In 2013, Marin Alsop became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms. And it was only in 2002 that a British orchestra first had a female principal conductor – again, Alsop. But the earliest descriptions of a female conductor are considered to be from 1594 and the San Vito Convent in Ferrara, Italy, where there was a choir of nuns.
Said one listener: ‘The Maestra of the concert … with a long, slender and well-polished wand – gives [the other sisters] without noise several signs to begin, and then continues by beating the measure of the time which they must obey in singing and playing.’
First female professor at a conservatoire Louise Farrenc
The French pianist (1804-75) Louise Farrenc was appointed to the Paris Conservatoire in 1842, and remained there for 30 years. She was the first woman in Europe to be an instrumental professor at a conservatoire, although for the first ten years of her time there she was paid less than her male counterparts. Farrenc was also a composer, and her music was particularly admired by Schumann; her Third Symphony was included in The Guardian’s recent ‘50 greatest symphonies’ series.
First female member of a symphony orchestra Rebecca Clarke, and five unknown others
Said Sir Henry Wood, then conductor of The Queen’s Hall Orchestra, ‘I do not like ladies playing the trombone or double bass, but they can play the violin, and they do.’ Wood was the first in Europe to allow women into a symphony orchestra when he hired six female violinists and violists in 1912, well before the WWI draft created a shortage of male musicians.
The stigma surrounding a mixed-gender orchestra has not been long done away with. The Vienna Philharmonic remained the last bastion of all-male ensembles until 1997, and has only achieved some equality in parts since introducing blind auditions. As recently as 1996, male VPO players gave interviews stating that classical music has ‘gender-defined qualities’ that can be ‘most clearly expressed by male uniformity’.
Rebecca Clarke was also a composer, and her chamber music has become renowned.
First female conductor of an opera company Sian Edwards
The first woman to step onto the podium at Covent Garden, Edwards also became the first female music director of a major opera company in 1993 when she succeeded Mark Elder at the English National Opera.
It was a rapid promotion for Edwards, who was relatively inexperienced at the time, and she resigned after just two years in the post. ‘It all happened so fast that I didn’t have a chance to plan things’ she said in a 2005 interview. ‘I needed to develop myself as a musician and a person.’
First female Master of the Queen’s Music Judith Weir
When, in 2004, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies reached the end of his ten-year appointment in 2014, he handed over the regal reins to eminent Scottish composer Judith Weir, whose notable works included the 2004 opera Blond Eckbert. By all accounts, the question of whether the title should be changed to Mistress of the Queen’s Music was never raised at an official level.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.