Back in 2013, The Guardian ran a series of the ‘50 greatest symphonies’. Forty-nine of them were composed by men. Just one was by a woman.

None of that music should be diminished, but nor is it the whole story. Because over the centuries, women have written symphonies. A good number, in fact. Just as the novel is a building block of western literature, so is the symphony a fundamental part of Western orchestral music – and women have always been part of its history.

Who was the first woman to write a symphony?

Let’s rewind to the 18th century, when the very idea of a symphony was coalescing, drawing on the Italian opera overture, Baroque church and chamber sonata, and ripieno concerto.

Amid this picture of orchestral innovation emerged Marianna Martines (1744-1812), a Viennese composer, harpsichordist, and singer who studied with Haydn and played piano duets with Mozart. Her great successes lie in the realm of vocal music but in 1770 she also planted the flag for women symphonists.

Marianna Martines's lively Sinfonie in C, also described synonymously as an Ouverture, is, most likely, the first symphony by a woman.

Best symphonies by female composers

But it wasn’t until the 1840s that women really got going with symphonic writing. Louise Farrenc’s three symphonies lead the way. ‘Her exceptional talent … unites a feeling for melody with the science of sound,’ wrote the critic Henri Blanchard, after hearing the premiere of the First Symphony in 1841, while her Third Symphony of 1847 was programmed alongside Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

As well as being one of the greatest female composers ever we named Louise Farrenc one of the best French composers of all time

A piano prodigy who became one of the first female professors at the Paris Conservatoire, Farrenc could easily have stuck to being a performer, but composition lessons with Anton Reicha, a close friend of Beethoven’s, opened other doors. In particular, he taught her to write for wind instruments, which were often seen as masculine at the time.

It was this, explains conductor Laurence Equilbey, who is recording Farrenc’s complete orchestral music for Erato with her Insula Orchestra, that allowed her to develop a strong orchestral style. ‘I would recommend starting with Symphony No. 3 for the fiery themes of the lively movements and the tenderness and poetry of the second movement,’ says Equilbey. ‘The work is very well constructed, includes interesting rhythmic games, beautiful melodic themes, careful orchestration, and recalls the virtuosity of a Mendelssohn.’

Meanwhile, in Germany, Emilie Mayer was also busy writing symphonies. Eight of them, no less. Remembered as the most prolific German woman composer of the Romantic era, her music was widely played in Germany and Austria in her lifetime. Like Farrenc, she was at the centre of her country’s musical life, working as co-director of the Opera Academy in Berlin. When she died, in 1883, she was buried near Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

Several of Mayer’s symphonies have been lost; the Fourth was recently reconstructed from a piano-duet score; and Nos 1 and 2 were recorded in 2020 by the CPO record label. A pupil of Carl Loewe, Mayer wrote her First Symphony in 1845, when she was in her thirties, soon followed by her Second.

If Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann are the closest points of reference, by the time of the Seventh Symphony, a recording of which is on YouTube, her writing displays the rhythmic drive that earned her the nickname ‘the female Beethoven’.

During the Romantic era, as the orchestra grew in scale and scope, so too did the symphony. Composers like Augusta Holmès, a French musician of Irish descent, wrote acclaimed dramatic symphonies and symphonic poems, exploring the interest in programme music, but her music is still rarely heard in concert halls today.

Dora Pejačević’s Symphony in F sharp minor, on the other hand, has recently stepped out of the shadows. ‘Top of my list of “Symphony by composer you haven’t heard of before”. Loads of fantastic TUNES!’ tweeted conductor Sakari Oramo in November 2021, ahead of a concert and Chandos recording of the four-movement piece.

The Croatian composer, born into eastern European aristocracy in 1885, wrote her only symphony while nursing soldiers during the First World War. ‘The symphony is a turbulent work, but one in which tempests and darkness are tempered by lyrical flights of Mahlerian beauty,’ wrote The Times of Oramo’s performance, ‘The harmonic language is ripe and chromatic, with whole-tone touches suggesting Debussy or Scriabin, and the rich contrapuntal weave evoking Elgar or César Franck … what’s most impressive is the feeling of a headstrong personality expressing itself with self-confidence.’ Pejačević died in 1923, at the age of 37.

Over in North America, the late 19th century saw composers experimenting with the symphony for the first time, with the efforts to find a national musical voice spurred on by Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Amy Beach formed a key part of that early period in American symphonic history.

A prodigy who blossomed into a self-taught composer, she became the first woman to have a symphony premiered by a major US orchestra, the Boston Symphony, in 1896. Her ‘Gaelic’ Symphony earned the respect of her male peers. ‘You will have to be counted in, whether you will or not – one of the boys,’ wrote George W Chadwick.

Beach drew on Irish folk tunes, putting into practice an idea she had set out in the Boston Herald, namely that American composers had a huge wealth of identities to draw on, whether African American, Native American, Chinese or Irish, or countless others. The ‘Gaelic’ Symphony is, said the conductor Leopold Stokowski, ‘full of real music, without any pretence or effects but just real, sincere, simple and deep music’.

Amidst this quest for the great American symphony, emerged another landmark work in E minor. Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 won the top prize in the Wanamaker competition and when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered the piece in 1933, it was the first time a leading US orchestra had performed a symphony by an African American woman. ‘As a woman, she’s asserting her intellectuality as a symphonic composer in this genre.

Beyond that, there’s the traumatic history of slavery and the oppressions of the Jim Crow era,’ explains Dr Samantha Ege, a pianist and Price scholar. ‘She is contending with all these forces and yet she emerges with an incredibly strong, self-assured and expressive symphonic voice.’

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A pianist, organist and teacher, Price was in her 40s when she composed the symphony. Having moved from the American South to Chicago, she became part of the Black Chicago Renaissance artistic movement. ‘It’s all about rebirth, transformation and invention,’ says Ege. ‘Price’s work is very tonally centred, and we might think of that as dated in relation to the Romantic period and the atonal experiments going on at the time.

But if we think about the Black Renaissance era being about reconnecting with the past and giving it new modern expression, there is nothing anachronistic about her musical style.’ Her Symphony No. 1 – the first of three – went down well with its audiences. She had found an authentic American voice. ‘The fact that it came from a black woman rather than a white man is really powerful,’ says Ege.

While traditional multi-movement symphonies continued to be written during the first half of the 20th century by women – Ruth Gipps and Grace Williams being prime examples – there were also composers experimenting with the very idea of what a symphony might be. Ethel Smyth was never one for convention, and her 1930 The Prison, featuring the philosophical musings of a prisoner and his soul, is hard to categorise. Yet the British composer described it as a ‘symphony for soprano, bass-baritone, chorus and orchestra’, noting that she was using the word in its original ancient Greek sense to mean a concordance of sounds.

‘She has a wonderful ear for colour and orchestration,’ says Odaline de la Martínez, who has conducted and recorded several of Smyth’s works and six operas. ‘She uses the orchestra very sparingly.’ For Elizabeth Maconchy, it was the ‘weight and serious content, and to some extent its form,’ that inspired her to call her 1954 four-movement orchestral piece the Symphony for Double String Orchestra.

‘I felt it to be a Symphony when I was writing it, and I still do,’ she wrote. ‘The Symphony owes a lot to the influence of someone like Bartók, while The Land [her first orchestral work of 1930] is tonal,’ explains De la Martínez. ‘She wrote well for the orchestra, and that allowed her to really develop her voice, technique and style.’

For a truly revolutionary voice, look no further than Galina Ustvolskaya, the reclusive Soviet composer who was nicknamed ‘the lady with the hammer’ for her unrelenting style.

She finished her First Symphony in 1955, her Fifth and final in 1990. Her teacher Shostakovich predicted ‘world fame’; instead, her fiercely uncompromising music has a cult following. Performers write of their fingers bleeding, so demanding is her music.

Fellow composers have described it being like a laser beam capable of piercing metal, and as burning with ‘an inhuman intensity and a spiritual strength’. Her five symphonies are not written for traditional orchestras – they include singers, speakers, religious texts, and even a wooden cube to be hit.

‘Her legacy is an example of almost ultimate existential expressionism, an individual cry against life’s circumstances, and a search for spiritual comfort in very uncomfortable living conditions,’ conductor Vasily Petrenko told The Guardian in 2020.

The story of the symphony is not one confined to the past, and living composers continue to write symphonies (see below) but this alternative history ends in 1989 with an unusual tale.

Minna Keal was 80 years old when her Symphony was premiered at the BBC Proms, to a standing ovation. She had begun her life in music as a child in London, born to Russian Jewish parents, and she studied with William Alwyn at the Royal Academy of Music.

Life intervened, and it wasn’t until four decades later that she was able to become a composer. Oliver Knussen and Justin Connolly became her teachers, and the creative fire was relit. ‘I felt I was coming to the end of my life, but now I feel as if I’m just beginning. I feel as if I’m living my life in reverse,’ she said. Her symphony was, in her words, ‘about the turmoil of human existence and the spiritual search for serenity and permanence.’ Knussen, who conducted the premiere, summed it up well: ‘You can’t predict anything with a talent like that!’

Five contemporary symphonies by female composers to explore

Sofia Gubaidulina (b.1931)

Stimmen … verstummen … Symphony in twelve movements (‘I hear … Silence …’) dates from 1986, and like much of the Russian composer’s work deals with the human and the divine. It also, rather unusually, includes a ‘cadenza for conductor’.

Gloria Coates (b.1938)

‘Composer, star gazer, American living in Munich’ is how Coates introduces herself on Twitter, while the LA Times describes her as ‘mesmerising … our last maverick.’ With 17 symphonies to her name, she’s the world’s most prolific female symphonist.

Diana Burrell (b.1948)

Symphonies of Flocks, Herds and Shoals (1997) is Burrell’s ‘hymn to creation’, a five-movement work commissioned by the BBC. The Independent found it ‘full of grand, heroic gestures’ and ‘sounds and ideas that demand to be heard again.’

Eleanor Alberga (b.1949)

When the British composer began to write a symphony, premiered in Bristol earlier this year, her first thought about the form, she told Radio 3, was ‘boy, does it come with associations’. Inspiration took over, and her geologically-inspired Strata grew into a six-movement work.

Lera Auerbach (b.1973)

Performer, composer and writer, Auerbach draws on diverse inspirations in her four symphonies, which enjoy colourful titles such as ‘The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie’ and ‘Arctica’.


Rebecca Franks
Rebecca FranksJournalist, Critic and former Managing Editor of BBC Music Magazine

Rebecca Franks is the former Managing Editor of BBC Music Magazine and a regular classical music critic for The Times. She is currently writing her first children's book.