Classical Female Composers: Four awesome and underrated women

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This week felt like an appropriate time to talk about Classical female composers. Since Western music is historically dominated by men, we generally just talk about famous Classical men.

But just because women weren’t allowed the fame and success that men were doesn’t mean there weren’t amazing classical female composers. In fact, maybe they were even more amazing. They had to face more hardships and resistance to be on the same playing field as men, and were usually less rewarded for it.

In today’s video, we’re going to spotlight four of the most famous women in Classical music. You’ve probably heard of at least one or two of them.

We’ll talk about their stories and their accomplishments, and listen to a quick clip of their music as well.

Let’s get started!

Classical female composers: Hildegard von Bingen

For this list, I decided to go in historical order, which means the first lady we’ll be talking about is Hildegard von Bingen, from the Middle Ages.

My favorite part of doing my RCM grade 10 exam was studying the history, and she was one of my favorite people I studied.

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She was just cool. Since she was the 10th child, her family gave her to the church, because you’re supposed to give a tenth of your earnings to the church as a Catholic. Apparently including your offspring.

Hildegard’s accomplishments

Despite the cultural norms being particularly restrictive of women in the middle ages, Hildegard could not be stopped. She preached publicly, had visions and prophecies, and even went on preaching tour. These were all things which was unheard of for a woman to do.

She was in contact with popes and saints and emperors. Hildegard basically overrode all gender norms.

She did often refer to herself as a member of the “weaker sex” and other such non-feminist statements. However, I think it was all an elaborate ploy to validate her visions, writings and music as actually coming from a divine source, and not from her personally.

Hildegard was like, “I’m a lowly woman, I know nothing, but God knows some stuff. Since lowly women know nothing, you can see it must be true because of all this awesome stuff I’ve created.”

So let’s talk about this awesome stuff. First, Hildegard’s musical accomplishments.

Her biggest work was Ordo Virtutum, written around 1151, among around 70 other sacred works – one of the largest collections of work of any composer in the middle ages.

Ordo Virtutum was like the Midieval equivalent of modern family movies that teach you morals, like how bullies are bad and tortoises win races. It’s basically a story about a human who’s struggling between virtues and the devil.

Let’s take a brief listen to “O Frondens Virga”, from Hildegard’s morality play. It’ll give you a little taste of medieval monophony, which means there’s only one voice and no harmony. This play, which is almost like a precursor to opera, was very ahead of its time.

Hildegard Von Bingen’s non-musical accomplishments

Among Hildegard’s other accomplishments were a couple of scientific texts about holistic and herbal healing, of which she had plenty of practical experience and knowledge. She wrote theological texts about her visions. She even invented an alphabet, to presumably form a stronger bond with her group of fellow nuns.

There’s much more to be said for this fascinating woman, but it’s time to move on up to the Romantic era.

Classical female composers: Fanny Mendelssohn

Most of us know the name Felix Mendelssohn and his famous Songs Without Words. Felix is a Romantic era staple. Well, Felix had an older sister named Fanny, born in 1805, and she was just as – if not more so – musically gifted as Felix.

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Fanny was a born composer, writing over 460 pieces in her brief 42 years of life. Her family’s high standing in society afforded her the privilege of music lessons from her mother, who had been taught by descendant students of Bach.

Because of this, she could play Bach very well at a young age, and was praised as being “really something special”, and, “She plays like a man”.

Societal roles for women

Unfortunately for Fanny, she was boxed-in by society’s views of women. Her dad thought it was cute and fun that she played piano and wrote music, but didn’t take it seriously. Her dad said that Felix could do music as a profession, but for Fanny it “must only be an ornament”.

Luckily, Fanny’s husband Wilhelm Hensel was a little more supportive of her composing. She published her own collections, which were often performed in the Mendelssohn family home – however, she only did one public performance. She also helped her brother Felix with his music, since he trusted her ears.

Piano trio op. 11

We’re going to take a listen to a little of her Piano Trio, op. 11. A note if you’re looking up Fanny’s music to listen to is that you’ll find it under her married name, Fanny Hensel.

This trio was written in 1846, shortly before her death. It’s very beautiful, and it’s a shame that it isn’t more well-known.

Classical female composers: Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann is one of the best-known Classical female composers (specifically the Romantic era, born in 1819). Now if you’re thinking the only reason you’ve heard her name is because of her famous husband Robert Schumann, you’d be wrong.

It wasn’t Robert that brought Clara into the music fold, but rather Clara that inspired Robert to play piano in the first place, when she was 8 and he was 17. He heard her play and gave up his law studies to focus on music.

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Clara Schumann’s career

Clara outlived her husband by 40 years and enjoyed an epic concert career of 60 years, including many tours. In her later years she was an esteemed teacher at a conservatory in Frankfurt. She was one of the first non-improvising performers to play by memory, which helped make it standard practice.

Not only would Robert Schumann might not have been a pianist, but if it weren’t for Clara, we wouldn’t even know about him today. She promoted his music constantly, even when he was dead and unknown. And between her and Robert, she was the breadwinner.

Clara was a gifted composer. But between raising a family and tending to a husband who was mentally ill (Robert was institutionalized in the last years of his life), she expressed doubts that she had the time or creativity to pursue composition. Robert was distressed about how many great, creative ideas were going to waste because her lack of time.

Scherzo no. 2, op. 14

You can get a sense of Clara’s virtuosic piano style in her Scherzo, no. 2, op. 14. It’s a very fast virtuosic piece with a restless energy.

Classical female composers: Amy Beach

Amy Beach is a well-known American composer from the modern Classical era, born in 1867. She was a prodigy basically from birth, and her passion for music made her an unstoppable force not to be reckoned with.

At age four she was already composing. And even if she wasn’t around a piano, she composed pieces in her head.

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Like Fanny Mendelssohn, Amy encountered stigma about women performers. Despite that, Amy gave public recitals as early as age 7 to rave reviews.

Her parents never put her in a conservatory, so Amy only ever had a year of formal training – everything else she taught herself, studying Bach and learning counterpoint, harmony and fugue. She even translated Gevaert’s and Berlioz’s French treatises on orchestration, since they were such important educational works.

Amy Beach’s accomplishments

When Amy was married in 1885, she agreed to her husband’s instructions to limit public recitals and focus on composing (which she had to teach herself, since her husband didn’t approve of her having a teacher). She agreed to live as a “society matron” and to never teach piano.

When her husband died, Amy traveled and continued to earn her reputation as the top female American composer. She started teaching and coaching, and did plenty of writing for journals and papers, as well as public speaking.

She was the first president of the Society of American Women Composers and put plenty of effort into educating women in music.

4 Sketches, op. 15 “Dreaming”

The piece I’d like to show you by Amy Beach is from her “4 Sketches, op. 15”. It’s called “Dreaming”, and it’s got a very sentimental, Liszt-esque feel to it.

Each of the four sketches are worth listening to and learning as a piano player – Phantoms is a great waltz, Autumn gives you the impression of swirling leaves, and Fireflies is an intense study in fast playing.

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I hope you enjoyed today’s video on Classical female composers. We’ll have to do more videos like this in the future, since there are so many excellent female composers that deserve more recognition.

xo,
Allysia

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Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.