by Maggie Molloy
“New” music didn’t just start up out of the blue. The contemporary classical music we know and love and treasure today is the product of centuries of innovation and experimentation in the field.
Likewise, women didn’t just pick up instruments and staff paper in the 21st century—we are the product of hundreds of years’ worth of women who fought to have their music heard. So if we’re going to celebrate Women in (New) Music, it’s important to pay tribute to the women who paved the way.
The following timeline briefly outlines the contributions of a number of history’s most influential women composers, past and present. Please note that this list is by no means comprehensive, but rather is meant to summarize some of the key accomplishments of women composers in the Western classical music tradition.
So the next time you’re looking for some fiercely empowering musical inspiration, check out some of these ladies:
Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE): Regarded by scholars as the earliest known author, poet, and composer (regardless of gender), Enheduanna was a high priestess of the moon god in the Sumerian city-state of Ur. Her temple hymns were held in high esteem, and were in use at temples across Sumer and Akkad long after her death.
Image is of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility, and warfare.
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179): Hildegard was a German Benedictine abbess, Christian mystic, and one of earliest female composers. There are more surviving chants by Hildegard than by any other composer from the entire Middle Ages, and she was one of the first composers (male or female) to create her own idiosyncratic compositional style.
Maddalena Casulana (1544-1590): Casulana was the first woman in Western music history to print and publish her music, and the first to regard herself as a professional composer.
Francesca Caccini (1587-1645): Caccini had a successful career as a singer, teacher, and composer, and was one of the most prolific composers of dramatic music in the 17th century. She was also the highest-paid musician at the Florentine court.
Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677): Strozzi was the most prolific composer, man or woman, of printed secular vocal music in Venice during the mid-17th century. Her father, a poet and librettist himself, nurtured her ambitions as a composer and introduced her to the intellectual elite of Venice. Unlike her male contemporaries, she was restricted to performing at intimate, private gatherings rather than for large, public audiences.
Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729): Born into a family of musicians and instrument makers, Jacquet de la Guerre was the original child prodigy in music. From the age of five, she sang, composed, and played the harpsichord at Louis XIV’s court, supported by the king’s mistress. Throughout her life, she enjoyed the patronage of the king and dedicated most of her works to him.
Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831): Szymanowska was one of the first professional virtuoso pianists of the 19th century. She toured extensively throughout Europe and composed for the court at St. Petersburg, gave concerts, taught music, and ran an influential salon. She wrote a number of piano pieces and songs which made her an important forerunner to Chopin.
Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847): Later known as Fanny Hensel (after her marriage), she was the sister of the early Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn. Though she was as talented and musically precocious as her brother, a musical career was considered inappropriate for a woman of her wealth and class at the time. After her marriage she played piano and performed her compositions at small, private gatherings of friends and invited guests, and she published much of her music under her brother’s name.
Clara Schumann (1819-1896): Clara Schumann was one of the most distinguished composers and pianists of the Romantic era. Though she was married to the composer Robert Schumann, she tended to be the more famous of the two, and was the main breadwinner for their family. Together, Robert and Clara championed the musical career of Johannes Brahms, and she was the first to perform any of his works publicly.
Amy Beach (1867-1944): A child prodigy, pianist, and composer, Amy Beach taught herself to compose by studying and playing the works of other composers. Though social conventions of the time excluded her from studying or teaching at any of the top universities, she went on to become the first American woman to publish a symphony and other large-scale works.
Marion Bauer (1882-1955): Bauer was an influential composer, teacher, and music critic who played an active role in shaping American musical identity in the early half of the 20th century. She held leadership roles in a number of composers’ societies, and helped found the American Music Guild, the American Music Center, and the American Composer’s Alliance.
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979): Clarke was a classical composer and violist best known for her chamber music featuring the viola. She became one of the first female professional orchestral players. Most of her works have yet to be published (or have only recently been published).
Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953): Price was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition performed by a major orchestra. Though she was classically trained, her music incorporated elements of African-American spirituals, emphasizing the rhythm and syncopation of the spirituals rather than just the text.
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979): Boulanger was a composer, conductor, and one of the most influential pedagogues of the 20th century. Many of her students went on to become leading composers of the 20th century, including Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson, Philip Glass, Ástor Piazzolla, and many more. Boulanger was the first woman to conduct many major orchestras in America and Europe, including the BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, Hallé, New York Philharmonic, and Philadelphia orchestras.
Germaine Tailleferre (1892 – 1983): Tailleferre was the only female member of the group of French composers called Les Six, who were known for writing highly individual works which drew from a wide range of influences, including neoclassical. She composed hundreds of works in all genres, including many film scores.
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918): Lili Boulanger was a child prodigy and a student of her older sister, Nadia. At the age of 19, she became the first woman composer to win the Prix de Rome for her piece Faust et Hélène, but her compositional career was cut short when she died at the age of 24 from chronic illness.
Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953): Seeger was a modernist composer and American folk music specialist, and she was the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship in music. She was a prominent member of a group of American composers known as the “ultramoderns,” and her music influenced later composers including Elliott Carter.
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Zwilich was the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. She is one of the most frequently played living composers, and her works draw from a wide range of influences, including atonal, post-modernist, and neo-romantic.
Libby Larsen: One of America’s most prolific and most frequently performed living composers, Larsen has cultivated a catalog of over 500 works spanning virtually every genre. She was the first woman to serve as a resident composer with a major orchestra, and she went on to become one of the founders of the American Composers Forum.
Julia Wolfe: Perhaps best known as one of the three founders of the wildly innovative Bang on a Can new music collective, Wolfe’s compositional style is just as urgent and relentlessly powerful as her career. In 2015, she earned the Pulitzer Prize for music, and this year, she was named a MacArthur Fellow—the first full-time classical composer to receive this distinguished award since 2003.
Jennifer Higdon: One of America’s most critically-acclaimed and frequently performed living composers, Higdon has both a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award under her belt. She enjoys several hundred live performances a year of her works, and her compositions have been recorded on over four dozen CDs.
Lisa Bielawa: A prominent composer and vocalist both within and beyond New York’s thriving contemporary classical scene, Bielawa takes her inspiration from literary sources and close artistic collaborations. In 1997, she co-founded the MATA Festival, which has gone on to become New York’s leading showcase for vital new music by emerging composers.
Amanda Harberg: A New Jersey-based composer, pianist, and educator, Harberg’s music has been widely commissioned and performed both in the United States and abroad. She is also the founder and director of the Music in Montclair series, which pairs performances of traditional classical music with new works by living composers.
Shara Nova: Best known as the lead singer and songwriter for her chamber pop band My Brightest Diamond, Nova is also equally at home as a composer, mezzo-soprano extraordinaire, and musical chameleon. Career highlights include composing and starring in her own psychedelic Baroque chamber opera titled You Us We All and collaborating with practically every major musical voice in New York City (and beyond).
Sarah Kirkland Snider: Perhaps best known for her rapturous and vividly orchestrated song cycles Penelope and Unremembered, Snider’s utterly immersive compositions have been commissioned and performed by many of the most prestigious orchestras, ensembles, and soloists throughout the world. A passionate advocate for new music, Snider also serves as co-director, along with William Brittle and Judd Greenstein, of New Amsterdam Records—a label which consistently churns out adventurous and thought-provoking new music.
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: As a composer, Thorvaldsdottir is known for creating large sonic structures which immerse the the listener in their austere, somber, and utterly spellbinding soundscapes. She’s the recipient of the prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize and The New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer Award.
Angelique Poteat: A powerful compositional voice and new music advocate, Poteat is a Seattle-based composer and clarinetist whose works have been commissioned and performed by the Seattle Symphony, North Corner Chamber Orchestra, and many others. Her five-movement composition Listen to the Girls, scored for girl choir and large orchestra, explores harmful and unfair societal expectations of women.
Kate Moore: Moore’s award-winning compositions blur the line between acoustic and electroacoustic media, at times even crossing over into sound installation territory. She specializes in creating surprising performance scenarios which feature virtuosic instrumentalists and musicians set amidst unusual and alternative performance circumstances.
Missy Mazzoli: Mazzoli is a Brooklyn-based composer and keyboardist who’s works flow seamlessly between chamber-operatic, electronic, and abstract sound worlds. She’s also the founder and keyboardist of the all-female new age art pop ensemble Victoire, a group dedicated to the performance of her works.
Caroline Shaw: Perhaps best known as a Grammy Award-winning singer in the boundary-bursting vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, Shaw is also a prominent violinist and composer in contemporary music. She has performed around the world as a violinist in ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble), and in 2013 she became the youngest ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her a capella composition Partita for 8 Voices.
Are we missing someone? We plan to continue updating and expanding this index of women composers as time goes on. Send your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll make sure your favorite female composers are added to the list.