A Look At Female Classical Music Composers

 

Depending on the instrument you play or your passion for classical music, you may have heard the works of one or a few female composers. Pianists, for example, may know of or even have played Clara Schumann. However, the vast majority of the world has never heard of the likes of Amy Beach, Fanny Mendelssohn, or Florence Price, and that is quite unfortunate.

Women have actually made significant contributions to the classical music world. However, they remain on unequal footing with their male counterparts. So for International Women’s Day, here’s a look at some notable and some forgotten women composers throughout history.

Clara Schumann - Women ComposersClara Schumann (1819-1896): Clara Schumann was not only the wife of composer Robert Schumann, but also one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era. Her career began at a young age. At age 11, she went on a concert tour of various European cities and gave her first solo concert in Leipzig. Later, during her marriage to Robert, she met Johannes Brahms and not only helped encourage his career, but also was the first to perform publicly any Brahms work. She premiered several of his works during her career including the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel.

She also began composing at a young age. In fact, she wrote her piano concerto when she was just fourteen and performed it at age sixteen (with Mendelssohn conducting). As she grew older and focused on other responsibilities, she found it difficult to find time to compose. Her output decreased greatly when she reached 36 years old. Her works include piano pieces, the aforementioned piano concerto, a piano trio, choral pieces, songs, and three Romances for violin and piano.

 

Fanny Mendelssohn - Female ComposersFanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847): Like Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn was a pianist and composer. She was Felix Mendelssohn’s sister and the pair shared a deep love of music. Felix arranged to have some of Fanny’s songs published under his name, due to prevailing attitudes toward women publishing music, which actually led to an embarrassing moment. Queen Victoria received Felix at Buckingham Palace and expressed her intention of singing her favorite of his songs. He confessed it was actually by Fanny.

Fanny Mendelssohn was very prolific. She composed over 460 pieces including a piano trio, books of piano solo pieces and songs, and a cycle of pieces depicting the months of the year titled Das Jahr. This last work was written on colored sheets of paper with illustrations by her husband, Wilhelm.

Fanny passed away after suffering a stroke while rehearsing one of her brother Felix’s oratorios. Felix completed his String Quartet No. 6 in F minor in memory of her.

 

Louise Farrenc - Women Classical ComposersLouise Farrenc (1804-1875): Louise Farrenc is undoubtedly France’s first female composer. Born into a family of sculptors, she showed early talent in music and studied under such masters as Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Hummel. She married a flute student and together they gave concerts throughout France. The couple opened a publishing house together, Éditions Farrenc, which became one of France’s leading music publishers for 40 years.

Like other female composers around her time, she was a pianist from a young age and wrote many works for the instrument. However, while she wrote exclusively for piano until 1830, she expanded her range and wrote works for orchestra starting in 1834. She wrote 3 symphonies, a wind sextet, vocal works, choral works, and chamber music in addition to music for piano. Unlike Schumann and Mendelssohn, Farrenc’s works remained largely forgotten until the late 20th century during a surge in interest in women composers. In December 2013, Farrenc was the subject of the BBC Radio Three “Composer of the Week” program.

 

Rachel Portman - Female ComposersRachel Portman (1960-present): Rachel Portman is best known as a composer of film scores and, unlike our previous composers, is still writing today. She was born in Surrey, England and became interested in music at a young age. She started composing at the age of 14 and subsequently studied music at Worcester College, Oxford. During her time in school, she started experimenting with writing music for student films and theater productions. After that, she wrote music for drama in BBC and Channel 4 films.

Since then, she has written over 100 scores for film, TV, and theater including The Legend of Bagger Vance, Mona Lisa Smile, Emma, Benny and Joon, The Lake House, Oliver Twist, and The Duchess. Her most famous soundtrack compositions are for the movies Chocolat and The Cider House Rules which was used in the Pure Michigan commercials.

Rachel Portman was the first female composer to win an Academy Award for Best Musical or Comedy Score. She won for Emma in 1996. She has also won a Primetime Emmy Award for her work on Bessie.

 

Florence Price - Woman ComposersFlorence Price (1960-present): Florence Price was not only a female composer, but also the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, her mother was a music teacher who guided her early musical training. She had her first piano performance at the age of four and published her first composition at the age of 11. After graduating high school at 14, she enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music. She graduated with honors in 1906.

After college, she moved back to Little Rock and was married. They moved to Chicago after a series of racial incidents. It was in Chicago where Florence entered her most fulfilling period of composition. She studied composition, orchestration, and organ with leading teachers and published four pieces for piano. Unfortunately, financial struggles led to a divorce and Florence became a single mother. To pay the bills, she worked as an organist for silent films and composed songs for radio ads (under a pen name). She submitted compositions for Wanamaker Foundation Awards and won first prize with her Symphony in E minor. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered the symphony in 1933, making it the first composition by an African-American woman to be played by a major orchestra.

Florence Price’s music incorporates elements of African-American spirituals, Southern themes, and inspiration from blues, African-American church music, and modern urban sounds.

 

Amy Beach - Female Classical Music ComposersAmy Beach (1867-1944): Amy Beach was also a pianist as well as a composer. She is considered the first successful American female composer of art music. She was born a prodigy, able to sing 40 songs accurately by age one. She learned to sing counter-melody to her mother’s singing at age 2 and by age 3, she was reading. She composed simple waltzes at age 5. At age 14, Amy received a year of formal training in composition.

Her performance debut was when she was 16. She played until she was married at which time she agreed to limit her performance to two public recitals per year. She devoted herself to composition. However, her husband disapproved of her studying composition with a teacher. So other than her one year of formal training at 14, she was a self-taught composer. She collected every book she could find on theory, composition, and orchestration.

Her first success as a composer came with the performance of her Mass in E-flat major by the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra. It was the first piece the group performed composed by a woman. After that, she wrote many other works including her Piano Concerto, which she premiered as soloist with the Boston Symphony, and the Gaelic Symphony. Her compositions include symphonic works, choral works, chamber music, solo piano music, and songs (of which she wrote about 150).

 

Cecile Chaminade - women composersCécile Chaminade (1857-1944): Cécile Chaminade was a female composer in France whose music was largely financially successful. Born in Paris, she studied music with her mother at first and then piano, violin, and music composition later with other notable names. She began composing at a young age and when she was eight years old, she played some of her music for Georges Bizet who was impressed.

Cécile wrote character pieces for piano and salon songs – all of which were published. Many of her piano compositions received good reviews from critics and were favorites in Europe and America. In fact, when she traveled to the United States in 1908, she discovered that her Scarf Dance and the Ballet No. 1 were in the music libraries of many piano music lovers. Other notable compositions include her Concertstück in C sharp minor for piano and orchestra, ballet music for Callirhoë, and her Flute Concertino in D major. The latter remains one of the most popular of her works performed today.

In 1913, she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, a first for a female composer.

 

We realize there are many other women we could list here. Follow the links below for more information on these and other women composers.

The Great Women Composers – Classic FM
10 Female Composers You Should Know
18 Women Composers You Should Know
Five Forgotten Female Composers – BBC

 

William Grant Still: A Man Of Many Firsts

William Grant Still Portrait

 

When it comes to classical music, William Grant Still isn’t exactly a household name and that’s quite unfortunate because his music is truly captivating. I vividly remember the first time I heard his works. I had turned on CPR Classical one night a few years ago so my oldest daughter and I could play and listen to some good music.

Although I intended it to be in the background, I found myself really listening and wondering who wrote this amazing stuff. I could place the era – 20th century with some interesting jazz rhythms and influences – but I just couldn’t put my finger on the composer.

One check of the CPR site gave me the answer – Still.

And after further reading, I discovered there is much more to William Grant Still. He is much more than just a 20th century composer. He is also a man of many firsts who broke barriers.

  • He was the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra – the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936.
  • He conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra in 1955 becoming the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the deep south.
  • His Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American” was the first symphony written by an African American for a leading US orchestra. It was first performed by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931. Hear the PSO perform it in February.
  • His opera Troubled Island was the first by an African American that was performed by a major company – the New York City Opera
  • He was the first African American to have an opera performed on national US Television. His A Bayou Legend premiered on PBS in 1981.

Still was prolific, writing 8 operas and numerous symphonies and ballets. He worked as an arranger for W.C. Handy’s band and later as an arranger of music for radio and film including movies like Pennies from Heaven and Lost Horizon. When looking at his body of work, it’s not hard to see how he earned the nickname “Dean of Afro-American Composers”.

Despite the fact that he is not as well known as say Beethoven, his works live on in performances by everyone from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. The Parker Symphony Orchestra will be performing his 1st Symphony on February 25. Purchase tickets here.

 

Finlandia: The Secret Protest Piece

Helsinki

Helsinki, Finland – courtesy of Fodors


Finlandia, one of Sibelius’ most famous compositions, is often referred to as a tone poem. A tone poem is a piece of orchestral music with only one movement that evokes a poem, story, painting, or other non-musical source. In the case of Finlandia, it was one of seven pieces that served as an accompaniment to a tableau that depicted episodes from Finnish history. It premiered July 2, 1900 in Helsinki.

But it was much more than just a historical tribute. It was secretly a protest against censorship from the Russian Empire. Prior to 1917, the Grand Duchy of Finland belonged to the Russian Empire. Most of the piece features rousing music that is meant to evoke the national struggle of the Finnish people. After that, a serene melody can be heard. Named the Finlandia Hymn, this section is Sibelius’ own creation that was arranged later for solo performance. The hymn has become one of Finland’s most important national songs with words written for is in 1941.

To avoid Russian censorship while protesting it, Finlandia was performed under alternative names. Some of these include Happy Feelings at the awakening of Finnish Spring and A Scandinavian Choral March.

Finlandia can be heard prominently in the film score for Die Hard 2: Die Harder.

It will also be performed by the Parker Symphony Orchestra on October 29. Purchase tickets here.

 

What’s In A Name? Understanding Classical Music Titles

Sheetmusic Violin

 

Everyone from seasoned performers to those just discovering classical music has had questions about how works get their titles. Did composers like Beethoven nickname their own symphonies? What is an opus number? Why do Mozart pieces have a “K” listed at the end of the title? Why is it confusing to say you love “the Minuet” or “the Adagio”?

Today, we’re going to try to answer some of these questions by explaining classical music naming conventions.

Composition Type:

Symphony, sonata, piano quintet, concerto – these are all composition types. Classical music composers wrote works in many of these forms and often the same composer wrote multiple pieces in the same type. This is why saying you enjoy listening to “the Serenade” or “the Concerto” or “the Mazurka” is confusing. Even using the composer name often does not narrow down which piece you are referring to. For example, it is not enough to say “Beethoven Symphony”. He wrote 9 of them!

Generic Name:

Compositions often have a generic name that can describe the work’s composition type, key signature, featured instruments, etc. This could be something as simple as Symphony No. 2 (meaning the 2nd symphony written by that composer), Minuet in G major (minuet being a type of dance), or Concerto for Two Cellos (an orchestral work featuring two cellos as soloists). The problem with referring to a piece by the generic name, even along with the composer, is that, again, that may not enough to identify the exact work. While Symphony No. 2 by Mahler is sufficient since it is his only 2nd symphony, Minuet by Bach is not since he wrote many minuets over his lifetime.

Non-Generic Names:

Non-generic names, or classical music nicknames and sub-titles, are often more well-known than generic names. They can even be so famous that the composer name is not necessary to clarify which piece you are referring to. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the Trout Quintet, and the Surprise Symphony are all examples of non-generic names.

Who gave classical music works their non-generic names? Sometimes the composer added a subsidiary name to a work. These are called sub-titles and are considered part of the work’s formal title. The sub-title for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor is “Pathetique”.

A nickname, on the other hand, is not part of the official title and was not assigned by the composer. It is a name that has become associated with a work. For example, Bach’s “Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments” are commonly known as the Brandenburg Concertos because they were presented as a gift to the Margrave of Brandenburg. The name was given by Bach’s biographer, Philipp Spitta, and it stuck. Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 earned the nickname Jupiter most likely because of its exuberant energy and grand scale. Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 is known as the Unfinished Symphony because he died and left it with only 2 complete movements.

In many cases, referring to a work by its non-generic name, especially with the composer name, is enough to identify a piece. Most classical music fans know which work you are referring to when you say “Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony”.

Non-Numeric Titles:

Some classical compositions do not have a generic name, but rather a non-numeric title. These are formal titles given by the composer that do not follow a sequential numeric naming convention. Works that fall into this category include the Symphony Fantastique by Berlioz, Handel’s Messiah, and Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss.

Opus Number:

Opus numbers, abbreviated op., are used to distinguish compositions with similar titles and indicate the chronological order of production. Some composers assigned numbers to their own works, but many were inconsistent in their methods. As a result, some composers’ works are referred to with a catalogue number assigned by musicologists. The various catalogue-number systems commonly used include Köchel-Verzeichnis for Mozart (K) and Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV).

Other Famous Examples Of Classical Music Nicknames and Sub-Titles

  • Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 – sub-titled the Pastoral Symphony: While many of Beethoven’s works have nicknames, “Pastoral” is the only name intentionally given by the composer. In fact, the full title was “Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life.”
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  • Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 in G major (H. 1/94) – nicknamed the Surprise Symphony: Named because of the sudden fortissimo chord at the end of the opening theme of the second movement. The movement is otherwise played very quietly (or piano).
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  • Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 – nicknamed the Organ Symphony: This is not truly a symphony for organ. However, two sections out of the four use the pipe organ prominently.
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  • Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667 – nicknamed the Trout Quintet: The name did not originate with Schubert. It is known by the more popular name because the fourth movement is a set of variations on Schubert’s Lied “Die Forelle” (The Trout) – a German poem sung to music.
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  • Chopin’s Étude Op. 10, No. 5 – nicknamed the Black Keys Etude: This study for solo piano earned its name because of the right hand triplet figure that is played exclusively on the black keys.
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  • Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95: From the New World – nicknamed the New World Symphony: The New World Symphony is a nickname although Dvorak did include the “New world” in the title. It was written during the composer’s time in New York City and purportedly incorporates his reflections on living in America.
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  • Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major, K. 525 – nicknamed Eine kleine Nachtmusik: The popular title, literally “a little night music” in German, comes from an entry Mozart made in his personal catalog that began, “Eine kleine Nacht-Musik”. In this case, Mozart was most likely not giving the piece a special name, but rather entering in his records that he had written a little serenade.