The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (also known as “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”) was written in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe, wife of Samuel Howe – a scholar in education for the blind. Both Julia and Samuel were active leaders in anti-slavery politics and strong supporters of the Union, so it’s no surprise that the song is heavily associated with the Civil War. In the years since the war, however, it has become a staple in American patriotic music.
While you may find yourself singing it on the 4th of July, you probably don’t know all there is to this inspiring song. Check out these 7 facts about “Battle Hymn of the Republic” below.
It Was A Favorite of Walt Disney Among Others
“Battle Hymn…” was said to be a favorite of Walt Disney’s so much so that it was played at the end of his private funeral in 1966. It was also one of Winston Churchill’s favorite songs and was played at his state funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It has been performed at other memorial services, most notably the service at St. Paul’s Cathedral for those lost on 9/11, at the Requiem Mass for Bobby Kennedy, and at Senator John McCain’s funeral at the Washington National Cathedral.
It Is A Remake…Of A Remake
The story of the song’s creation begins with a visit to a Union army camp near Washington DC. Julia Howe heard a group at the camp begin to sing a popular war song titled “John Brown’s Body” (which was sung to a tune borrowed from the hymn “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us”. One of the other visitors at the camp, Reverend James Freeman Clarke, suggested that Mrs. Howe pen new lyrics to the same tune. She awoke the following morning and in a flash of inspiration, wrote the lyrics for “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that we sing today.
Its Opening Lines Were The Last Words Spoken By Martin Luther King Jr.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech in support of sanitation workers in Memphis. He announced, “I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The next day he was assassinated on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel.
Howe Was Paid $5 For The Poem
The Atlantic Monthly published the poem in February 1862 and paid Julia Ward Howe $5 (note that some say it was actually $4). While that doesn’t sound like a lot, it is actually equivalent to $124.97 today. The publisher was also the one who gave the poem its title.
It Made The Hot 100 Charts
In 1960, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s recording rose to #13 on the Hot 100 and it even won them a Grammy Award for Best Performance by a Vocal Group or Chorus.
It Inspired Numerous Other Works
When you read the lyrics, one of the most obvious inspirations that becomes apparent is the title of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath which came from the line “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” It also inspired the title of John Updike’s In The Beauty of the Lilies.
Numerous other songs have been set to the same tune. For example, the University of Georgia’s fight song “Glory Glory to Old Georgia”, the parody song “The Burning of the School”, and a version that Mark Twain wrote to comment on the Philippine-American War titled “The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Updated”.
Its Publication Was Probably Against Her Husband’s Wishes
Many historians agree that Julia Ward Howe’s writing had been a source of bitterness and strife in her marriage to Samuel Howe. He worked diligently to stop her intellectual aspirations and isolate her from literary outlets. Still, she defied his wishes where she could, even publishing an anonymous book of poems at one point. That enraged him and he began badgering her for divorce and separation – which she declined. In the end, she could not be silenced as “Battle Hymn” lives on as a lasting contribution.
Whether you are an avid orchestral performance attendee or you go to the occasional concert or two, you have probably seen at least one concerto featuring a soloist. You may have even had the opportunity to see a soloist perform with or without an accompanist (which is often a piano). One thing you may or may not have noticed, however, is how orchestras use sheet music while soloists, and even some ensembles, typically do not. Why?
Lack of Time: An orchestra doesn’t have the luxury of a lot of time to learn pieces. Some professional orchestras rehearse as little as two times before performing. Community orchestras usually have about 1-2 months of rehearsals prior to a concert. Still, that is not enough time to memorize 3 or 4 pieces which can span 3-6+ pages each. Orchestras, also, typically only perform the music on one night and then move on to different music for the next concert. The sheer volume of music an orchestra goes through makes it impossible to memorize every part.
A soloist, on the other hand, spends years practicing and perfecting the same pieces, performing them over and over to different audiences and with different orchestras.
Breadth of Works: There is so much orchestral music out there to choose from. Estimates are nearly impossible to make especially since music continues to be written to this day. Even if you just speculate that there have been 10,000 composers throughout history and each one wrote just 100 pieces, the result is 1 million pieces. That is an awful lot of music to memorize as a member of any orchestra – professional or volunteer. And the odds that an orchestra member will play the same piece more than once or twice in their lifetime is slim.
On the other hand, soloists tend to have a memorized, well-rehearsed repertoire ready to go at a moment’s notice. And when they are asked to play something outside of their repertoire or they are asked to play a new composition, they are given plenty of time to prepare and memorize the piece before performing it.
Need For Consistency: Each member of a section needs to play tightly in unison with other members. You can’t have 10 first violins, each playing something slightly different. During rehearsal, conductors will typically give direction about tempos, dynamics (volume), bowings, and breathing and the musicians will note that in the sheet music to remember for future rehearsals and the performance. Memorizing the music and remembering all those directions is not only difficult, but also not useful for future performances where other conductors may ask for something different.
Soloists, however, have a lot more room to interpret the music as they want. The accompanist or orchestra follow the solo performer’s lead.
All of this is not to say that being a soloist is any easier than playing in an orchestra. Soloists have a unique skill set and face different challenges. They are required to perform their best with very few rehearsals – maybe 1 or 2 or at most. They are expected to play from memory but, at the same time, play with a passion that keeps the audience engaged.
The bottom line is that orchestra members and soloists use sheet music differently due to their unique circumstances and requirements.
This May, DU Lamont School of Music’s Heidi Leathwood will join the Parker Symphony in performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. It’s one of the composer’s most popular works and one of the most loved and performed of all piano concerti. Whether you recognize the opening notes or have heard the whole thing numerous times, chances are you don’t know all there is to this to this stunning piece. Here are 7 interesting facts about the Grieg Piano Concerto.
It was Grieg’s only completed concerto. When he was just 25, Grieg wanted to make his mark on the world. This was his first work to employ an orchestra and it was an instant success. Many expected the composer to write a second, but one never came. He began work on a second concerto in B minor, but he never completed it. Several pianists have recorded the sketches and in 1997 the Oslo Grieg Society held a competition in which one contestant elaborated a full concerto from the sketches. Grieg also started work on a violin concerto that also was not completed.
It is often compared to Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Not only did Grieg and Schumann each write only one piano concerto, they both wrote theirs in A minor. Both works also begin on a similar descending flourish on the piano. Schumann wrote his first and Grieg heard Clara Schumann perform it about 10 years before writing his own. It is said that Grieg was greatly influenced by Schumann’s style having been taught piano by Schumann’s friend.
Grieg did not perform it at the premiere. Some sources say that Grieg was the intended soloist but he was unable to attend the premiere due to previous commitments in Christiania (now Oslo). Anton Rubinstein, however, was in attendance and he even provided his own piano for the occasion. Danish composer Niels Gade (who wrote the Hamlet Overture which the PSO is also performing in May) was also in the audience.
It was the first piano concerto ever recorded. German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus recognized the importance of the gramophone. His 1909 recording of the Grieg Piano Concerto was not only the first recording of that work, but the first time any concerto had been recorded. Due to the technology of the time, however, it was a heavily abridged performance that lasted only 6 minutes.
A pianist died while performing it. On April 2, 1951, pianist Simon Barere collapse on stage while playing the first few bars of the Grieg Piano Concerto. The performance was with conductor Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York. Unfortunately he died backstage shortly after collapsing.
Grieg revised the work at least 7 times. Most of the updates were subtle, but they add up to over 300 differences from the original orchestration. The final version was completed only a few weeks before Grieg’s death and this is the version we know today.
The concerto contains Norwegian folk music influences. This isn’t surprising since Edvard Grieg was from Norway and like other composers including Dvorak and Sibelius, he sought to pay tribute to his homeland in much of his music. The opening flourish of the concerto is a motif typical in Norwegian folk music while the last movement contains imitations of the Norwegian folk fiddle and halling (a Norwegian dance).
Don’t miss Heidi Leathwood’s performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor along with other Scandinavian pieces at the Parker Symphony Orchestra concert on May 11 at PACE.Tickets are on sale now.
Photo courtesy of The New York Times – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/13/theater/reviews/audra-mcdonald-in-the-gershwins-porgy-and-bess-review.html
Porgy and Bess is one of George Gershwin’s best-known works (along with Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris). It is an English-language folk opera featuring a cast of African-American singers based on a play and a book named “Porgy”. When it debuted in 1935, it was a daring artistic choice given the racially charged theme, but despite some controversy, it gained popularity especially after the 1970’s and is now a frequently performed opera. Even if you’ve never seen it performed (or seen the movie adaptation), chances are you’ve heard some of its songs like “Summertime” which is frequently recorded separately.
“and Bess” was an afterthought: The opera was originally named “Porgy” throughout its creation. The “and Bess” portion was added to avoid confusion with the novel and play it was based on. The thought was also that the “and Bess” made it sound more operatic.
It was a box office flop: Porgy and Bess debuted on Broadway in 1935 (after its world premiere in Boston). Its original run included 125 performances which by opera standards is a huge success. However, for Broadway, that’s a theatrical failure.
Its performance resulted in an integrated audience: After the Broadway run, the opera went on tour to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and, finally, Washington DC. In Washington, the cast, led by lead actor Todd Duncan, staged a protest of segregation at the National Theater. The theater intended to offer a special “blacks only” performance, but Duncan and the cast said they would never perform in a theater that prevented them from purchasing a ticket because of race. Management gave into their demands and the result was the first integrated audience for a performance of any show at that venue.
It has faced racial controversy over the years: Duke Ellington was said to have objected to its depiction of African Americans, although he later said the opposite. Harry Belafonte turned down the role of Porgy in the film version and the role when to Sidney Poitier. It is thought, however, that Gershwin never meant to insult African Americans. On the contrary, he insisted that it could only be sung by a black cast, a tradition upheld by Ira Gershwin that has launched the careers of several prominent black opera singers. George Gershwin sought to write a true jazz opera and he felt that the Met staff singers couldn’t master the genre.
Robert McFerrin sang the role of Porgy: Bobby McFerrin’s father, Robert, sang the role of Porgy in the 1959 film version. His voice was dubbed over Sidney Poitier’s.
The libretto was co-written by a former insurance agent: The libretto (the text used in the opera) was written by both Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. Heyward was the co-author of the original “Porgy” novel which he wrote with his wife while he was working as an insurance agent.
The setting is fictional, but the inspiration is real: Porgy and Bess is set in the fictional neighborhood of Catfish Row, South Carolina. However, the setting and the story were inspired by the James Island Gullah community in South Carolina. In fact, most of the characters speak in the Gullah dialect. George Gershwin moved to Folly Beach, an island near Charleston, South Carolina, to draw inspiration from the Gullah community while composing the score.
It has been on Broadway seven times: Despite its initial failure, Porgy and Bess has been produced on Broadway seven times to date – 1935, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1953, 1976, 1983, and 2012. The 2012 production had the longest run at 321 performances.
It was a “first” for La Scala: Porgy and Bess was the first opera by an American-born composer to be performed at the famous opera house in Milan. The performance took place in 1955 and Maya Angelou was among the cast.
It was referenced in Sesame Street: The opera has undeniably made its mark in American music and culture, so much so that it was referenced in an episode of Sesame Street’s 36th season. Hoots the Owl sang a parody version of “A Women Is A Sometime Thing” to Cookie Monster called “A Cookie Is A Sometime Food”.
“Summertime” may be more popular than you know: Not only is it a memorable aria, but it has also been covered over 33,000 times by groups and solo performers.
Handel’s “Messiah” is one of the most widely played pieces during the Christmas season and certainly the most popular oratorio (a musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists). It’s also, however, the subject of a wide variety of myths, misconceptions, and questions ranging from things as simple as its title to why we stand during the famous “Hallelujah” chorus.
Let’s take a moment to explore answers to these key frequently asked questions about “Messiah”.
What is Handel’s Messiah?
Handel’s “Messiah” is a large work for orchestra, choir, and solo singers called an oratorio. It was composed in 1741 and is typically performed around Christmas. The most famous part is the “Hallelujah” chorus which has been used in popular culture in movies, cartoons, and even commercials. While many people refer to it as “The Messiah”, its official name is just “Messiah”.
What is the story of Handel’s Messiah?
It doesn’t tell story. Instead, the libretto, written by Charles Jennens, is a series of contemplations on the Christian theme of redemption through the life of Christ. The work is in 3 parts: the first part foretells Jesus’ birth and the Christmas story, the second part leads up to and includes the crucifixion, and the third part talks about the spread of Christianity and eternal life. Interestingly, despite its Christian message, most of the text is from the Old Testament.
Where was Handel’s Messiah first performed?
Contrary to myths about London, it was actually first performed on April 13, 1742 in Dublin, Ireland as a charity concert benefiting three charities: prisoners’ debt relief, the Mercers Hospital and the Charitable Infirmary. Handel sought and was given permission from St. Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals to use their choirs and he even had his own organ shipped to Ireland for the performance. To ensure that the audience would be the largest possible, gentlemen were asked to remove their swords and women were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses. The takings from the concert were around £400 and each charity received about £127 which secured the release of 142 indebted prisoners.
Why do you stand for Handel’s Messiah?
Audiences typically stand only during the “Hallelujah” chorus. The reason for this has its origins in a legend that may or may not be true. The often repeated story is that King George II was so moved by the chorus during the London premiere that he rose to his feet. Because of protocol, the audience in attendance also stood and thus the tradition was born. However, many experts agree that there is no evidence that King George II was even in attendance at the premiere. Newspapers of the time did not mention his attendance and it would be unlikely they would leave out the detail of a royal presence. The first written documentation of this story was a letter written 37 years after the London premiere. The London premiere also received a rather cool reception unlike the Dublin premiere which was a hit. All of this has led to numerous debates and countless passive-aggressive battles between sitters and standers.
Why is Handel’s Messiah so popular at Christmas?
The premiere in Dublin was held in April and Handel himself associated “Messiah” with Lent and Easter. In fact, only one-third of the piece deals with Jesus’ birth and the Christmas story. So why is a piece that’s really an Easter work so popular during Christmas? Laurence Cummings, conductor of the London Handel Orchestra, once told Smithsonian Magazine that the custom may have come out of necessity stating that while there is so much fine Easter music like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, there is little great sacral music written for Christmas. Regardless of the reason, “Messiah” has been a regular December staple since the 19th century, especially in the US.
How long is Handel’s Messiah?
Handel wrote the original version of “Messiah” in three to four weeks. Some accounts estimate just 24 days. We say “original version” because Handel rewrote parts to better meet the abilities of specific soloists and depending on availability of instruments. In 1789, Mozart re-orchestrated it to give it a more modern sound.
The time it took Handel to write the work is amazingly short when you consider the score is 259 pages. NPR music commentator Miles Hoffman estimated that there are roughly a quarter of a million notes in it which means Handel had to keep a continuous pace writing 15 notes per minute.
Typical performances of the entire “Messiah” are usually around 2 1/2 to 3 hours long.
If you’ve ever listened to baroque music (think Vivaldi, Corelli, Handel, etc.), you’ve probably seen the term Concerto Grosso and wondered, “What is that?” Well, as you can probably guess, it does not mean the concerto is gross.
Concerto grosso (or the plural concerti grossi) is Italian for “big concerto”. Unlike a solo concerto where a single solo instrument plays the melody line and is accompanied by the orchestra, in a concerto grosso, a small group of soloists passes the melody between themselves and the orchestra or a small ensemble.
The group of soloists (or soli, concertino, or principale) was often made up of two violins, a bass melody instrument such as a cello, and a harmony instrument such as a harpsichord. Wind instruments were also common. The orchestra (or tutti or ripieno) was usually a string orchestra or a small ensemble of strings, often with a few woodwinds or brass added.
Concerti grossi were very common in the Baroque era (1600-1750). Right around 1750 (just after Handel composed his Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 with 12 different concerti), the solo concerto became the more popular musical form and the concerto grosso all but disappeared. Interestingly, a few 20th century composers like Igor Stravinsky, Philip Glass, and Henry Cowell have revived the form.
Listen to Corelli’s Concerto Grosso op. 6 no. 8 below and see if you can spot the concertino vs. the ripieno.
Vltava, better known by its German name, Die Moldau (or The Moldau), is a symphonic poem that is patriotic in every sense of the word. It is one of six movements of a larger work called Má vlast which means “My Homeland” or “My Country”. In it, Czech composer Smetana combined nationalistic melodies with musical depictions of the Bohemian countryside, history, and legends. When performed, you can hear the land come alive as the music paints the scene of a proud and culturally-rich region of Europe.
The Moldau specifically was intended to evoke the sounds of one of Bohemia’s great rivers – the Vltava river. The “Moldau” name comes from the German name for the source of the river in the Bohemian mountains. In Smetana’s own words:
The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night’s moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe.
The piece begins with the flutes playing a flowing tune reminiscent of two rippling springs. Violin pizzicato evokes raindrops. Soon, clarinets begin to play and continue the theme. Then one of Smetana’s most famous melodies emerges. It is an adaptation of a piece called La Mantovana and is arguably one of the most strikingly beautiful parts of the entire work. In fact, it has inspired other pieces, most notably the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. Later on, a horn melody representing jubilant hunters and a polka rhythm that depicts a wedding scene can be heard before the famous melody returns. The piece ends with a regal hymn that fades away until the final two loud notes.
The Moldau was written in the 1870’s, a time when Bohemians had a renewed interest in freedom from German culture. They embraced it and the rest of Má vlast as a sort of patriotic symphonic national anthem. Research suggests this was Smetana’s intent as well. Today, it has achieved the most success of all of the six movements.
When thinking of nature-inspired classical music, pieces inspired by flowers, rivers, trees, birds, seasons, and beautiful scenery definitely fit the bill. You may think of everything from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”. But how about a piece about a cave?
Yes, there is at least one classical piece about a cave and it’s a mysterious, dramatic, and beautifully melodic work. It’s everything you’d expect from a piece about a stunning yet lonely cave surrounded by the ocean. It’s Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and you can hear it performed by the Parker Symphony Orchestra live on May 5.
Learn more about this fascinating overture. Here are 9 interesting facts you should know about The Hebrides.
1. It has had several titles. When Mendelssohn completed the work in 1830, it was originally titled Die einsame Insel or The Lonely Island. He revised the score 2 years later and, at that time, renamed the work Die Hebriden (The Hebrides). It was published in 1833 with the “Hebrides” title on various orchestral parts and Fingal’s Cave on the score.
2. It was inspired by a trip to the real cave. Mendelssohn visited England in 1829 and after touring the country, proceeded to Scotland. He and his friend, Karl Klingemann, traveled to the Hebrides Island off the west coast of Scotland and later to Fingal’s Cave, a real cave on the island of Staffa. The sea cave is known for its natural acoustics which project the rumbling of the waves inside for miles. Mendelssohn tried to capture the phenomenon in his overture. The cave is also known for its hexagonal basalt columns similar to those you can find at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
3. It is not a traditional overture. Many overtures serve as the opening to an opera or ballet, but The Hebrides represents a new type of overture called the “concert overture”, intended to stand as a complete work. Also, unlike some pieces, it does not tell a story, but rather depicts a mood and “sets a scene”. That also makes it an early example of a musical tone poem.
4. Mendelssohn was seasick on his trip to Fingal’s Cave. The composer and his friend took a skiff to Staffa to view the cave and sat at the mouth of the awe-inspiring formation. Mendelssohn was terribly seasick during the trip, but enjoyed it nonetheless. His friend, Klingemann, wrote that he got “along better with the sea as an artist than as a human being with a stomach.”
5. The overture didn’t come easily. Mendelssohn apparently came up with the opening phrase of the overture while on his tour of Scotland. He sent it home on a postcard with a note to his sister Fanny that read, “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.” Unfortunately, despite this stroke of genius, he completed at least 2 versions of the piece and wrote to his sister that he was still wrestling with it in 1832 because it did not savor enough of “oil and seagulls and dead fish”.
6. It was dedicated to King Frederick William IV of Prussia. He was the Crown Prince of Prussia at the time and Mendelssohn’s patron.
7. The final autograph manuscript still exists. It is held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Its 34 pages are full of deletions and revisions in a fine calligraphy that was characteristic of Mendelssohn.
8. It consists of two distinct themes. The opening notes state the theme Mendelssohn conceived while visiting the cave and is played by violas, cellos, and bassoons. It sets an initial scene of haunting solitude until the violins take over and the lower voices begin a pattern of sixteenth notes that represent the ebb and flow of the sea. The second theme is a soaring melody meant to convey the drama of the scene. It was once called “the greatest melody Mendelssohn ever wrote” by musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey. There are also recognizable crescendos and crashes that represent the often stormy tides of the area.
9. A theory claims that first draft was completed on a very important cave-related date. Scottish writer Iain Thornber pointed out that the initial draft of The Hebrides was completed on the only day of the year the cave is illuminated by the sun. The cave is only fully illuminated when the sun lies 5.6 degrees above the horizon which is generally on or about December 16. Mendelssohn completed the draft on December 16, 1830. Either this was on purpose or it’s a big coincidence.
Impressionism is a term most familiar to fans of late 19th century painters such as Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, and Degas among other notable names. In fact, the term derives from Monet’s Impression, Sunrise. In general, impressionist painters focused on using visual brush strokes to paint overall visual effects and capture light and its changing qualities rather than focusing on details. They also tended to paint en plein air rather than in the studio.
Impressionist paintings depict experiences, moods, and movement. Similarly, Impressionist music also conveys moods, scenes, and emotions rather than detailed stories. This style of classical music was written around the same time (late 19th century) and uses “color” or timbre through different textures, harmonics, and orchestrations to arouse feelings and create atmosphere.
Notable Impressionist composers include:
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Interestingly, while he is often referred to as Impressionist, Debussy rejected the label. Even Ravel was uncomfortable with the name saying it could not be accurately applied to music.
Impressionist music often has an evocative title. For example, Debussy’s Clair de lune or “Moonlight”. While it is actually the third movement of a larger work known as Suite bergamasque, the piece is more famous on its own performed in its original form by solo piano or adapted for orchestra. And when you hear its lush melodies and dramatic ebbs and flows, it’s not hard to see why it is a great example of French Impressionism in music.
Other Impressionist music titles include Debussy’s La Mer and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.
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 (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 (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 (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 (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 (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 (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).
Cécile 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.