Short biographies of some important women composers
Iti (fl. 2450 BC)
The first woman composer to be mentioned by name in musical history. Worked with female harpist Heneku. Their images were found at a tomb in Saqqara and are now in the Cairo museum.
The most important woman composer of Byzantine chant, mostly known as a composer of sacred poems. Spent most of her life in a convent, having been rejected as his bride by the Byzantine Emperor Theophilus because she displayed a mind far superior to his. Credited with 49 liturgical compositions, though some are of doubtful authorship. Compositions include Augustus the Monarch and The Fallen Woman.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
Entered Disibodenburg convent at the age of eight. Became its head in 1136, and Abbess of Rupertsburg, near Bingen, 1147. Saw her inspiration as coming from heaven, and described herself as 'the harp whose strings are touched by God'. Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationem (Symphony of the harmony of the heavenly revelations) - a collection of her own songs - written 1151-8.
Countess of Dia (mid- to late- 12th century)
'The Countess of Dia, a beautiful and good woman, was the wife of Guillaume de Poitiers. She fell in love with Rimbaut d'Orange, in whose honour she wrote many good songs.' (from a medieval vida or biographical sketch - the only known evidence, and the characters have not been identified.) Very little is known about her life. Four or five poems are attributed to her, one of which, A Chantar, has survived with its melody.
Raffaella Aleotti (c1570-after 1646)
Grew up in the court of Ferrara, where her father was the duke's personal architect. Took harpsichord lessons at an early age. Entered the convent of San Vito, where she received comprehensive musical training. In 193, she became conductor of the Concerto Grande, which performed before the Pope and the Queen of Spain, among others. Wrote Sacrae Cantiones, a collection of sacred songs, for this group, which was published in 1595, and includes some of the earliest examples of 'concertante' style.
Francesca Caccini (1587-c1640)
Daughter of Giulio Caccini, court composer to the medici of Florence. Trained by her father. became a musician at the Florentine court. Bu 2606 she was composing larger works as well as songs, and by 1612 was composing religious music. Compositions include Ballo della Zigane (ballet, performed 1615), Primo Libro (collection of songs, dedicated to Cardinal Carlo di Medici), Il Martirio de Sant' Agata (oratorio), La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall' Isola d'Alcina (opera). This last was the first full-scale opera to be written by a woman, the first opera by any composer not based on a Greek or Roman legend, and the first Italian opera to be performed outside Italy - in Warsaw in 1682.
Barbara Strozzi (1619-c1664)
Born in Venice, the adopted daughter of Giulio Strozzi, a poet and playwright who was closely involved in opera. Studied music with Francesco Cavalli and became well-known as a singer. First book of songs appeared in 1644, followed by a further seven by 1664. She published more cantatas than any other 17th-century composer. never held a post at court; relied on her own publications for income.
Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (c1664-1729)
Harpsichordist, organist and composer who came from a family of professional musicians. Played at the court of Versailles as a child. Composed harpsichord pieces, a Te Deum, violin sonatas, sacred and secular cantatas.
Marianne (Marianna) (von) Martines (Martinez) (1744-1812)
Educated in Vienna under the direction of the librettist Pietro Metastasio, who arranged for her to be instructed in singing, keyboard and composition with Porpora and J Haydn. Acclaimed at the imperial court as a singer and keyboard player. She founded a singing school and gave musical soirees. Her compositions include many vocal works, a symphony, two keyboard concertos and two keyboard sonatas.
Marie-Emmanuelle Bayon (later Louis) (1746-1825)
Born in Marcei, Orne, west of Paris. Trained in harpsichord and singing, perhaps through the patronage of Madame la Marquise de Langeron. Singer, keyboard player, composer of sonatas and comic opera. Admired by Diderot, whose daughter Angelique she taught. Comic opera Fleur d'epine published 1776.
'She played like an angel. Her soul was entirely at the ends of her fingers.' (Diderot).
Franziska (Francesca) Lebrun (1756-1791)
Born Franziska Dorothea Danzi in Mannheim into a musical family - heer father was the cellist Innocenza Danzi, heer mother, Barbara, was the sister of the compsoer Karl Joseph Toeschi, while her younger brother, Franz (Danzi) became a theatre composer and friend and teacher of Weber. At Mannheim she was a celebrated soprano and later achieved international fame, performing in Paris, Milan, London, Munich, Vienna. In 1778 she married Ludwig Le Brun, who gave up his post as court oboist at Mannheim to travel with her. Her two sets of six accompanied keyboard sonatas were published as Op 1 & 2 during her second stay in London, 1779-81.
Maria Theresa von Paradis (1759-1824)
Pianist, singer, composer and teacher. Born in Vienna, daughter of Imperial Court Secretary Josef von Paradis, and a god-daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa. After losing her sight at an early age, she studied music with several important musicians including Salieri. Her playing so impressed Mozart that he wrote a piano concerto (K456) for her. After 1786 she turned her attention increasingly to composition. In 1808 she founded a music school for girls which became her main musical activity. She composed operas, cantatas, choral pieces, piano concertos, chamber and keyboard works.
Maria Agate Szymanowska (1789-1831)
Polish composer and pianist, studied with John Field in Moscow. In 1822, appointed court pianist to the Tsarina and became celebrated as one of the greatest woman keyboard virtuosi of her time. Most of her 113 works were published in her lifetime, including nearly 90 piano works - fantasies, variations, mazurkas, rondos and nocturnes.
(Jeanne) Louisa Dumont Farrenc (1804-1875)
Pupil of Anton Reicha, taught piano at Paris Conservatoire from 1842-73. Edited the series Le Tresor des Pianistes, a collection of keyboard literature for study purposes, with her husband, the writer on music Jacques Farrenc. She composed three symphonies, chamber music and numerous piano works.
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847)
Daughter of a banker and elder sister of Felix. Studied piano and composition from an early age but her musical education was less comprehensive than that of her brother because her father believed that for a woman, music 'can and must only be an ornament.' and that she should 'prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling for a young woman - I mean the state of housewife.' Wrote over 200 songs, as well as piano works and orchestral pieces. Published many of these under her brother's name. After her marriage to Wilhelm Hensel, she organised regular musical gatherings in her home, at which her own works were often played. Hensel encouraged her to publish her compositions but her brother is reputed to have opposed this idea and many of her works remained unpublished.
Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896)
Eldest child of Friedrich Wieck, a piano teacher, who had determined even before her birth that she was to be a brilliant pianist. Made her first public appearance at the age of nine, and at sixteen was famous throughout Europe. Praised by Liszt for her 'complete technical mastery, depth and sincerity of feeling'. Her first composition, Quatre Preludes pour le Pianoforte, published 1831 and her Premier Concert was a great success in Vienna in 1837. From 1839 (because of her father's opposition to her friendship with Robert Schumann) she also organised her own tours. Married Schumann in 1840 after which, as well as supporting his career as a composer, looking after him during a long illness, and raising a family of eight children, Clara managed to maintain a concert career and to continue composing. After Schumann's death in 1856 she resumed her career in earnest and gave 1300 public concerts throughout Europe. From 1878 to 1892 she taught the piano at the Hochsches Konservatorium in Frankfurt am Main. As a performer she rejected technical virtuoasity for its own sake in favour of music which displayed the artistic integrity of the composers. She was the first soloist to play from memory and one of the first to give a whole concert without help from supporting artists. her concerts sometimes included her own improvisations. Her compositions include music for piano and other solo instruments, and songs.
Agathe Backer-Grondahl (1847-1907)
Born Agathe Ursula Backer, studied piano with her parents from age 9, then with other leading teachers in Norway. Father an amateur pianist, sister Harriet became a painter. Studied in Berlin 1866-7 and later with Hans von Bulow and Franz Liszt. Career as a concert pianist from 1872. In 1890 she withdrew from recital performance to devote more time to composition and over the next eight years composed some 100 piano pieces and 100 songs, the bulk of her creative output. Returned to concert life in 1898 for three years, playing mainly her own works. Published 138 piano pieces and 260 songs.
Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850-1927)
Received instruction in the violin, piano, singing and music theory in Karlsruhe, and later studied in Munich. Gave concerts as a pianist and also secured performances of her own works, though against considerable opposition, as described in her autobiography Lebenserrinerungen einer Komponistin (1910). A prolific composer, she wrote lieder, chamber music, a symphony, choral and instrumental pieces.
Cecile Chaminade (1857-1944)
Began composing at the age of eight. Pupil of Le Couppey, Savard and Godard. From the age of 18, appeared frequently in concerts, often playing her own works, and also as a conductor. Wrote more than 200 piano pieces, mainly in the salon style, which became widely popular, but her orchestral works gained less recognition. Compositions include Callirhoe (ballet, 1888), Konzertstucke for piano and orchestra, two orchestral suites, Le Sevilliane (opera-comique), two piano trios, songs and piano pieces.
Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
Born at Footscray, Kent. Despite opposition from her father, she went to Leipzig Conservatory in 1877 to study composition. Fellow students included Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, but she left after a year, disgusted at the poor quality of teaching. An active supporter of the suffragette movement, for whom she wrote the 'March of the Women, and spent two months in jail in 1912. Compositions include: Mass in D major (1893), Der Wald (opera, 1901), The Wreckers (opera, 1906), The Boatswain's Mate (opera, 1916) Concerto for Violin and Horn (1927), and a symphony. In later life she had to abandon her composing because of deafness, and began a new career as a writer.
Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Born Amy Marcy Cheney in Henniker, New Hampshire, daughter of Clara Imogene Marcy, a singer and pianist. Earliest compositions at age four. Taught piano by her mother, had limited formal training thereafter. Studied orchestral scores, theory and counterpoint on her own. Debut as a pianist with Boston Symphony Orchestra at age 16. First published compositions 1884. Married Dr Beach, a Boston surgeon, in 1885. Because he believed a man should provide for his family, she donated all her musical earnings to charity. After the deaths of her husband and her mother, she toured in Europe, 1911-14. Teachers in USA using her teaching materials formed Amy Beach clubs for their students to hear and play Beach's music. She was the first American woman composer to write successfully in the larger forms (symphony, piano concerto, quintet, trio) but best known during her lifetime for her piano pieces and songs.
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
Born into a musical family. Her grandfather, father and sister (Nadia) were all professors at the Conservatoire National in Paris. Decided from age 16 that she would be a composer.At the age of 20, in 1913, she became the fFirst woman to win the Grand Prix de Rome, with her cantata Faust et Helene. Died of tuberculosis aged 24, leaving over 50 compositions.
Priaulx Rainier (1903-1986)
Born in Natal, studied violin before moving to London and Paris, where she studied composition with Nadia Boulanger. Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music until 1963. Compositions include orchestral works, concertos, chamber and vocal music.
Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983)
Daughter of the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. Studied in London and Paris. In 1931 she founded the Macnaghten-Lemare Concerts to promote contemporary music. Published over 2000 works, including orchestral and choral music, chamber works, vocal and instrumental music, film and radio scores, music for theatre, and three operas. One of the first composers to introduce serial music into Britain. Wrote her autobiography A Goldfish Bowl in 1972.
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994)
Composed piano pieces from the age of six and entered Royal College of Music at 16 where she established herself as a rising composer. Won a scholarship to study in Prague, where her Concerto for Orchestra was performed. Failed narrowly to win the Mendelssohn Scholarship - one judge is reputed to have opposed awarding it to her because she would 'only get married and never write another note'. Compositions include: The Land (orchestral work, 1930s), Symphony for Double String Orchestra, Ariadne (dramatic monologue), 13 works for string quartet, vocal and choral music, three one-act chamber operas (The Sofas, The Departure, The Three Strangers), works for youth orchestras (Sinfonietta, The Little Symphony) and Profeta Mundi (1966, for the Vienna Boys' Choir), Prayer before Birth (choral work).
Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990)
Studied composition at Melbourne University, then in London (1931-5) with Vaughan Williams (composition) and Malcolm Sargent (conducting), then in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and Vienna with Egon Wellesz. Moved to USA in 1942 where she became music critic of the New York herald Tribune. Compositions include film and stage music, choral and orchestral works, chamber music, piano music and songs.
Thea Musgrave (b1928)
Studied in Edinburgh and then in Paris under Nadia Boulanger, before moving to USA. Compositions include Rorate Coeli (for 5 soloists and choir), Viola Concerto, The Voice of Ariadne (opera), Mary Queen of Scots (opera), A Christmas Carol (opera), Harriet, the Woman Called Moses (opera), An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (radio opera). Her music often incorporates taped sounds from the natural world.
Barbara Heller (b1936)
Born in Ludwigshafen and studied in Mannheim and Munich. Compositions include orchestral works, songs, chamber music and, above all, piano works.
Nicola Le Fanu (b 1947)
Daughter of Elizabeth Maconchy, studied at Oxford and RCM. Compositions include Anti-world (1972, for actors, danxcers and singers), Dawnpath (chamber opera, based on two Native American myths), The Same Day Dawns (1977, for soprano and instruments - from Tamil, Chinese and Japanese poems), Chiaroscuro for Piano (1972).
Judith Weir (b1954)
Studied composition with John Tavener. Compositions include The Consolations of Scholarship (music drama based on Chinese sources), A Night at the Chinese Opera, Songs from the Exotic, A Serbian Cabaret, Romance of Count Arnaldos, Missa del Cid, King Harald's Saga (based on an Icelandic saga), The Vanishing Bridegroom (opera).
Susanne Erding (b1955)
b Schwabisch Hall, trained as a school music teacher, then studied composition in Stuttgart and Munich. From 1979, teacher at Musikhochschule in Stuttgart. Compositions include songs, chamber music, an opera and orchestral works.