Soon after arriving in the United States, in 1892, famed composer Antonin Dvořák made the following statement to a Boston newspaper, “Here all the ladies play. It is well; it is nice. But I am afraid the ladies cannot help us much. They have not the creative power.”
Female composers, like many women who dared to venture into realms once considered appropriate only for men, often met much opposition. They were told that composing could be a hobby, but nothing more. Fortunately, there were many women who courageously pursued their passion for composition, regardless of the barriers they faced.
Female composers often dealt with patronizing critics who used adjectives such as “sweet,” “sensitive,” or “pretty,” leading to gender stereotyping of the compositions. The same critics often compared female composers with their male contemporaries, instead of judging their work on its own merit. Some critics even barely mention a female composer’s work in their article, but instead focus on her figure, dress, beauty, and age!
Luckily, there were many women who ignored the critics and kept composing. Some of the women had supportive and progressive families who encouraged them to use their talents. Some had absolutely no support, but chose to be strong and pursue music because that is what their souls demanded.
This article offers a listing of some female composers through the years, from Medieval times through the present day. This is by no means a complete list but will give you a look at some of the many female composers who have composed throughout the ages.
Female Medieval Composers
The Medieval time period in music encompasses approximately 500 A.D. - 1400 A.D. During the 4th century the decree, Mulier in ecclesia taceat, which translates to "Let women keep silence in church," was announced. Women were allowed to participate in music at home, or in a convent with other women, but not in the church with mixed company.
Kassia/Kassiani/Kassiane (c.807- c.867)
Kassia, born in Constantinople, was offered in marriage to the Byzantine emperor. After a brief exchange, the emperor decided he wished to have a less opinionated wife! Kassia went on to establish a convent. In addition to being a composer, Kassia was also an abbess and a poet.
One of her approximately 75 hymns is called Hymn of St. Kassiane and is still performed as part of the Easter week services of the Orthodox Church.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
Hildegard was the 10th child born to a well-to-do family in what is now the western part of Germany. During this time period, the 10th child of a wealthy family was committed, at birth, to a life in the Catholic Church. As a child, Hildegard was sent to live and study at a monastery.
Hildegard was a fascinating woman, who in addition to being a composer, also made significant contributions in the fields of theology, medicine, and philosophy. During her long life, she went on speaking tours and also corresponded with prominent theologians and monarchs.
Hildegard had visions from the age of three, which she felt were sent from God. She used the visions as inspiration for some of her writing and composing.
Comtessa de Dia (c. 1140-c.1200)
Unlike Hildegard and Kassia, Comtessa de Dia did not devote her life to the church. She was a trobairitz, or female troubadour, who lived in France. Typically, troubadours were of noble birth. A troubadour was perhaps the 3rd, 4th, or 5th child born to a wealthy family, who did not have the pressures of first-born children but did have plenty of riches and free time. Comtessa de Dia’s actual name is unknown, but some have speculated that it is Beatrix. The lyrics of her compositions largely center around themes of love, optimism, and betrayal.
Female Renaissance Composers
During the Renaissance time period (1400-1600), women were encouraged to play “feminine” instruments that did not cause a change in facial expression or physical appearance. Approved instruments included the piano, harpsichord, viol, and lute. Interestingly, historians seem to know the least about female composers of the Renaissance than from any other time period.
Maddalena Casulana (c.1544-c.1590)
Casulana lived in Italy and was a highly respected composer, lutenist, singer, and teacher. Unlike many women of this time period, whose role was to marry well and attend to domestic duties, Casulana was able to attend to academic pursuits in Florence. In 1568, she was the first woman in recorded Western history to publish a book of her own compositions. The majority of Casulana’s compositions are madrigals.
Vittoria Aleotti also known as Raphaela Aleotti (c.1575-after 1646)
Historians are unsure if Vittoria and Raphaela Aleotti were sisters, or if they were the same person. Some speculate that Vittoria took the name Raphaela when she entered the convent, at the age of seven. At this time, her parents believed she was a musical prodigy and placed her in the convent to further her musical studies.
Vittoria/Raphaela remained at the convent for the next 49 years, where she became a gifted composer, conductor, organist, and teacher. The convent of San Vito was progressive for its time. Vittoria/Raphaela was allowed to instruct women in playing wind instruments and large string instruments. Usually, only men were permitted to play these instruments. Vittoria/Raphaela composed both madrigals and motets and was the first woman to have her sacred music appear in print, in 1593.
Female Baroque Composers
Female composers, like female artists during the Baroque era (1600-1750), fought to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Their work, be it music or art, may very well be some of the finest compositions or paintings you have never heard or seen. The Baroque period did offer one new role for women, in the world of music, that of an opera singer. With opera being the new major form of the 17th century, well-trained sopranos were much sought after.
Francesca Caccini (1587 - after June 1641)
Caccini was known in Italy as “La Checcina” or “The Songbird,” because of her beautiful voice. Born into a wealthy and musical family, she was able to have a complete education including Latin, geometry, philosophy, music. She also performed with ensembles of other women. One of these ensembles even performed at the wedding of Marie de’ Medici to King Henri IV of France.
Throughout her life, Caccini was fortunate to have the protection of the famed Medici family, who arranged her first marriage, encouraged her musical endeavors, and supported her daughter. Caccini published Il primo libro delle musiche, a collection of 32 monodies, which contained sacred and secular pieces, solos, and duets, and also wrote at least seventeen theatrical works, and over 300 vocal pieces. Caccini also composed, and sang in, some of the first operas of this time period.
Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677)
Strozzi was an Italian composer and singer who published more compositions than any other well-known composers of the day. She is also credited with having a huge impact on the development of vocal music and opera beyond the Baroque era. If this is the case, then why don’t we know more about her? The simple answer is because she was a woman and mother who did not have the backing of the Church or a patronage with a royal household. Aside from one volume of sacred works, all of Strozzi’s compositions are secular vocal pieces.
Isabella Leonarda (1620 - 1704)
Leonarda is credited with being the first female composer to publish sonatas for violin and basso continuo. Up until this point, music written and published by women had largely been vocal works.
Leonarda entered the convent Collegio di Sant' Orsola, near Milan, Italy, at the age of 16. While there, she held positions of authority, and also acted as a music teacher and singer. By the time she turned 80, Leonarda had composed over 200 works including motets, masses, sacred concerti, and music for Vespers.
Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665 - 1729)
Jacquet de La Guerre was considered a child prodigy who, from a young age, received musical training in the French court, and was a favorite of King Loius XIV. She published Les Pièces de Clavessin, in 1687, when she was only 22. At this point, only two other French composers, both men, had published works for harpsichord.
Jacquet de La Guerre is also credited with being the first woman in France to write an opera. It was entitled, Céphale et Procris. At this point, we do not know how many pieces de La Guerre composed, as she wrote prolifically and only a fraction have survived. We do know that she published many sacred and secular cantatas, in addition to giving regular concerts in her home.
Wilhelmine, Margravine of Bayreuth (1709 - 1758)
Granddaughter of King George I of England, daughter of King Freidrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, and sister to Frederick the Great of Prussia, Wilhelmine was a gifted lutenist and composer, and an avid supporter of music. As the first-born princess of a royal family, her carefully arranged marriage was discussed for many years, until she was finally married to Frederick, Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth.
After her marriage, Wilhelmine established Bayreuth as a leading center of opera, including the building of the Margravial Opera House. She herself composed several sonatas, concerti, and an opera, Argenore, performed in 1740 for her husband’s birthday.
Female Classical Composers
During the Classical period, 1750-1820, there were still many instruments deemed too “masculine” for women to play. Nearly all woodwind, brass, percussion, and large string instruments were still off-limits for women, and consequently, orchestras remained male-only ensembles.
This time period did see the emergence of the salon, which was an upper-middle-class gathering of music lovers, typically hosted by a well-to-do woman. The salons became a way of encouraging new music, art, and literature in major European cities.
Marianna Martines (1744-1812)
Born Anna Katharina Martinez, in Vienna, Martines showed an early talent for music. Her family encouraged her love of singing and hired a vocal teacher. It is interesting to note that the harpsichord accompanist for her lessons was a poor Hungarian musician who rented a room on the top floor of the Martines family home. His name was Franz Joseph Haydn.
By the time Martines was a teenager, her singing had won the favor of Empress Maria Theresa, and her compositional skills enabled her to take music theory lessons with court composer, Giuseppe Bono.
Many of Martines’s manuscripts were destroyed in a fire in 1927, so we do not know how many compositions she wrote. We do know that she composed masses, motets, oratorios, arias, and various instrumental works. Historians believe that Martines was the only woman to publish a symphony during the Classical era.
In 1773, Martines was the first woman to join the society of musicians and composers known as the Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna. Martines compositions, teaching, and performances allowed her to be a financially independent single woman, which was highly unusual for a woman of this time period.
Maria Antonia Walpurgis (also known as ETPA) (1724-1780)
Maria Antonia Walpurgis, Princess of Bavaria and Electress of Saxony, received a high-quality music education from a young age. She frequently sang and played harpsichord at court. Walpurgis composed two operas, Il trionfo della fedeltà (1754) and Talestri, regina delle amazzoni (1765), and also performed the lead roles in both productions. She was a member of the Arcadian Academy of Rome and published under the pseudonym, Ermelinda Talea Pastorella Arcadia, or ETPA. Walpurgis also composed many sacred and secular songs, cantatas, and at least one orchestral overture.
Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824)
Maria Theresia von Paradis was born in Vienna and was the goddaughter of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. By the age of three, von Paradis was blind. Because she had already shown an interest in music, Empress Maria Theresa provided a full music education including piano, voice, and theory lessons. Eventually, she went on concert tours of Europe, meeting people such as Marie Antoinette and King George III of England. It is believed that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Antonio Salieri, and Joseph Haydn all composed pieces for her.
In the 1790s, von Paradis worked with her friend and librettist, Johann Riedinger, to develop a pegboard on which she could develop her music compositions. A copyist later transcribed her compositions. Along with composing many works for solo voice and solo piano, von Paradis also wrote at least five operas and three cantatas. Unfortunately, many of her works are lost.
Interestingly, a piece incorrectly attributed to her, Sicilienne, has been widely performed, including at the wedding of Megan Markle and Prince Harry. It was actually composed by Samuel Dushkin, in 1924, who claimed to have “discovered” a lost von Paradis piece.
In addition to performing and composing, von Paradis helped found a school for the blind, in Paris, and a music school, in Vienna.
Maria Agata Wolowska Szymanowska (1789-1831)
Born in Poland, Szymanowska began teaching herself how to play the piano, at a young age. Later, she studied with local teachers and was soon in demand as a concert pianist, making her stage debut in 1810, in Warsaw and Paris.
In her adult life, Szymanowska’s frequent performances away from home caused much tension in her marriage. Szymanowska eventually separated from her husband, took her three children with her, and later settled in St. Petersburg, Russia. In order to support her family, she continued to perform and lecture on piano technique.
Szymanowska composed over 110 works including chamber pieces and mazurkas, études, nocturnes, and waltzes for piano. She is sometimes considered a Classical composer, and sometimes a Romantic composer. In 1822, Szymanowska became the first female pianist to perform for the Russian court.
Female Romantic Composers
During the end of the Romantic era, 1820-1900, women were finally encouraged to attend music conservatories, perform publicly, and compose. Just like their male contemporaries, some qualities of the music composed by female composers during this time period could be viewed as Classical, and some as Romantic.
Louise Reichardt (1779-1826)
Reichardt was born, in Berlin, Germany, to parents who were both composers. For several years her father was Kapellmeister at the court of Frederick the Great. Reichardt received much encouragement, from her family, for her musical interests but never received any formal music education.
Reichardt never married but was engaged twice. Tragically, both times her fiancé died prior to the wedding. After her second fiancé’s death, Reichardt decided to devote herself completely to composing and teaching. She wrote over 100 lieder, which were published and performed during her lifetime. Much of her music is written in the volkstümliche, or folk-like style, popular among German poets. Reichardt, as a single woman, moved to Hamburg, Germany, and was able to support herself for her entire life.
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Louise Dumont Farrenc (1804–1875)
Farrenc’s family encouraged her musical interests and enrolled her in the Paris Conservatory, where she studied piano. Farrenc, who married at the age of 17, was fortunate to have a husband who supported her composing and performing. She was able to publish many of her works through his publishing house, Editions Farrenc. Farrenc wrote numerous piano etudes, chamber works, and orchestral works, including three symphonies.
In 1842, she became the second female professor at the Paris Conservatory, where she taught piano. As a woman, she was never allowed to teach composition. Farrenc fought for eight years to receive the same pay as male professors. The short video below gives some details about Farrenc’s fight for equal pay.
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805–1847)
Many of us are familiar with Fanny’s famous brother, Felix Mendelssohn. From a young age, Fanny showed a great deal of musical ability, and because of her family’s wealth, she was afforded a complete education, which included music theory and piano. Fanny’s father told her that while her brother could have a career in music, it could only be a hobby for her, as her role was to become a housewife. Fortunately, Fanny disregarded her father’s suggestions and continued composing. In fact, she composed the wedding anthem for her wedding to the artist, Wilhelm Hensel. Hensel insisted that Fanny keep composing after their marriage, and encouraged her to publish her works.
Fanny composed over 500 pieces, including piano solos, lieder, cantatas, oratorios, and chamber music. Some of her earlier music was published under her brother’s name, while later pieces were published under her own name. In the video below, you can hear the organ prelude that Fanny composed as the processional for her wedding.
Clara Wieck Schumann (1819–1896)
German-born Clara Wieck Schumann was a gifted pianist and a prolific composer, but some still only know of her because she was married to composer Robert Schumann. As the primary wage-earner for her family, Clara toured and performed frequently, while managing a household and raising seven children. Robert encouraged Clara’s concertizing and composing. In fact, the couple maintained a joint personal and music journal for their entire marriage.
Clara was an internationally known pianist and today probably would be considered a superstar. While her first musical love was piano, she stated that “composing gives me great pleasure... there is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation…”. In addition to composing extensively for piano, Clara also wrote chamber music, orchestral pieces, and vocal solos.
Dame Ethel Smyth (1858–1944)
Smyth was born into a wealthy English family, who opposed her pursuit of a career in music. Eventually, against her father’s wishes, she moved to Leipzig and studied music. During the late 1880s, while living in Leipzig and traveling, Smyth met many of the Romantic era’s famous composers, including Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvořák, Pyotr Tschaikovsky, and Edvard Grieg. Tschaikovsky once described Ethel Smyth as, “one of the few women composers whom one can seriously consider to be achieving something valuable in the field of musical creation.” Upon returning to England, Smyth found acclaim with her orchestral works and operas.
Around 1911, Smyth became very involved with the Women’s Suffrage Movement. In response to this, she composed, The March of the Women, which became the anthem for the English suffrage movement. Supposedly, Smyth even snuck into 10 Downing Street and was able to play a piano rendition of The March of the Women in a room that was directly above a British cabinet meeting. In 1912, Smyth was jailed for two months in Holloway Prison for breaking the windows of an anti-suffrage politician. Once, while her friend Thomas Beecham visited her, he found women marching around the prison grounds, singing The March of the Women, while Smyth conducted with a toothbrush, from her cell window.
Smyth wrote over 200 works, including six operas. Her opera, Der Wald, was the first opera written by a woman that was performed by the Metropolitan Opera of New York City. There wasn’t another opera, by a female composer, performed at the Met until more than a century later.
Smyth was also the first female composer to be made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, in 1922, by King George V. Even after receiving great success for her compositions and conducting, Dame Ethel Smyth felt she always needed to defend her work, stating, “I feel I must fight for [my music] because I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs, not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea.”
Female Composers of the 20th Century
In 1911, the Society of Women Musicians was established, in England, to address the lack of professional opportunities for female composers and performers. At this point, female composers were becoming more accepted in England and the United States but still struggled to be accepted in the rest of the world.
Amy Cheney Beach (1867-1944)
Beach was born to an affluent family in New Hampshire, USA. She was a true child prodigy, who memorized over forty songs by the age of one, played four-part hymns on the piano, composed waltzes by the age of four, and by six years of age was publicly performing the works of Chopin, Beethoven, and herself.
Upon her marriage at the age of 18, Beach’s husband requested that she limit her playing engagements, discontinue studying with tutors, and agree not to teach piano lessons. So, she focused more on composing during her married years. In 1892, Beach became the first woman to achieve widespread recognition for large-scale orchestral works. Following the success of her Mass in E-Flat, she received several commissions for choral and vocal works.
After her husband’s death, in 1910, Beach lived in Europe for several years, establishing herself as a performer and composer. Upon returning to the U.S., Beach became a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, in New Hampshire. The MacDowell Colony was established by composer Edward MacDowell as a place where “artists could work in an ideal place in the stimulating company of peers.” Beach composed most of her later works at the MacDowell Colony, which still exists and nurtures artists today.
The Dvorak quote that begins this article was refuted days later by Amy Beach, in another newspaper. She states, “From the year 1675 to the year 1885, women have composed 153 works, including 55 serious operas, 6 cantatas, 53 comic operas, 17 operettas, 6 sing-spiele, 4 ballets, 4 vaudevilles, 2 oratorios, one each of fares, pastorales, masques, ballads and buffas.” Beach then goes on to list many female composers, and to say, “more women are interested in the serious study of the science of music as well as the art than formerly.”
While Amy Beach considered herself to be a pianist first, and a composer second, she composed prolifically. Her list of works includes numerous compositions for chamber ensembles, sacred and secular choral pieces, vocal solos, piano solos, one opera, and five orchestral works. One of which is her famous Gaelic Symphony, which debuted in Boston in 1896.
Florence Price (1887–1953)
Florence Beatrice Smith Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. She performed publicly at the age of four and graduated from high school, as valedictorian, at the age of fourteen. At the age of sixteen, Price enrolled at the New England Conservatory, in Boston, as an organ and piano major. Two years later, she graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Music. By the time Price was 23, she was head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia.
Price was married in 1912 but was a divorced mother of three children by 1931. In order to support her family, Price worked as an organist for silent films and composed radio ad jingles. She continued to study composition and in 1932 won the prestigious Wanamaker Foundation Award for her Symphony in E minor.
In 1933, Price’s Symphony in E minor was performed by the all-white and all-male Chicago Symphony. This performance meant that Price was the first female composer of African descent to have a symphonic work premiered by a major national symphony orchestra.
Another famous performance of one of Price’s works was at Marian Anderson’s 1939 Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson was supposed to give a concert at Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall but was not allowed because of segregation rules. First lady, Eleanor Roosevelt stepped in and helped organize the historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson chose Price’s song, “My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord,” as her last piece.
Price’s works include four symphonies, concerti, chamber music, and numerous choral, vocal, piano, and organ pieces.
To hear more details about Florence Price’s life, watch the video below.
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)
Nadia Boulanger was born into a musical family in Paris - her mother was a Russian princess and singer, her father a Paris Conservatoire professor, composer, and pianist, her paternal grandfather a Paris Conservatoire professor, and her paternal grandmother a celebrated mezzo-soprano.
Boulanger, who studied with Gabriel Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire, might be the most important composition teacher of the 20th century. Composer Ned Rorem described her as "the most influential teacher since Socrates." It is estimated that she taught over 600 composers and conductors, including Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, Philip Glass, Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson, Astor Piazzolla, Arthur Frackenpohl, Karel Husa, Thea Musgrave, Daniel Barenboim, and Sir John Eliot Gardener. When it became apparent that France was to be invaded, during World War II, Boulanger even helped her students leave France. She, herself, waited until the last moment before the German occupation of France to escape to the United States.
In addition to teaching in her Paris apartment, Boulanger, who preferred that everyone call her “Mademoiselle,” also taught at the Yehudi Menuhin School, Royal College of Music, Royal Academy of Music, Juilliard School, the Longy School, and the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau.
Boulanger was the first woman to conduct many major orchestras including the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Washington National Symphony Orchestra, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. When asked by a Boston newspaper reporter what it was like to be the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony, Nadia Boulanger famously stated, “I’ve been a woman for a little over 50 years and have gotten over my initial astonishment. As for conducting an orchestra, that’s a job where I don’t think sex plays much part.”
In addition to teaching, conducting, and performing on piano and organ, Boulanger wrote numerous vocal, chamber, and orchestral works. Among her many honors was placing second in France's 1908 Prix de Rome competition, for her cantata La Sirène. She also received the Chevalier to the Légion d'honneur and the Order of the British Empire.
Lili Boulanger (1893–1918)
Lili Boulanger was the younger sister of composer Nadia Boulanger. Family friend and composer, Gabriel Fauré, recognized that at the age of two, Lili had perfect pitch. She went on to study violin, harp, piano, organ, cello, voice, and composition.
In 1913, at the age of nineteen, Lili was the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome for her cantata, Faust et Hélène. Because of this, she was given a contract with the music publisher, Ricordi, which provided a much-needed steady income for her, her sister, and her mother.
Lili was in ill health most of her life, a result of severe bronchial pneumonia as a child. She composed over 50 works before her death, at the age of 24.
Some of her most beautiful and moving works are her Psalm settings for solo voice or choir and orchestra. The recording below of Lili Boulanger’s Psalm 130 Du fond de l’abîme, features her sister, Nadia Boulanger conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953)
Born in the United States to a Methodist minister, Seeger was the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition. She used this to travel to Berlin, in 1930, to work on her first orchestral piece. Instead of writing a major orchestral work, she wrote her famous String Quartet 1931 and several other instrumental and vocal works.
Seeger studied in Chicago at the American Conservatory of Music, and in New York, with future husband Charles Seeger. In addition to being a composer, Seeger was also a respected musicologist. With her husband, she collected and transcribed field recordings for the American folk-song archive at the Library of Congress. She also published American Folk Song for Children, aimed at elementary school-aged children.
Seeger had three stepchildren and four biological children, including folk singer Peggy Seeger, and folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger.
Thea Musgrave (b.1928)
Born in Scotland, Musgrave studied at the University of Edinburgh and the Paris Conservatoire. While in Paris, Musgrave studied with Nadia Boulanger for four years. She has been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, numerous honorary degrees, and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth I.
Musgrave has written numerous chamber works, concerti, choral works, and operas. Her operas and music theatre works generally focus on historical figures, including Mary Queen of Scots, and Harriet, the Woman Called Moses. The best description of Musgrave’s music can be found on her website which states, “Musgrave has consistently explored new means of projecting essentially dramatic situations in her music, frequently altering and extending the conventional boundaries of instrumental performance by physicalizing their musical and dramatic impact.” For instance, in her Clarinet Concerto, the soloist moves around to different sections of the orchestra, and in her Horn Concerto, the French horn section is placed around the concert hall, while the soloist is on stage. Musgrave has labeled some of her music as what she calls dramatic abstract.
Over the years, Musgrave has repeatedly been asked about being a “woman composer,” to which her response is, "Yes, I am a woman; and I am a composer. But rarely at the same time."
Joan Tower (b. 1938)
Tower was born in New York, but spent much of her childhood in Bolivia, before returning to the United States to attend college at the University of Bennington and Columbia University. She has taught at Bard College since the early 1970s, and has won Grammy Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was the first woman to win the Grawemeyer Award for Music. In 2019, Tower was named Composer of the Year by Musical America, was recognized for her lifetime of work by Chamber Music of America, received the League of American Orchestras’ Gold Baton, and became one of the first women composers to have her works archived in the Library of Congress.
Tower has written many orchestral and chamber works, along with one major vocal work, a ballet, and several pieces for solo instruments. Many of her compositions have been commissioned by major orchestras and well-known soloists.
One of Tower’s most famous works is Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, which has six parts, each dedicated to “women who are adventurous and take risks.”
Female Jazz Composers
Many of the women who we know as famous jazz performers, such as Billie Holiday, Lil Hardin Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, also composed. The list below sheds some light on a few women in jazz whose names might not be as familiar to you.
Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981)
Williams was born in Georgia and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was in Pittsburgh that she learned, as a young girl, that if she gave piano recitals for her white neighbors, they stopped throwing bricks at her home. Her mother found out about the recitals after Mary Lou wasn’t able to play because of a broken arm, and the neighbors came to ask why the recitals had stopped. By the age of six, Williams was earning money and helping support her family with piano performances. By fifteen years of age, Williams was a full-time performing musician.
Williams' arranging career began in 1929, with the Kansas City band, Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy. Eventually, she was getting requests from bandleaders such as Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington for her arrangements and original compositions.
Williams performed continually, with many groups from the 1920s through the 1970s. She took a three-year hiatus in the 1950s due to mental and physical exhaustion, from her vigorous performing and composing duties. After this, she converted to Catholicism, and eventually performed the first jazz mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in New York City, in 1975. Thousands of people attended.
Throughout the 1960s, Williams’ composing centered around hymns, masses, and other sacred music, in a style that she called “sacred jazz.” In reference to her performing at this time, Williams stated, “I am praying through my fingers when I play.”
In 1975, Williams told the New York Post that, "Americans don't realize how important jazz is. It's healing for the soul. It should be played everywhere — in churches, nightclubs, everywhere. We have to use every place we can."
Toshiko Akiyoshi (1929)
Akiyoshi moved to the United States, from Japan, in 1956 to study at the Berklee School of Music, in Boston. Akiyoshi was born in Manchuria, where she learned to play the piano. When her family moved to Japan, after World War II, they could not afford a piano. Akiyoshi accepted a job playing in a dance-hall band, in order to be able to play the piano.
In 1973, Akiyoshi formed the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra with her husband, Lew Tabackin. She wrote and arranged numerous pieces for the orchestra and has recorded several albums. The last performance of the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra was in 2003, at Birdland, in New York City.
Akiyoshi was nominated for numerous Grammy Awards, was the first woman to win Best Arranger and Composer Awards from Downbeat magazine, and was awarded the title of National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master.
While her compositions remain rooted in jazz, they are also saturated with influences of Japanese culture. She uses Japanese themes, harmonies, and instruments in her work.
One of her works, entitled Hiroshima: Rising from the Abyss, was written with a message of hope. It premiered on August 6, 2001, in Hiroshima, on the 56th anniversary of the bombing of the town.
Carla Bley (1936)
Born in California as Lovella May Borg, Bley’s family encouraged her musical interests in singing and piano. Bley’s exposure to the New York City jazz scene began at the age of seventeen. This was the point at which she left California and began working as a cigarette girl at Birdland. Bley soon started touring as a pianist and went on to become an important figure in the free jazz movement of the 1960s.
Bley has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, the title of National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master, and the German Jazz Trophy “A Life for Jazz.” Bley was also instrumental in the development of independent artist-owned record labels and in establishing the Jazz Composers Guild.
Bley is best known for her jazz opera, Escalator Over the Hill. Jonathan Cotts of Rolling Stone magazine once wrote this about Bley’s opera, “... jazz, rock, ring modulated piano sounds, all brought together through Carla Bley's extraordinary formal sense and ability to unify individual but diverse musical sections by means of the editing of the record medium... The opera is an international musical encounter of the first order."
Maria Schneider (1960)
Born in Minnesota, Schneider studied composition at the University of Minnesota, the Eastman School of Music, and the University of Miami. Since 1992, she has composed for and performed with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. The orchestra has performed in Europe, South America, and Asia, as well as recording numerous albums.
Schneider has had commissions from many groups, including Jazz at Lincoln Center, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the American Dance Festival, and David Bowie. She won 5 Grammy Awards in multiple categories, numerous Jazz Journalists Association awards, Downbeat and Jazz Times Critics and Readers Polls awards, ASCAP’s Concert Music Award, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award, and in 2020 was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Schneider’s composition, Data Lords, which was commissioned by the U.S. Library of Congress has received numerous commendations and much praise for its innovation. The video below features Schneider speaking about Data Lords.
Female Composers of the 21st Century
Judith Weir (b. 1954)
Weir was born to a Scottish family but grew up near London, England. She studied composition with John Tavener, and later went on to study with Robin Holloway at Cambridge University, and Gunther Schuller, at Tanglewood. She has taught at Glasgow University, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and was a visiting professor at Princeton, Harvard, and Cardiff Universities.
Weir composes for a variety of ensembles, including choir, orchestra, and chamber ensemble. She has written eleven works for opera and musical theater. Her music often draws from medieval history, as well as traditional stories and music from her ancestral homeland of Scotland. Her works have been honored by the Critics’ Circle, South Bank Show, Ivor Novello and Elise L. Stoeger awards, a CBE, and The Queen’s Medal for Music.
Weir currently serves as Master of the Queen’s Music for the British Royal Family. In this role, she supports school music teachers, amateur orchestras and choirs, and festivals. She also writes music for national and royal occasions, including the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations and the UK’s official commemoration of the 1918 Armistice.
One of Weir’s most well-known pieces is her Christmas carol, Illuminare, Jerusalem, which was written for the choir of King’s College Cambridge. The videos below allow one to hear Judith Weir speak about her carol, and to hear the 1985 premiere from A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College.
Julie Giroux (b.1961)
Giroux was born in Massachusetts, began composing at the age of eight, and had her first piece published by Southern Music Company at the age of thirteen. She was the first woman to win an Emmy for “Outstanding Individual Achievement in Musical Direction.” Giroux has won this award three times. She was also the first woman inducted into the American Bandmasters Association, in 2009.
To date, Giroux has composed five symphonies, numerous works for wind band, and orchestral pieces. She also has over 100 film, video game, and television credits, having worked with celebrities such as Martin Scorsese, Madonna, Celine Dion, Clint Eastwood, Liza Minelli, and many others. She also composes, conducts, and orchestrates for Disney, Warner Bros. Pictures, and Paramount Pictures.
Giroux, an advocate of gun control, composed My Soul to Keep, with the belief that music can heal, help bring about change, and bridge the divide between so many issues. My Soul to Keep was commissioned by the Lesbian and Gay Band Association, Central Sounds of Freedom Band, the Tampa Bay Pride Band, and South Florida Pride Wind Ensemble in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Giroux has the parts for, My Soul to Keep, free and printable on her website and states that the music will be free “For everyone. Forever.”
On January 20, 2021, Giroux’s piece, “Integrity Fanfare and March” from No Finer Calling, was performed by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, to introduce Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris to the inaugural platform. Giroux was one of only two female composers who had music performed during the Prelude and Ceremony of the 59th Presidential Inaugural Prelude and Ceremony.
Valerie Coleman (b.1970)
In 2020, American composer and flutist, Valerie Coleman, was named one of the "Top 35 Female Composers in Classical Music,” by the Washington Post. Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Coleman, who wrote three symphonies by the age of fourteen, is also the founder of the Grammy-nominated chamber group Iman Winds. Coleman is currently an Assistant Professor of Performance, Chamber Music, and Entrepreneurship at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami.
Coleman’s website, vcolemanmusic.com, describes her compositions as ranging from “flute sonatas that recount the stories of trafficked humans during Middle Passage and orchestral and chamber works based on nomadic Roma tribes, to scherzos about moonshine in the Mississippi Delta region and motifs based from Morse Code.” Her works have earned commissions from numerous groups, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, The Library of Congress, the Collegiate Band Directors National Association, National Flute Association, The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, The Brooklyn Philharmonic, and the Interlochen Arts Academy.
One of Coleman’s most recognized pieces, UMOJA, was listed by Chamber Music America as one of the “Top 101 Great American Ensemble Works.”
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Kim Archer (b.1973)
Born in Illinois, Archer is currently Professor of Composition at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Illinois. She teaches composition, music theory, analysis, counterpoint, and 20th-century music.
After studying at The Florida State University, Syracuse University, and The University of Texas at Austin, Archer went on to receive commissions from organizations including The United States Air Force Band of Mid-America, The Florida State University Summer Music Camps, The International Center for New Music at Central Michigan University, the International Women’s Brass Conference, and various university and high school groups. She is also a contributor for Composers on Composing for Band, vol. 4, and is a regular recipient of the ASCAPLUS award.
Most recently, Archer was commissioned by "The President's Own" United States Marine Band to compose a fanfare for the 59th Presidential Inauguration. The new work, "Fanfare Politeia," was premiered during the Prelude portion of the Inaugural ceremony. The title is translated from Plato’s Latin term for “Republic,” and celebrates the American tradition of free and fair elections, and of a peaceful transfer of power.
“Fanfare Politeia” can be heard at about 22:25 in the video below.
Listen to the band play at minute 22.
Archer’s for those taken too soon …. (Symphony no. 1) is featured in an interview in the February 2004 issue of "The Instrumentalist," titled “Kimberly Archer Turned Sadness into a Five-Movement Memorial.”
Jennifer Jolley (b.1981)
Jolley is a native of California, who studied at the University of Southern California and the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She is currently a member of the composition faculty of the Texas Tech School of Music, and the Interlochen Arts Camp. She has also been a composer-in-residence at Brevard College, University of Toledo, the Vermont Symphony, the Central Michigan University School of Music, the Alba Music Festival in Italy, and the Women Composers Festival of Hartford.
Some of Jolley’s commissions are from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, and the University of Texas Wind Ensemble.
Jolley has cataloged more than 100 rejection letters from competitions, festivals, and prizes on her blog. She is very passionate about this project, as a composition teacher, and hopes to remove the anathema of “failure” for her students.
Jolley is often drawn toward subjects that are political in nature, for her works.
Her piece, The Eyes of the World Are Upon You, which was commissioned by the University of Texas at Austin Wind Ensemble, reflects on the first campus shooting in America, in 1966.
Female Film Composers of the 21st Century
Unfortunately, women do not have a long history of scoring music for films. The first female film composer was probably Germaine Tailleferre. Tailleferre was part of the group of French composers known as “Les Six,” which also included Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc.
Tailleferre’s first film score was for a documentary produced in 1926. She went on to compose 38 film scores throughout her life.
Interestingly, when one reads about Tailleferre’s works, her film scores are barely mentioned. One of her more well-known works is Concerto for Two Pianos, Chorus, Saxophones, and Orchestra, composed in 1934.
Women Who Score
In 2017 a short documentary entitled, Women Who Score, aimed to celebrate female composers who are writing film scores. It brought to the forefront the fact that in 2016, only 3% of the highest-grossing films had scores composed by females. As a side note, in 2019, only 6% of box office films had scores by female composers.
Women Who Score highlighted twenty scores by twenty female composers with a live orchestra. The pieces were all rehearsed and filmed in two days.
This documentary was the idea of five-time Emmy winning composer Laura Karpman, who was one of the founding members of the Alliance for Women Film Composers. Karpman was also the first American woman composer inducted into the music branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, and the first female governor of the music branch.
Alliance for Women Film Composers
The Alliance for Women Film Composers (AWFC) was formed by and for women, in 2014. The mission of the non-profit organization states, “Through advocacy, support and education, the Alliance for Women Film Composers aims to increase the visibility of women composers active in media scoring. The AWFC advocates for the inclusion of women composers within industry events; supports filmmakers, game developers and studios in their inclusion of women composers; and educates, mentors and inspires emerging women composers.”
Lolita Ritmanis, Laura Karpman, and Miriam Cutler founded the AWFC to establish a supportive community for female film composers. The organization offers advocacy, mentorship, and education to its members.
Currently Active Female Film Composers
Many people can readily name famous male film composers, such as John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, and James Horner. But, how many female film composers can one name? A quick search in the link above, on the Alliance for Women Film Composers website, makes it apparent just how many female film composers are active today.
A few of the female film composers who are currently composing, and some of their film credits are:
Lesley Barber - Barber has scored numerous films, television shows, and documentaries include Manchester by the Sea, Kit Kitteredge, Late Night, Mansfield Park, Irreplaceable You, The Moth Diaries, You Can Count on Me, and Hysterical Blindness.
Anne Dudley- Dudley has won a Grammy, an Oscar, a Brit, and an Ivor Novello and has composed for film and television. Some films and television shows she has scored for include Poldark, Mamma Mia - Here We Go Again, Elle, Black Book, Black Narcissus, and The Singapore Group.
Hildur Guðnadóttir - Oscar and Golden Globe winner, Guðnadóttir, has composed for films, theater, and dance performances. Some of her work includes the music for Joker, Mary Magdelene, Chernobyl, Journey’s End, The Oath, and Trapped.
Tamar-kali - Tamar-kali first began composing for film in 2017. She earned the World Soundtrack Academy’s 2018 Discovery of the Year Award for her work on Mudbound. Tamr-kali also scored for films, The Last Thing He Wanted, Shirley, Come Sunday, The Lie, The Assistant.
Mica Levi - Levi has won numerous nominations and awards for her work. Some of the films that she has composed scores for are Jackie, Under the Skin, Small Axe, and Marjorie Prime.
Rachel Portman - Portman was the first female composer to win an Academy Award, which she received for Emma. She was also the first female composer to win a Primetime Emmy Award, for her score for Bessie. Some of her other films include Disney’s Godmothered, Their Finest, A Dog’s Purpose, Belle, The Duchess, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Cider House Rules, Beloved, Chocolat, and One Day.
Debbie Wiseman - Wiseman is an accomplished composer with over 200 film and television scores. Some of her work can be heard in Wolf Hall, Wilde, Father Brown, Land Girls, Death of Yugoslavia, and Warriors.
Famed composer, Gustav Mahler, made it a condition of his marriage that his wife, Alma, give up composing. In response to this demand, she wrote, “I have been firmly taken by the arm and led away from myself.” How many female composers through the centuries were, “led away from” themselves? Throughout history, women were expected to give up all of their passions and focus on home and family, after marriage. A career of any sort, but especially one on the stage or as a composer was frowned upon. Fortunately, many women had the willpower, courage, and support system to propel them into greatness.
While the classical music world has historically been a patriarchy, and statistics still point to male composers’ music being programmed much more frequently, women are gaining and making their mark. As Nadia Boulanger said, “Music was not invented by the composer, but found.” One hopes that more and more female composers find new music in the 21st century and that their voices are heard.