History Lesson: Women & Music

Clara Schumann is regarded as one of the most famous and successful female composers of the Romantic Era. Who, however, were her contemporaries? Her predecessors? Her successors. Lets take a quick look at the history of women in classical music!

Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn

Fanny Hensel (Mendelssohn)

Fanny Mendelssohn (1805 – 1847)

Fanny Mendelssohn’s fame is typically attributed to her relationship to Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847) – her younger brother. However, Fanny was also a successful composer and performer – writing over 460 pieces of music. Her evidence of contributions to the art of classical music are minimal when compared to other professional contemporary composers, but Fanny was surely an influences for future women in the artform.

Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179)

Hildegard of Bingen, also known as Sibyl of the Rhine, was an early German writer, composer and philosopher and one of the earliest known female composers in the Western world. Approximately sixty-nine of her compositions survive to this day – acknowledged as one of the largest medieval musical repertoires known today.

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901 – 1953)

Ruth Crawford Seeger was an American 20th century composer who helped popularize modernist music alongside contemporaries such as Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. Her accolades range from being the first woman to be awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as being recognized as one of the first composers to adapt Schoenberg’s serialist style to music elements other than pitch.

A young Alma Mahler

A young Alma Mahler

Alma Mahler (1879 – 1964)

Alma Mahler (born Alma Maria Schindler) was an Austrian socialite best known (musically) for her relationship as the wife of Gustav Mahler. She was also an amateur composers, publishing numerous songs and instrumental pieces – unfortunately only of which 17 survive today. Her importance to classical music relies more upon her patronage of the arts rather than her contributions to them, but it cannot be argued that she had a profound influence on the lives and works of other composers.

Amy Beach

Amy Beach

Amy Beach (1867 – 1944)

Amy Beach (aka H.H.A. Beach) was an American composer and pianist acknowledged as one of the most successful professional composers of large-scale works – such as her opera Cabildo, various orchestral works, and numerous songs, chorals works, and keyboard music. Beach also dabbled in experimental music, and was the first president of the Society of American Women Composers.

Jean Coulthard (1908 – 2000)

Coulthard was a Canadian composer and teacher, often associated with two other 20th century Canadian female composers: Barbara Bentland and Violet Archer. Coulthard’s works include concertos, keyboard music, songs, symphonies and chamber music. Her career saw her studying alongside composers such as Bela Bartok, Aaron Copland, and Arnold Schoenberg, while leaving a legacy through her students at the University of British Columbia including Chan Ka Nin and Michael Conway Baker. She was awarded the Order of Canada in 1994.

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