A Timeline of Seven Female Composers You Might Not Know

Mar 8, 2017

In 1940, prominent American psychologist and educator Carl Seashore published an article in Music Educators Journal titled “Why No Great Women Composers?” It was a marked improvement over 19th century academic writings that detailed the general inferiority of the female gender.

However, Seashore blamed the absence of women in composition on what he described as a passive nature: a woman's fundamental urge, he said, "is to be beautiful, loved, and adored as a person," while a man's primary goal is to "provide and achieve in a career." Seashore also cited the supposed tendencies of a woman to leave her career to start a family. “Married women may not have produced great compositions,” he mused, “but they have produced great composers.”

What Seashore failed to consider in his essay was the historic and systematic exclusion of women from musical spheres. This includes, among many factors, the barring of women from conservatory courses in theory and composition until the end of the 19th century.

One might suggest that Seashore just wasn’t looking hard enough. In celebration of International Women’s Day, don’t be like Carl. In addition to some of the more well known female composers like Hildegard von Bingen, Clara Schumann, Amy Beach, and Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon (who grew up in Tennessee!), here are seven women throughout music history you might have previously overlooked.

Ancient History: Enheduanna (23rd Century B.C.E.)

A restoration of the disc of Enheduanna (who is pictured second from the left, with braided hair and a hat), with priests at the altar of the moon god Nanna.
Credit Penn Museum

As a High Priestess in Mesopotamia (modern Iran), Enheduanna was an important political, literary, and musical figure. The most famous of her complex hymns is Nin-me-šara, or “The Exultation of Inanna,” a devotion to the goddess of both fertility and war. While most of the 153-line hymn is in praise of Inanna, Enheduanna does interject a lamentation over the political turmoil that resulted in her personal exile from the temple and city—a notable moment, since Enheduanna is the first known author to write in first person. Her musical requests for divine intervention must have worked, because she was eventually reinstated to her position as High Priestess.

Middle Ages: Comtessa de Dia (late 12th/early 13th cent)

France in the 12th and 13th century saw the rise of the troubadour (or trobairitz, the female counterpart). These poet-musicians composed and performed music on a number of topics, ranging from courtly love to political satire. The only surviving piece of music from a trobairitz is A chanter m’er de so qu’ieu non volria from the Comtessa de Dia. In it, she sings as the scorned woman, heartbroken and lamenting over an unfaithful lover.  At the same time, she is also strongly self-assured, reminding her old flame of her beauty, worth, and nobility. 

Renaissance: Maddalena Casulano (c1540-c1590)

A skilled singer, lutenist, and composer, Maddalena was admired by fellow poets and musicians of the age, including renowned Renaissance composer Orlando di Lasso, who conducted some of her work in Bavaria. A collection of Maddalena’s madrigals, dedicated to Isabelle de’ Medici, appear to be the first printed work by a woman in the history of Western art music. In the collection’s dedication, she makes clear her self-awareness as a female composer in the 16th century, stating her desire to “show the world (as much as possible in the profession of music) the vain error of men that they alone possess intellectual gifts, and who appear to believe that the same gifts are not possible for women.”

Baroque: Francesca Caccini (1587 – after 1641)

Born into a musical family, Francesca Caccini trained from an early age in singing, guitar, harp, keyboard, and composition. She likely sang in Jacopo Peri’s L’Euridice, the oldest surviving opera, and not long after began creating her own operas, making her the first known women to compose in the genre. She was known as a quick and prolific composer, although much of her work has been lost. During the first decades of the 17th century she was the dominant musical force of the Medici court, eventually becoming the highest paid musician on the payroll. When she left the court in 1641, she disappeared from public record.

Classical: Princess Natalia Kourakine (1755-1831)

While Russian Empress Catherine the Great wasn’t particularly musically talented herself, she did insist that her court be filled with the highest quality entertainment, including the best local and Western composers. She also configured a number of hodge-podge operas by picking and choosing her favorite commissioned pieces to accompany a chosen libretto. Thanks to Catherine's forays into music, a number of princess and countesses in her circle began to publish their compositions and, in many cases, sign them with their actual names. One of those women was Princess Kourakine, who composed at least 50 songs in Russian, French, and Italian. Only one collection of her work, published in 1795, remains. 

Romantic: Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850-1927)

Luise Adolpha Le Beau appears to have spent much of her career in search of musical home; a place where she could have her compositions performed and where she could concertize as a pianist. While she was well-regarded by many of her contemporary critics, she was nonetheless typically viewed as an outsider and moved from city to city in Germany, battling skepticism about her abilities and the estrangement from her mentor, Joseph Rheinberger. After several decades of composing both chamber music and large-scale works, she retreated from musical life and reflected on her experiences and the obstacles she faced as a woman in her autobiography, Memoirs of A Composer.

Contemporary: Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952)

The bulk of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's work might be described as an exploration of sonic textures and tone color; many of her most notable works lack defined melodies and rhythms. She often wields technology as a musical tool, through the use of live electronics in performance and computer-assisted composition. When discussing the debut of her opera L'Amour de Loin at New York's Metropolitan Opera in December of last year (it was the first time in 113 years that the Met had presented a work composed by a woman), Saariaho was less interested in talking about gender: "It's kind of ridiculous," she said. "I feel that we should speak about my music and not of me being a woman." 

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