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Women Composers: From the Middle Ages to the Present
Until relatively recent decades, women have had severely limited opportunities within Western art music especially composition. Unfortunately women were often encouraged as amateurs but not professionals. Historically, there have been many obstacles facing woman as professional performers and composers.
The first dates all the way back to the beginning of the fourth century, in keeping with the Pauline injuction, Mulier in ecclesia taceat, which translates to "Let women keep silence in church." Women could and did make music in their own separate convents, but these institutions did not compare to their male counterparts.
During the rise of of instrumental music in the Renaissance era, women faced sexual stereotyping when it came to instruments. Women were expected to cultivate "feminine" instruments that would not require an alteration in facial expression or physical demeanor. This left women with mostly keyboard instruments such as the piano and harpsichord. The lute and viol were also acceptable during the Renaissance and Baroque eras and the harp and guitar were acceptable in the Classic and Romantic periods. There were many more instruments that were deemed "masculine." This included winds, brass, percussion, and larger strings. This made orchestra and other ensembles mostly all-male affairs.
Women would compose music that fit their professional situations during that time but they were much more limited than men's. They did compose large works but not to the same proportion as men, simply because they did not hold the prestigious postions that offered opportunities for them to be performed.
With the rise of conservatories in the nineteenth century, the number of women who were able to train for professional careers increased dramatically. At first female conservatory students were accepted only in performance, but by the end of the century, women could enroll in theory and composition classes at most institutions. Between 1880 to 1920 the number of women composing and performing increased drastically, thanks to the momentum generated by the woman who came before them.
Since 1920 women have continued to press for acceptance in the composition field and have made great strides. Below I have listed only a tiny fraction of women composers from the middle ages all the way to the present. All items listed below can be checked out with a NYPL card. Enjoy!
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
- Celestial harmonies: responsories and antiphons
- The origin of fire: music and visions of Hildegard von Bengin
- Vespers from the Abbey of St. Hildegard: 12 sequences and chants
Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)
- An Introduction to Elisabeth-Claude Jaquet de la Guerre by Edith Borrof
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
- Clara Schumann: Piano Virtuoso by Susanna Reich
- Clara Schumann: An Artist's Life by Berthold Litzmann
- The Complete Correspondence of Clara and Robert Schumann
- Fünf Kadenzen für Klavier zu zwei Händen
- Romantische Klaviermusik
- Three Preludes and Fugues, for Solo Piano, Op. 16
- Piano Music
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847)
- Klavierbuch E-moll Piano Book In E Minor
- Piano Trio In D Minor, Op. 11
- Vier Stücke Für Klavier Zu Vier Händen
Amy Fay (1844-1928)
- Music-study in Germany: From the Home Correspondence of Amy Fay
- More Letters of Amy Fay The American Years, 1879-1916
Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)
- Mademoiselle: Conversations with Nadia Boulanger
- Nadia and Lili Boulanger by Caroline Potter
- The Tender Tyrant, Nadia Boulanger: A Life Devoted to Music by Alan Kendall
Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953)
- Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music by Judith Tick
- Ruth Crawford Seeger: Memoirs, Memories and Music by Matilda Gaume
- "The Music of American Folk Song" and Selected Other Writings on American Folk Music
- String Quartet: 1931
- Four Preludes for Piano
- Nineteen American Folk Songs: For Piano
- American Folk Songs for Children in Home, School and Nursery School: A Book for Childre, Parents and Teachers
- Suite for Wind Quintet
Joan Tower (1938-)
- Wild Purple For Solo Viola
- Turning Points Clarinet And String Quartet
- Black Topaz For Piano And Six Instruments (flute, Clarinet, Trumpet, Trombone, And 2 Percussion)
- Rain Waves For Clarinet, Violin, And Piano
- Fanfare For The Uncommon Woman, No. 5