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Women Composers: From the Middle Ages to the Present

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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)

CDs

Saint Hildegard., Digital ID 1254948, New York Public LibrarySaint Hildegard., Digital ID 1254948, New York Public Library

Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)

Books

Printed Music

Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

CDs

Books

Printed Music

Clara Schumann, Digital ID 1940944, New York Public LibraryClara Schumann, Digital ID 1940944, New York Public Library

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847)

CDs

Books

Printed Music

Wilhelm Hensel und Fanny Hensel, geb. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Digital ID 1231921, New York Public LibraryWilhelm Hensel und Fanny Hensel, geb. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Digital ID 1231921, New York Public Library

Amy Fay (1844-1928)

Books

Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)

CDs

Books

Printed Music

Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)

CDs

Printed Music

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)

Books

Printed Music

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953)

CDs

Books

Printed Music

Joan Tower (1938-)

CDs

Books

Printed Music

Comments

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Thanks..

Interesting post! I was happy to see Ruth Crawford Seeger in your list. The Seeger family made a recording out of one of her music books. It is "Animal Folk Songs for Children" and is one of my favorite collections of children's music. http://nypl.bibliocommons.com/item/show/17761175052907_animal_folk_songs_for_children

Thank you for mentioning this

Thank you for mentioning this Caroline!

I appreciate this post a LOT,

I appreciate this post a LOT, but I hope you'll consider adding a little language to the post to make it much clearer that you're featuring a tiny fraction of all female composers here.

Thank you for the suggestion!

Thank you for the suggestion. I added a comment on it in my last paragraph.

Amy Beach

Great selection--but you really need Amy Beach. Beach was also a pianist, so maybe you got her confused with Amy Fay, who was a pianist, not really a composer? Beach was considered a leading American composer during her time. She composed piano music, songs, and chamber music, but also in large forms: a Mass, a Piano Concerto, and an excellent symphony, known as the "Gaelic" because it uses Irish tunes.

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