10 of the Greatest Female Composers You Should Know

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Although many women have composed music throughout history, they are sadly often absent from many music history textbooks. Reasons for such an absence of women composers range from lack of access to music education, the attitudes of male reviewers, the denial of creativity in females, and societal attitudes regarding gender roles.

It’s not something resigned to history either as today, the total percentage of music written by women programmed by a major symphony orchestra is only 1.8%.

In this post, we’re going to highlight some of the greatest female composers throughout history and look at their lives and music.

1. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

As one of the most influential composers of the Middle Ages, Hildegard von Bingen was born as the youngest of 10 children.

Experiencing visions at an early age, her parents pledged her and her dowry to the church at only eight years old where her musical skills were developed as she learned how to play a ten-stringed psaltery.

With the study of music, she started to write musical compositions and composed a play, Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues) that included 82 songs in 1151.

In addition to Ordo Virtutum (which is the most extensive repertoire of any composer of the Middle Ages), she also wrote 69 works but the dates of these compositions are unknown.

2. Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

Clara Schumann

Notable female composer Clara Schumann was born in Germany in the early 19th century and was considered one of the best pianists of the time and married to fellow German composer Robert Schumann. 

Not only was Clara Schumann one of the most accomplished pianists of her time as she toured with her husband, but she was also one of the youngest before that point giving her first concert after the age of 11 and enjoyed a successful career from the age of only 13. 

Clara Schumann was known for composing and performing exciting concert pieces for piano and composed some pieces for violin and other instruments creating a legendary name for herself during a time when most performers and composers were men. 

3. Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)

Fanny Mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn was a German composer from the early 19th-century, one of the first female composers in the world to have her works published into books read around the world.

She was raised by a family of famous composers and developed a close bond with her brother Felix, who also became a composer. 

Fanny Mendelssohn focused mostly on piano as a composer, writing shorter pieces meant to be played in succession.

But, at the time, having any compositions published under a woman’s name was unheard of and so only a few of her compositions were published under her name and even a few under her brother’s name. 

By the end of her life, she’d written over 500 pieces in total and a lot of them are still played today with her most famous works including Das Jahr, Piano Trio in D minor, Eastern Sonata, Hero und Leander, and Abschied von Rom.

4. Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)

Lili Boulanger

Considered a child prodigy, Lili Boulanger was a French composer who mastered many different instruments and is also the sister of another famous French composer, Nadia Boulanger. 

Born in Paris, Lili Boulanger, like many other prodigies, was raised in an environment of musical prowess with her mother, a Russian princess, marrying a professor from the Paris Conservatoire.

Her grandparents gained acclaim through playing the cello and singing and imparted much of that experience onto the younger Boulanger. 

Aside from having perfect pitch that allowed her to perform many of her own works, Boulanger also played the piano, violin, cello, organ, and harp.

At the young age of 19, after battling a period of illness, Boulanger went on to be the first woman to win the Faust et Hélène for composition. 

Today, Faust et Hélène remains Boulanger’s most famous work, but her other pieces are regularly performed around the globe. 

5. Florence Price (1887-1953)

Florence Price

Born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas Florence Beatrice Price (née Smith) came from a well-known and respected family in the community.

At the age of four, she started music lessons with her mother and by the age of 11, she had published her first musical composition.

She went on to study music after she left school, enrolling in Boston’s New England Conservatory with a major in piano and organ as well as studying orchestration and composition.

After divorcing her husband due to his abusive behavior, she was left homeless and living with friends, she moved in with her student, another African American composer, and pianist, Margaret Bonds.

Supporting herself and her two girls, she earned money as a teacher, an organist, and composed songs for radio ads using a pen name.

In 1932, Bonds and Price entered their compositions in the Wanamaker Foundation Awards, where Price won first prize for her Symphony in e minor and third place for her Piano Sonata with a $500 bonus.

The first prize of the Symphony in e minor led to a performance of the work by the Chicago Symphony conducted by Frederick Stock as part of the 1932 World’s Fair – this performance marked the first composition by an African American woman played by a major symphony orchestra.

Price died while planning a trip to Europe at the age of 66 and according to the New Grove Dictionary of Music, over 300 of her compositions remain unpublished.

6. Rachel Portman (1960-)

The first female composer to ever win an academy award for an original score, Rachel Portman is an English composer of music at a grand scale.

Aside from her award-winning composition for Emma, Portman went on to earn two more academy awards and compose several pieces for television, movies, and live performances. 

Portman began composing music at 14, studying and reading music in the Oxford conservatory.

She gained much of her early experience writing music for shows on the BBC and began developing a name for herself as well. 

Portman now has over 100 composition credits to her name and is one of the hardest working female composers in the music industry. 

7. Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677)

Barbara Strozzi

Born in 1619 and baptized on her birthdate as a child of unwed parents, Barbara Strozzi was one of the most prolific female baroque composers with over 8 collections of her compositions published while she was alive.

With her father’s encouragement, she developed her musical skills as a vocalist and playing the theorbo and lute as well arranging for the young Storzzi to take lessons in music composition from Francesco Cavalli.

By 1635-1636, Strozzi gained a reputation as a great singer through her performances, while composer and organist Nicole Fontei published two volumes of her songs.

Unfortunately, she became the target of scandal and satirical writings with rumors that Strozzi was a prostitute (she had four children out of wedlock which was uncommon at the time).

Strozzi died at the age of 58 and is buried at the Church of the Eremitani, also called the Church of the Hermits.

8. Amy Beach (1867-1944)

Amy Beach

Born in 1867 in New Hampshire, Amy Marcy Beach (nee Cheney) showed a tremendous aptitude for music from a very early age.

With the ability to sing 40 songs from the age of one, improvising counter-melody at the age of two, and the ability to read at the age of three, by the time she was four, she started composing with the help of her mother.

At the age of six, the young Cheney received piano lessons from her mother and within a year, she played her first recital featuring Beethoven, Chopin, Handel, and some of her own compositions.

She continued her piano studies as well as taking classes in counterpoint and harmony although this was the only formal instruction in music theory in composition she received, she was a very ambitious student.

In 1894, Beach made history as she wrote her Symphony in E minor also known as the Gaelic Symphony which was the first Symphony written and published by an American Woman.

Over her lifetime she published 300 pieces until due to a chronic heart condition, Beach retired in 1940 and died four years later at the age of 77.

9. Teresa Carreño (1853-1917)

Teresa Carreño

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1853, Teresa Carreño became a world-famous pianist known for her bravado and spirit on the stage.

However, concert halls played her music less as time wore on, and her memory is only truly served in her home country where she is revered as one of the greatest composers to come from the region. 

While her main focus was on developing concert works for piano, she also created pieces specifically for string quartets.

Additionally, she boasted an angelic mezzo-soprano voice, allowing her to perform in various opera houses that also performed her composed pieces. 

Carreño toured her home country of Venezuela during her youth but eventually moved to the United States, where her real career began.

After some time, she was able to play concerts in Germany, Great Britain, France, and Russia, garnering the praise of the global music elite. 

10. Francesca Caccini (1587-1645)

Born in Florence, Italian composer Francesca Caccini aka La Cecchina began her musical career with lessons from her father making her singing debut for the wedding of Henri IV of France and Maria de Medici at the age of 13.

Besides singing for her family’s productions, she played guitar, harp, harpsichord, theorbo, and lute as well as composing.

She wrote her first opera, La Stiava, in 1607 which premiered at the Florentine Carnival where she continued to compose for the court of Florence.

Becoming well known for her works by 1610, Claudio Monteverdi, one of the leading composers of the early Baroque period, acknowledged her composing and other musical talents where she became the highest-paid musician at Medici court and pursued her composing endeavor and taught music.

After she retired from the Medici family court in 1641, she continued to live in Florence until her death, which the exact date is not known.

Summing up the Greatest Women Composers

Although not quite as prevalent in today’s modern world, there is still a lot of gender inequality in the music industry.

However, these women composers have shown that it doesn’t matter what your race or gender identity may be – if you are talented and skilled enough to make beautiful music then people will appreciate your art no matter who you are.

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Written by Laura Macmillan
Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.