Notes from My Women-Composers Lecture

In case you had to miss my recent, overview-style talk about women-composers throughout history, I thought you might enjoy being able to browse my notes and listen to my playlist for it.

Hope it’s engaging, educational, and empowering!


  • women’s experiences as composers throughout history have been dependent upon their access to the social, cultural, economic, and educational conditions that make creative work (and recognition of that work) possible
  • Their work has survived because of two contributing factors: the availability of essential social and economic conditions to sustain creative work; and their own courage and will in overcoming psychological barriers to creative expression
  • these women are linked by the way in which society constructs an identity for them because of their gender and by the boundaries and expectations that society creates for their participation in musical life…they have always worked alongside their male contemporaries. But all too often their involvement has been forgotten
  • FIRST: many of these women enjoyed the advantages of birth or marriage into a musical family, and of a technical and theoretical education; they acquired performance experience and financial sponsorship. Some made their music at home; others in women’s communities such as convents and orphanages where music making was part of daily life; and many more expanded their public, professional careers as singers or instrumentalists in the European courts and salons into successful composing careers.
  • SECOND: given the opportunity to make a career in music, women still came up against a set of attitudes that threatened to silence them: a persistent trivialization that pronounced women fragile; that domesticated women’s work; that kept women out of professions, out of history books, and out of positions, and even genres, of prestige. Only in the last century have such attitudes and marginal positions begun to change
  • regardless of whether the composer lived in the medieval period or the twentieth century, certain conditions peculiar to the discipline of music have proven necessary for sustaining her composing career.
    • a specialized music education
    • a publisher or music copyist
    • performances of works, and audience
    • some degree of acceptance and/or encouragement of women working in a male-dominated field
    • In the case of twentieth century women, publicity and reviews, recordings, radio broadcasts, grants, commissions, and financial backing or university affiliation are also necessary.
      • throughout history, these were needed for professional growth and stability, regardless of gender. HOWEVER, the point being that such things have been historically more readily available for and expected of men, whereas women had to fight to some degree to attain any part of these necessities.
  • Without these advantages or prerequisites, very few, if any, musical women could hope to become composers
  • In addition to these requirements, many of the historical composers shared in common:
    • being first a performer…who became well known for her virtuosity and performing skills before being accepted as a composer
    • performing or having her works performed in the private sphere
    • writing in the genres considered acceptable for females–keyboard or chamber ensembles, solo song, or vocal chamber works–which could be performed with a small number of people
    • and when setting secular texts to music, preferring such ‘female subjects’ as romantic love or the praise of nature


Medieval (900-1400 AD)

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
  • Born into noble family which pledged her to the service of God.
  • German Abbess, composer, poet, mystic, teacher, consultant to popes and heads of state, writer of visionary and scientific works.
  • from 1160-1179, traveled along the Rhine preaching and teaching, even though it was forbidden for women.
  • Composed mostly monophonic music in the form of sacred plainchant, for which she wrote original poetry. Although her music was intended for liturgical use, it is nevertheless strikingly original in its large melodic range and its avoidance of set melodic patterns and exact formula repetitions.
  • wrote 77 chants and the first musical drama in history, which she entitled The Ritual of the Virtues. Unlike the mild, mainstream music of her day, her lyrical speech breaks into rhapsodic emotion; her zesty melodies soar up to two and one half octaves, leaping and swirling into flourishing roulades which leave the singer breathless.
  • We’re going to listen to her Quia Ergo Femina Mortem Instruxit — as we listen, notice these key differences in Hildegard’s style:
    • In contrast to the narrow scope of most chants in her day, Hildegard’s music has a very wide range. She uses extremes of register as if to bring heaven and earth together. By adding and omitting pitches in repetitions of melodic phrases, Hildegard stretches and contracts melodic phrases to create the “soaring arches” that we are familiar with in her music.
    • Plainchant usually never employed intervals larger than a second or third. Hildegard’s music vaults upward and downward with wide intervals of fifths and fourths. She traverses up and down the octave scale with as much ease as she moved between the mystical world and the world of mundane affairs.
    • Unlike the Romanesque curves of most plainchant melodies, Hildegard’s melodies are more angular. Often we hear rapid ascents in the melodies with a slow, falling decline.
    • Hildegard often uses melismatic or decorative passages to articulate form, to animate the line, to create agile, supple melodies and to separate sections of pieces.
  • For Hildegard the composer, the monastery provided an ideal situation. It had a scriptorium where experienced copyists could pen her music; a skilled and practiced performing body to sing it; and liturgical occasions for its performance.

Condesa Beatrix de Dia (born c. 1140 – flourished circa 1175)
  • Also found in the Medieval period were writers of secular music, called the troubadours. Most were men from southern France or northern or eastern Spain during the 12th and 13th centuries. They expressed themselves through gallant poetry, describing the joys and pains of courtly love. The troubadours came from all social strata, and there were also a few women – the trobairitz. The laudation of courtly love was surely perilous for a woman, especially a married one like Condesa Beatrix de Dia.
  • likely the daughter of Count Isoard II of Diá (a town in southern France). she was married to the Count of Viennois, but was in love with and sang about Raimbaut of Orange (1146-1173).
  • Her poems were often set to the music of a flute. Typical subject matter used by Comtessa de Dia in her lyrics includes optimism, praise of herself and her love, as well as betrayal. Five of her poetic works survive… But only one text has been kept with the music – A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria.

Renaissance (1450-c.1600)

  • women had no opportunities to learn theoretical skills necessary for composing in the complicated polyphonic styles of the period.
  • excluded from participating in church services and excluded from master-apprentice tradition of learning their craft.
  • in last half of the sixteenth century, however, Italian courts began to seek out and train young women singers, a few of whom also composed.
  • English noblewomen learned to sing and to play instruments such as the lute or the harpsichord within the home, in spite of the views of writers such as Philip Stubbes who warned his readers in 1583: “if you would have your daughter whoorish, bawdie, and uncleane… bring her up in music and dancing.”

Baroque Period


  • women continued to be accepted primarily as singers; received training within musical families, courts, or convents.
  • the most successful of the time wrote mostly vocal music.
Francesca Caccini (1587-ca. 1640)
  • born in Florence, Italy, 1587. known as the first female composer of opera, and is one of the most prolific female composers of her time
  • Music was a huge part of Francesca’s life from almost before her birth, as her father was a well respected and prolific composer, and her mother was a singer herself. After her mother’s premature death, her father married another singer. Francesca’s younger sister and brother were both singers as well. With a background like that, coupled with her father’s influence, a musical career utilizing the talents that seemed to run in the Caccini family must have been almost inevitable for Francesca.
  • courts of the major cities competed with one another in producing operas or entertainments that flaunted the new singer virtuosi….Florentine court had the money to buy whatever entertainment it desired. The advantages of growing up both in a famous family and a famous court have already been cited as contributing factors to Caccini’s emergence as a significant early Baroque composer. BUT it is her reputation as a virtuoso singer that decidedly influenced her career.
    • A court position as a singer was one of the few musical avenues open to women. … Furthermore, the rapid growth of music printing meant that women sometimes saw their music in print.
    • With the development of professional singing careers for women came the incentive for creating new musical works.
  • La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (English: “The Liberation of Ruggiero from the island of Alcina”) is a comic opera in four scenes by Francesca Caccini [listen to: “Qui si puo dire”]
    • It is the only opera by Francesca Caccini to survive.
    • The scoring of the piece is balanced towards higher voices, with six sopranos, two altos, seven tenors, and only one bass
    •  A compositional scheme is used within the work that associates flat keys with the female antagonist and sharp keys with the male protagonist. The androgynous sorceress is neutral, presented in the key of C major.

Elisabeth-Claude Jaquet de la Guerre (1666-1729)
  • Renowned French harpsichordist-composer Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre wrote a substantial number of instrumental works along with cantatas, oratorios, and other vocal pieces.
    • born into the family of an instrument maker, organist, and harpsichordist
    • Louis the XIV undertook her education after She stunned the French court with her improvising, sight reading, and performing on the harpsichord.
    • Her many accomplishments are unusual for a woman in her time, and are due to the favorable circumstances in which she lived and worked
    • The court’s musical and cultural activities under Louis the XIV are legendary. Salons were held by wealthy women as early as 1653, and women were known to be among the performers, singing or playing the lute or harpsichord. So there was a French tradition of women making music well established.
    • For women instrumentalists, professional opportunities were dependent on impressing members of the court, which De la Guerre did.
    • Some of the genres in which she composed included: pieces de clavecin, ballet, opera, and French cantatas. Composing in all these genres especially in the larger forms of ballet, opera, and cantata, was highly unusual for a woman of this time.

Classical Period


  • women composers tended to be solo keyboardists. So piano concerti, sonatas, and chamber music featuring keyboard instruments, in addition to solo songs accompanied at the keyboard, were added to the repertoire of music composed by women
  • Much of this music was intended for domestic use by amateur musicians, and as a result did not receive the attention garnered by works for professional performance, composed mainly by men
  • A Note on gender and publications: Sophia Dussek (1775-1830) from Britain, always published as S. Dussek; an early example of a woman using a name with ambiguous gender under which to publish her works
Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824)
  • daughter of Imperial Secretary in the court of the Austrian Empress and Monarch Maria Theresa – godmother of the child. Became blind in 1761 at age 2.
  • Studied piano and singing – education was undertaken by the Empress. Studied with Antonio Salieri. In 1775 she became acquainted with Wolfgang Mozart.
  • Pianist, organist, singer, and composer – Received all the benefits of a fine musical education, supervised by the Empress. Toured Europe as a virtuoso pianist, renowned for her musical memory and skill.
  • Given her enormous talent, patronage from the Empress, and her exposure to the best and most varied music education, von Paradis was well equipped to venture into the larger instrumental genres of piano concerti and sonatas.
  • Von Paradis composed with a wooden pegboard, which used different shaped pegs for different note values; this system was devised for her by her librettist. The fact that her compositions were notated and performed indicates that she was highly valued not only as a touring virtuoso but also as a composer.
  • The freedom of women to tour and to perform before the new middle-class audiences both enhanced their playing careers and produced more demand for original music. The burgeoning middle class of keyboard and singing amateurs was suddenly eager for new repertoire.
  • In her later life, von Paradis founded and headed a music school in Vienna, with the express purpose of improving music education for women.

Romantic Period


  • opportunities for women composers increased as musical education became more accessible. With the opening of public, secular conservatories and with certain prestigious academies of music admitting women to classes, there emerged a sizable group of women composers who gained the confidence necessary to write in the larger genres of that period: grand opera, symphonies, concerti, symphonic poems, extended solo sonatas.
  • With few exceptions this new breed of women composers gained prominence (STILL) first as soloists or touring artists. BUT, Practically all of the women composers of the Romantic period worked in genres other than those involving their own particular performing medium.
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847)
  • wrote over 400 works in genres current in her time, but majority of her compositions were never published. In spite of the fact that she received practically the same musical eduction as her brother Felix, the lack of encouragement from both her father and brother regarding her career as a published composer convinced her not to submit her works to publishers for many years.
  • her father and brother discouraged her, on the grounds that her domestic responsibilities and her feminine temperament mitigated against such activities.
  • Fanny was a formidable pianist, but with few exceptions she confined her pianistic appearances to the weekly concerts held at her parents’ Berlin home.
  • The majority of her compositions are written for voice or piano, as was typical of the Romantic period. Women were encouraged to write in the genres appropriate for domestic or salon music making. Even Fanny’s choral works were intended for the Sunday musicals in her home.
  • The painter Wilhel Hensel (her husband-to-be), said he would not marry Fanny unless she continued to compose, and every morning of their marriage, before he went off to paint, he would put a piece of blank manuscript paper on her music stand and tell her he wanted to see it filled up when he returned. He eventually persuaded his talented wife to seek out publishers, which she did in 1837 and again in 1846 (the year before her death).

Modern Period


Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (born April 30, 1939 in Miami, Florida)
  • an American composer, the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music (in 1983). Her early works are marked by atonal exploration, but by the late 1980s she had shifted to a post-modernist, neo-romantic style. She has been called “one of America’s most frequently played and genuinely popular living composers.”
  • Zwilich began her studies as a violinist earning a B.M. from Florida State University in 1960. She moved to New York City to play with the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. She later enrolled at Juilliard, eventually (in 1975) becoming the first woman to earn the Doctor of Musical Arts in composition
    • Listen to the Millennium Fantasy (Concerto No. 2 in two movements) for Piano and Orchestra (composed in 2000)
    • Millennium Fantasy is based on a folksong that Zwilich’s grandmother sang to her as a child.



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