From Finland to France, Chile to China, and America to Australia, women composers have taken up the practice of their creative calling to musical composition. From antiquity to modern times, women have poured out their passion and embodied their creative energies which resulted in substantial contributions to the canon of Western classical music. Their works have gone unrecognized and underappreciated for centuries. Sadly, there is nothing inherently inferior or distinctly unmusical about them that would deserve such neglect.
The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers details a chronology of 875 amazing women composers stretching from 7th century BC to 1994 (its publication date). This survey includes only women whose creative efforts are supported through documentation or publication. We can only speculate about the numbers and identities of composers whose creative progeny cannot be accounted for. How many composers passed off their works with male pseudonyms? How many women poured their hearts into works that were never published? How many composers might have discarded (burned or thrashed) good or mediocre works due to discouragement or dismissive critics? How many languished in silence or might have tried their hand at the art if they had received a little less rejection, condescension, and ridicule and a little more encouragement, proper instruction, on-the-job training, financial support, a measure of independence, or access to performance venues for the display of their craft?
Despite tremendous odds against them, namely traditional male supremacy and societal disapproval, women composers (performers, conductors, composers, and teachers as well) persevered by whatever, whenever, however, means they could. In addition to the awesome burden of creative calling, women were expected to fulfill the requirements that society (church, state, and social convention) traditionally assigned them as fundamentally female and feminine as characterized by their biology and matrimonial and social embellishment of male existence: child-bearing, child-rearing, domestic work, and sexual abstinence and/or consummation as was required. Traditional society only thought of women in these confined terms. In fact, society prescribed a woman’s fulfillment and destiny all-inclusive in terms of her biology. Taking up creative and intellectual pursuits was considered distinctly unladylike, unwomanly, and a manly aspiration. It was believed that women lacked the capacity for logic and reason and were too emotional to be able to harness logic, reason, and emotion into meaningful artistic expression. Composers who were women of color had to contend with prejudice and racism in addition to sexism. Not only in the field of music as composer, conductor, performer, and teacher, women generally suffered the same barriers of discrimination, prejudice, and repression in other professions of arts, sciences, humanities, medicine, law, politics, business, education, and sports.
Nevertheless, the enterprising spirit of women composers (many of whom had to self-serve as their own muse, performer, instructor, concert promoter, audience member and critic) managed to produce throughout the musical eras an extraordinary body of musical compositions that characterize the full spectrum of classical music genres: monody, choral poetry, Christian hymnody, madrigals, motets, oratorios, cantatas, sonatas, concertos, symphonies, operas, ballets, incidental and other theatrical pieces, art songs, spirituals, folk songs, instrumental and choral works, chamber music, avant-garde, electronic and abstract modernistic works, performance art and, of course, tons of keyboard pieces. The vast majority of women’s creations, however, tend toward smaller musical forms (solo and chamber music) often because home salons, smaller venues and fewer performers only were available to them.
The brightest luminaries among past women composers include Hildegard von Bingen (1098), Francesca Caccini (1587), Barbara Strozzi (1619), Marianne von Martinez (1744), Louise Farrenc (1804), Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805), Clara Schumann (1819), Ethel Smyth (1855), Cecile Chaminade (1857), Teresa Carreno (1863), Amy Beach (1867), Alma Mahler (1879), Rebecca Clarke (1886), Florence Price (1888), Germaine Tailleferre (1892), Lili Boulanger (1893), Vivian Fine (1913), Joan Tower (1938), Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901), Margaret Bonds (1913), Pauline Oliveros (1932), Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (1939), and Laurie Anderson (1945). Currently, women composers continue to proliferate nationally, internationally and even locally (in our own backyards).
St. Cecilia, patron saint of music, lends her endorsement to this project.
Notes by Carl Blake. Bay-Area Pianist and Piano Teacher. Doctor of Musical Arts in Historical Performance, Cornell University.