Ladies of Note: A Brief History of Women Composers, Queer and Otherwise

Women Composers of the Early 20th Century: Paving the Way

While Clara Schumann was able to get a lot of public exposure for her works, the real ball toward equality for female composers didn’t get rolling until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the big pushers of this was Amy Cheney Beach (1867-1944), an American composer who really challenged the notion that women were incapable of writing large-scale works.

via ucdavis.edu

Amy’s family was wealthy and distinguished, but regardless, even though she showed talent in music from an early age, she didn’t have access to the conservatory education boys did, unless her family was willing to let her cross the ocean to Europe, which they weren’t. Instead, she took private lessons in piano with only a year of composition and music theory instruction, and performed publicly, making her yet another great composer who started out as a precocious performing talent. But Amy didn’t let that stop her. When she couldn’t find a teacher willing to school her in composition, she taught herself. As a composer, she was also very disciplined and ambitious; according to Grove Music Online, she would begin arranging for performances of her works mere days after completing them.

She eventually married a doctor, Dr. Henry Beach, who talked her into limiting her public performances. However, he supported her composition career, and so that is where Amy put her focus after that point. She made her reputation with chamber music such as art songs (her Three Browning Songs particularly stand out), but it was her devotion to large-scale works — such as her Gaelic Symphony, Mass in E-Flat Major and even an opera, Cabrildo — that made Beach so instrumental in the history of women composers. After her husband died in 1910, Beach was able to tour Europe performing her own music, and it was largely through the reception of her larger works that she was received as one of the most important and skilled American composers of her time. Even today, she is one of the best-known composers from the Second New England School, a group of Boston-area composers linked by their late Romantic style of composition.

You can listen to Beach’s symphonic music here:

Another, lesser-known example of a composer who challenged women’s roles in music was the British composer Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944). Smyth is perhaps even more interesting than Beach, though, because she didn’t stop at music when it came to agitating for better opportunities for women. She was also a suffragist. And she was a lesbian.

Smyth had taken lessons in her youth, but her formal music education began in 1877 when, against her traditional father’s wishes, she enrolled in the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany, where she ran in some of the same musical circles as Clara Schumann and Brahms. During her time there, she focused on chamber music, but by the time she was back in her native England (in 1890), Smyth was on the verge of her orchestral debut in London, where reviewers were often shocked that the gifted “E.M. Smyth” could be a woman. But Smyth didn’t stop there. Her primary ambition was to write opera, and by the beginning of the next decade, she had already completed and premiered one opera, Fantasio, and was at work on another, Der Wald (1902). But her 1904 work The Wreckers is generally considered one of Smyth’s masterpieces; it depicts two lovers in an 18th-century fishing village who defy their close-knit town’s long and ugly tradition of luring ships only to steal their cargo:

Smyth was also openly queer; the objects of her affections include such big names as Virginia Woolf and Edith Somerville. It was also her interest in another woman, the married suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, that led her to the feminist movement. Her musical works were often inspired by both her female crushes (for example, her Mass in D is said to be inspired by her attraction to the devoutly Catholic Lady Trevelyan) and by her feminist values. During her two years in the women’s suffrage movement, during which she spent time in prison, Smyth was inspired to write her choral-orchestral Song of Sunrise and even a suffragist anthem, March of the Women. Her 1914 opera The Boatswain’s Mate, a comedy about the battle of the sexes, is also overtly inspired by feminist values.

Smyth continued composing throughout her life and also gained fame as a conductor and music broadcaster. In a time when many women couldn’t even dream of their own careers, Smyth was able to succeed in multiple venues.

via The Telegraph

Beach and Smyth paved the way for women to have musical careers without needing the support of men — without being someone’s daughter, sister or wife. Today, there are women composers wherever you look, in just about every university’s composition department, winning awards and making up some of the most interesting and influential voices in contemporary classical music. Every single one of them owes a debt to the female composers of centuries past, who struggled to make a name for themselves and to get their music performed against nearly impossible odds.

Major sources used for this article:

1. A History of Western Music: Seventh Edition by Donald J. Grout, Claude V. Palisca and J. Peter Burkholder.
2. The Norton Grove Dictionary of Women Composers edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel.
3. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, via Oxford Music Online. (Note: Requires a university ID and password to log in; if you don’t have one, you can check out the print version at your local library.)


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Rose is a 25-year-old Detroit native currently living in Austin, TX, where she is working on her Ph.D. in musicology. Besides Autostraddle, she works as a streaming reviewer for Anime News Network.

Rose has written 69 articles for us.

54 Comments

  1. Thank you sooooo much for writing this! I’m a Music Business major and had to take some music history classes (which I mostly enjoyed), and got to learn about those early female composers. We didn’t study the more recent ones though… and I had no idea about the queer side of things!

  2. Can’t believe you left out Wendy Carlos, a trans woman who recorded Switched-On Bach–the first commercially successful piece off music for synthesizer! (As well as scores for A Clockwork Orange and Tron!)

    Also Pauline Oliveros, who is a really really brilliant and well-known out lesbian composer of new (mostly electronic) music!

    • I considered including Pauline Oliveros, but I decided to stop at the early 20th century because after that point there are too many women composers and the decisions would have been too hard to make! I really wanted to focus on the progression of how women composers gradually got more and more power to do what they wanted with their music, and not have to rely on men’s support in order to have careers.

  3. Yay! Thanks so much for writing this! As a student in classical violin, music history class was often depressing from this point of view… especially during the 18th-19th centuries. The unfairness to the sisters makes me want to cry. There are more women nowadays who are pretty famous, like Sofia Gubaidulina. And we have the awesome Jennifer Higdon who won the Pullitzer recently and is out!

    While we’re on the topic of classical music, I’ve noticed recently that even though we have many awesome women performing, there are almost no publicly out lesbians. I could name a few, but only because I looked for them. What’s interesting is that in the ranks of the very extremely famous touring soloists there are men who are out (Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Steven Hough, Jeremy Denk… hmm, that’s a lot of gay pianists!) but not lesbians. I wonder if it’s Tchaikovsky’s legacy in some way. When they have one of the “great composers” on their team, (not to mention all those gay American composers since the 20th cen) it’s hard to imagine anyone in classical music experiencing negative repercussions for being out. Lesbians in classical music don’t have the same kind of universally-admired figure they can relate to, if only because we have so few women to look back on. It makes me sad.
    Also, the other day I was at a concert and realized I could sort of squint and pretend the guy playing was a butch woman wearing a men’s suit and everything, and I really really wanted it to be true you guys!

    • On the topic of out lesbians in classical music, I noticed that too – when I was in music school, there were so many gay dudes that it became a joke with certain freshmen that “If he’s not gay, he’s gay by May!” But there were only a handful of queer women, who were mostly in the GSA because the gay guys at our school largely didn’t feel like they needed it…

      But if you’re looking for some out lesbian musicians, first you should check out the artist spotlight I collaborated with Crystal on last week on Sally Whitwell, who is an awesome pianist from Australia: http://www.autostraddle.com/artist-spotlight-sally-whitwell-141001/ Also one of my favorite contemporary composers, Jennifer Higdon: http://www.jenniferhigdon.com/

      • As a gay classical singer, I found this article particularly interesting. I’ve always wondered why there were so many gay men and so few gay women in classical music (or at least voice).

        Thanks for the article!

      • Yes, I loved the Sally Whitwell article! I know about Jennifer Higdon, and there’s the conductor Marin Alsop (which is awesome because female conductors are still uncommon, queer or not) and I read an article on AfterEllen about a lesbian opera singer couple though I have to admit I forgot their names. I’m sure there are others…

        I’m so glad that so many people are participating in the discussion here. Proof that queer lady classical musicians/nerds exist! Let’s all be awesome so the next generation can have us as role models.

  4. Oh my God thanks for this, Rose! 😀 I was just talking with a friend about St. Hildegard von Bingen, so this is hilarious I just saw this. She is such a fucking badass I can’t even. I love her chants, and I actually had the pleasure of singing some last semester. Mmm. I had no idea she was queer though. Like wow legitimately likes girls. Hahaha. And I’d never heard of Barbara Strozzi, but the clip you have here is gooooorgeous!

    I’m glad you mentioned Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn. Clara Schumann is the shit. Her piano songs totally break my heart. I’m also obsessed with the whole R v. C v. B Love triangle thing.

    I’m glad you mentioned some contemporary female composers as well! I sang a little bit of Amy Beach a few years ago, and they’re absolutely gorgeous songs. And now I NEED to check out ‘The Wreckers’ after watching this clip.

    Thank you so much for the article! 😀 You should do an article about strong female characters in operas!

    • Strong female characters in operas! That would be awesome!
      Also: Francesca Caccini. she was the first woman to compose an opera. I think she was the only female composer mentioned in my History of Opera class last semester.

      • Yesss I wrote a paper on La Liberazione di Ruggiero in college and it is seriously the weirdest libretto I have ever read. Basically Ruggiero runs around on a hippogriff but he gets trapped by a witch that seduces men and then turns them into plants, and then when Ruggiero refuses to be seduced by her she turns into a dragon and flies away and the plants turn back into people and they all sing and dance. Caccini knew what was good apparently.

    • I totally did not know that Hildegard was possibly queer either until I happened to look at that article about GLBTQ composers that I linked, and I was like “Whoa! Definitely going in my article!”

      There’s a lot of interesting stuff out there about all the queerness going on between nuns in the era when that was the only real option for women who didn’t want to marry. In the class where I learned a lot about Hildegard, we also had to read this book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy” which was really fascinating: http://www.amazon.com/Immodest-Acts-Lesbian-Renaissance-Sexuality/dp/0195042255/ (apologies that I don’t know how to do the “go through Autowin store” thing with Amazon links)

      • One wishes you had been more circumspect with the assertion that Hildegard was “queer”, as there is not a shred of evidence to support it, other than the wishful thinking that imputes modern notions of sexual orientation into a medieval cultural milieu to which they are entirely foreign.

        Did Hildegard have very close emotional attachments to some of the nuns under her care as an abbess (especially Richardis of Strade)? Yes, as can be seen her letters to and about them. Does that make her queer? Not at all — unless my mother is “queer” because she has close female friends, or I am “queer” because I have close male friends (that would come as a surprise to my wife!). If you actually look at the scholarship cited by the GLBTQ’s entry on Hildegard, you’ll find that while it explores in detail these close female friendships, it nowhere concludes that Hildegard was a lesbian.

        Indeed, there are profound theological reasons why Hildegard would never have been “queer”. In her gender theology, male and female are complementary and reciprocal — a female-only relationship would be lacking. Furthermore, Hildegard and her nuns were both vowed to virginity and viewed virginity as a crucial spiritual practice; for they were brides, but their spouse was Christ himself. (Indeed, on high feast days, Hildegard’s nuns would dress as for a wedding, to celebrate their marriage to Christ.)

        A good resource for understanding both Hildegard’s profoundly original theology of the feminine and the cultural context in which she lived is Barbara Newman’s book, “Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine” (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987/1997). However much Hildegard has been cast as a feminist icon in an age of misogyny, it is simply untrue to call her “queer” or a “lesbian”.

        • As someone who is starting a graduate program this fall in musicology, I’m really kind of offended that you assume I did not do the research on this. If you read above, I acknowledged that scholars disagree on Hildegard’s identification by making sure to say “some think it may have been romantic in nature” (despite what you indicate, “not a shred of evidence” is incorrect – while I was inspired by the link I included above, I did read multiple articles attesting to this with support before I decided to include it, it’s just that most of what I read came from scholarly journals I couldn’t link here due to being restricted access to university students) and I used the ambiguous “had a queer side” rather than choosing any particular label like “lesbian” or “bisexual” to acknowledge this. I had my mom, who is a history teacher, look over it to make sure that was clear that I wasn’t making any sort of definitive statement as to her sexuality. As a bi woman myself, I’m aware of the problems with automatically concluding that any woman who has attractions to other women would be a lesbian, which is why I never called her one.

          Hildegard would not be the first person from before the 20th-century where historians and musicologists have speculated as to her sexuality. You can’t talk about sexual orientation as though it is purely a cultural frame when there’s scientific proof that it is real, that some people are attracted to purely to a particular gender or to multiple ones or none for genetic as well as environmental reasons. The fact that people didn’t acknowledge it as such before a certain time period doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, just like evolution didn’t start happening when Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species. And taking a vow of chastity and being “married to Christ” (which I am aware that nuns do, as I am both a pastor’s kid and also not an idiot) certainly doesn’t do away with sexual attraction. It means you do not act on it. It doesn’t mean that a nun can’t be gay – or bisexual or straight. (Certainly, people never seem to dispute it when they’re labeled as the last one.) As you’ll see if you scroll up and look at the other book I recommended on a lesbian nun, Hildegard wouldn’t be the only one where scholars have speculated as to which way she swung. Frankly, if your theological worldview could erase your sexuality, then ex-gay therapies would have a far better success rate than they actually do.

          I will check out the book you recommended though, because I would love to learn more about Hildegard.

  5. Who are you lady that wrote this article because you are living my life! I too am a queer woman who studied music composition in school but am currently working primarily as a journalist!

    I would second the commenter who said you missed a good chance to shout out to some modern gay lady composers like Pauline Oliveros and Jennifer Higdon.

    I would also second the commenter who wrote that Wendy Carlos is an EXTREMELY important figure.

    And I would also also second the commenter who mentions it would be cool to see an article about strong female characters in opera, except to say that you should instead write an article about women who play men in operas, because what could be gayer than watching women dressed as men singing love duets with other women?!?! (For example, Idomeneo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyvdfVzwgiI)

    • I did actually consider including both Higdon and Oliveros but decided not to include contemporary composers because then the list would never end. Higdon is one of my favorite contemporary composers!

      I’ve actually been thinking of doing an article about women in opera. I wrote an essay a couple of years ago about the portrayal of women in Mozart operas and how it did or did not line up with 18th-century gender roles, and it was a ton of fun to research. Now that I’m studying musicology in my grad program, I’m thinking of doing more exploring of gender and opera.

      • Yes I am all for this women in opera article! Actually as a musicologist you’d probably get along well with one of my old teachers, Marcia Citron. She writes a lot of stuff about opera and women and music, like this book “Gender and the Musical Canon”: http://report.rice.edu/sir/faculty.detail?p=5CB5D8D1E3C00529

        She also has this WICKED good article about feminist waves and classical music: “Feminist Waves and Classical Music: Pedagogy, Performance, Research.”

        Anyway, much like Jen I geek out about queer classical articles so keep it up and thank you!

  6. Fascinating read, thanks for writing this Rose! I quickly looked up books on the topic on Amazon because that would totally be something I’d read but I didn’t find anything that caught my eye. Does anyone have any suggestions?

    • Most of my first exposure to women composers was in classes or via the Internet, so I’m not really sure which books I would recommend, other than The Norton Grove Encyclopedia of Women Composers that I linked above, but that’s more of a reference book rather than an introduction to women in music.

      One book I liked where I first learned about Clara Schumann is Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times and What the Neighbors Thought. It’s a book primarily for kids/teens about composers, but it’s really informative – and it was nice to see some women in there (it also included an entry about Nadia Boulanger) when so often the classical music canon leaves them out.

    • There is a recent book about women composers in Australia if it catches your fancy. I haven’t finished it yet, but would say its approach is more socio-cultural, less heavy music analysis depends on what you’re interested in. There is a strong and interesting history – one of the early well known composers was diagnosed as mentally ill for composing!

      There’s an extract here: http://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/article/helen-gifford-still-writing-still-modernist-and-still-brilliant

      New music box had some great dialogue around International Women’s Day. Personally I prefer this post: http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/lets-celebrate-today/ and a few others, and don’t completely love the the other article that someone else linked to.

  7. That was really awesome to read! Another name just popped up my head – Chiquinha Gonzaga, the Brazilian composer and a rebel lady, who indeed had created good music and was an outstanding woman at that time! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiquinha_Gonzaga
    And Valentina Serowa, Russian actress and composer, managed to create 5 operas in 1870-1880s – though they were never quite as popular as the ones wrote by great russian composers of that time))

  8. I just got one of my music theory textbooks today and it has a dvd of recording on it. Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann were both on there. I thought that was really interesting that they put them instead of their male counter parts, although my text book was written by a woman. I didn’t even know Felix had a sister until today! good article!

    • Really, they didn’t have any works by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann?

      I’m not the biggest Mendelssohn fan (I like him but I’ve never really fallen in LOVE with any particular work of his like I have with some other composers, maybe I will but it just hasn’t happened yet) but it does make me sad that they left out Robert Schumann because omg his vocal music especially is just so gorgeous and moody: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNGjwARMrAA

      But it is awesome that they acknowledged Clara and Fanny though! I wish more music history classes discusses women composers. I was lucky to have a professor for my Music History III class (the one that focused on the 19th century) who had a strong interest in women and music and I got to do a whole project on it.

  9. A great list and essay! But you left out one of my favs… French composer Cecile Chaminade. I think her works are just heavenly, one of the best 19th Century French composers. Perfect music for lying flat in an open field and looking up at the sky.

    • Yeah, I realized after this published that she was kind of a big one to leave out, so I was hoping someone would bring up Chaminade in the comments. Thanks! I think it’s just because I personally haven’t heard much of her music but I’ll be sure to check out more of it!

  10. um, not an educated musician here, but as an art history nerd and lover of boobs, i cannot get over the fact that in that supposed portrait of barbara strozzi, her nipple is peeking thru the lace and her exposed boob are just hangin’ out like its no big deal. omgsonaughty (aka i have the mind of a twelve year old. jeez)

    • Haha! I was thinking the same thing actually when I saw that picture…

      I could be wrong about this but I think at the time, boobs weren’t seen as scandalous? I feel like I read that somewhere; they were associated with breastfeeding and so women were encouraged to wear low-cut, loose-fitting clothing to accommodate it, and it was a woman’s ankles that were seen as the sexy thing that needed to be hidden at all times.

      It’s interesting how society’s ideas of what needs to be private, and what can be safely exposed without risking propriety, develop and change over the years.

  11. Rose, thank you for writing this article! I’m not involved in classical music like many of the other commenters, but I’ve always wanted to know more, and now here is this article, practically tailor-made for my interests. Pretty sure this is going to stay at the very top of my “favorite things I learned this week” list.

  12. Some years ago, Virginia Eskin, the wonderful pianist/radio producer, worked with the WFMT Radio Network to produce a 13-part series of one-hour programs entitled, “First Ladies of Music,” in which many of the composers mentioned in this most interesting article were highlighted. Anyone interested in more information about the series is welcomed to contact us.

    Steve Robinson
    General Manager
    WFMT and the WFMT Radio Network
    (773) 279-2010
    wfmtvp@aol.com

  13. Loved this article, Rose! Thank you for expanding my education: really, I know next to nothing about classical music.

    I wonder if Kristin Hersh was inspired by ‘Na Maria’? Or perhaps she developed that style independently. Now I have to go find more music by Bieris de Romans.

  14. You forgot Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, a favorite of Louis XIV. Also, my colleague upthread is correct that we don’t know anything certain about Hildegard’s sexuality. One hopes your research in graduate school will be more circumspect.

    • I understand being concerned about my representation of Hildegard if she is a person you’ve studied a lot, but I don’t think that the attack on my research skills are warranted when I think I was careful to not make any “certain” statements about her sexuality. Mr. Campbell above accused me of calling her a “lesbian” simply because of my use of the phrase “had a queer side” which to me, says more about a misunderstanding about how the word “queer” is used here – which is as an ambiguous umbrella term (which is congruent with how it’s used in academic circles, in which it can even include heterosexual people whose sexuality is “non-normative” in some way), not as a synonym for “homosexual.” Nothing I said was definitive about her sexuality or the nature of her relationship with Richardis von Stade.

  15. Hi, thanks for this article. I just read a biography of composer Ruth Shaw Wylie by Deborah Hayes. Mid 20th century, mid-western USA. Some really interesting and independent takes on improvisation.

  16. What a great article! I’m writing a paper on women in music during the Classical period and it’s so hard to find good information. Thank you for including your sources, as well, I think they’ll really help me out 🙂

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  18. Hey! Finding an old post with great information on exactly what I was looking for AND finding a great new queer site? It IS a new year!!!

    Thanks for this great post.. going to go in search for every name mentioned in the article and in the replies..

    Ever going to do the hinted at follow up “Next: Sisters of the 20th century doin’ it for themselves!”?

  19. You left out Germaine Tailleferre, one of the influential Les Six of early 1900’s France. She was quite good.

    By the 20’s, by most lights, and 60’s for certain, it was no longer neccessary to go through rigorous formal training to become a composer. By the 60’s, too, any restrictions on women’s access to resources would have been removed.

    These exceptions prove the rule: None of the greatest female composers, even Von Bingen, were innovators. It would appear that the female mind has yet to achieve its creative potential. Despite 60 years of equal access.

    Perhaps this will serve as a reminder and an encouragement for women to “do the work” necessary to achieve parity with men, rather than demand it beforehand.

  20. Pingback: Music Evolution – Romanticism to the Modern 20th Century : Post 3 – musicevolution2016

  21. Rose,

    I am searching for information about musicians and composers who “might,” even fictionally, have played chamber music at the mansions of the titans (Vanderbilt, Gould, Frick, Morgan, etc.) of the early 20th Century in New York City.

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