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

Classical music — at least in the United States — is one of those areas that tend to be something of a hole in a lot of people’s education. I’ve been continually surprised by the number of extremely intelligent people I know who can discuss politics, visual art, film, philosophy and popular music in detail who, nevertheless, don’t know very much about classical music – at least, beyond the three B’s (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms) and Mozart. Maybe Haydn or Handel. Maybe Wagner (but usually only Ride of the Valkyries). Maybe a 20th-century composer or two like Stravinsky or Copland. But certainly, never about any of the women over the years who have written classical music. After all, just about every field of art tends to diminish the accomplishments of women, but especially classical music, since most of it that outsiders pay attention to was made in a time when women’s roles in the arts were limited. Even today — in an era where there are countless amazing female composers — when I tell people I studied music composition in college, I still get “Wow, a woman writing classical music! I’ve never heard of that!” about as often as I get, “Wait, people still write classical music?”

But women have always been writing classical music; it’s just that, now, we’re more able to make a career of it, and compete with the guys. In the past, women were often limited in what they could write, thanks to gender roles. The rules for a female composer of the 18th or 19th century (when most of the best-known male composers flourished) were: only solo and small-ensemble works that you could play in your living room (which is why we now know this as “chamber music”). Never large-scale works, like operas or symphonies, where you would need to rent out a concert hall to have them properly performed. It’s easy to see how this was able to limit women; while there are a number of male composers known primarily for their chamber music (such as Chopin), most of them, while they wrote in a variety of genres, made their names through the big stuff. In fact, some of the biggest, most influential composers of that era were known mainly for writing operas, like Verdi and Wagner, or symphonies, like Gustav Mahler. Even the men who became famous for their chamber music were usually able to get them performed in large halls, unlike women, who were limited precisely so they wouldn’t be taking attention — and careers — away from men.

However, women were making headway in what would become classical music long before these rules came into place. And even once they did, women found ways to get their voices heard despite the odds.


The Early Years

Music, unlike the visual arts, is one where we don’t have as many records from the ancient world as we would like. There are plenty of ancient Greek musical treatises — which helped set the foundation for modern Western music theory — but not a lot in the way of actual music for anthropologists to check out, and most of that does exist is only in fragments. The oldest known complete musical composition in the world only dates to about 200 B.C.E.-100 C.E. As such, the history of Western music doesn’t really get rolling until the Middle Ages — and one of the most dominant musical figures of that era was a woman, the German abbess St. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1176 C.E.).


Hildegard von Bingen….how do I even begin to describe Hildegard von Bingen? I could start by saying that she’d be a worthy competitor of Eleanor of Aquitaine or Joan of Arc for the title of “most kickass medieval woman,” despite not being nearly as well-known today. Her accomplishments went far beyond just music (in fact, the class where I learned the most about her wasn’t even a music class). She was a prolific writer, on such subjects as “recorded visions, medical and scientific treatises, hagiography and letters; also lyrical and dramatic poetry, which has survived with…music,” according to The Norton Grove Dictionary of Women Composers. Heck, she even invented her own alphabet, and her medical texts are still influential today with advocates of natural remedies. Her mystical visions, which she’d seen since childhood, earned her quite an audience, with people ranging from popes to monarchs seeking her for guidance on matters from theology to politics and diplomacy. In an era when most people — much less, women — never left their home villages, Hildegard went on four preaching tours throughout Germany (at the time, mostly part of the Holy Roman Empire). She used her platform not just to spread her theological views and tales of her visions, but also to call for reform within the church.

As far as music goes, St. Hildegard used her visions to write some truly gorgeous liturgical music. She set her own lyric poetry to music, collecting it in the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum in the early 1150s, as well as writing music based on more typical hymn texts. One of her best-known works is the Ordo Virtutum, a morality play which is the only one from the medieval period where both the text and the music survives. It portrays a group of Virtues and Satan battling for a soul, or anima. The work calls for 17 female soloists (portraying the “Virtues” and the anima), male and female choruses and a male voice (portraying Satan) that only speaks, doesn’t sing, because according to Hildegard, the Devil should not be able to product “divine harmony.” You can watch a portion of a performance here:


And yes, St. Hildegard might have even had a queer side. She had a close relationship with a fellow nun, Richardis von Stade, which some scholars believe may have been romantic in nature. When Richardis was appointed abbess elsewhere, Hildegard wrote letters urging that the decision be reversed, to no avail, only for Richardis to die shortly after her departure. Some believe the “anima” in Ordo Virtutum may represent Richardis, and her dying request (to her brother) is to return to Hildegard, like how the repentant anima returns to God in the morality play. Some scholars also attest to a pattern of focus on the female body and female desire throughout Hildegard’s music.

Though she was nominated for it repeatedly, beginning only a few decades after her death, Hildegard has only just recently been officially canonized as a saint. But she also has an asteroid named after her, which is even cooler in my book.


Later in the Middle Ages, during the 12th and 13th centuries C.E., we had the famous troubadours — traveling composers of (mostly) secular love songs in southern France. But did you know there were female troubadours, too? Known as trobairitz, we don’t know a lot about these women, since many of them were anonymous — and for the few whose names we do know, a lot of the biographical details have been lost. But what is interesting is that a number of their love songs were addressed to other women. Most of them still kept up the convention of having the song’s “narrator” be male, but there is at least one example — the song “Na Maria” by Bieris de Romans (embedded above) — where the singer and object are both suggested to be women. While it’s controversial — many see the lyrics as merely religious devotion toward the Virgin Mary — there are scholars who view “Na Maria” as an early example of “lesbian desire” expressed in Western music.

Trobairitz Beatriz de Dia (fl. 1175) Via Wikipedia – originally National Library of France

Several centuries later, Venice, Italy was the center of the music world, where new genres of vocal music developed during the late Renaissance and early baroque periods — the late 16th and 17th centuries. During this time, another notable woman composer came on to the scene: Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677).

Strozzi was lucky that, unlike most women, she was encouraged in her musical talents by her adopted father, Giulio Strozzi, a writer who was able to introduce her to Venice’s intellectual elite. She was trained and performed as a singer and studied with important composers of the day, such as Francesco Cavalli, one of the early Venetian composers of the then-new genre known as opera. She was one of the most prolific vocal music composers of her time, writing hundreds of music in both traditional genres like madrigals and motets, and in the new genre of the cantata, where she was a pioneer.

Musician with a Viola da Gamba, by Bernardo Strozzi, believed to be a portrait of Barbara Strozzi via

Cantata is Italian for “to be sung,” and the baroque-era version of the form consisted usually of works for solo voice, in sections of recitatives (sections with talk-like singing) and arias (expressive, lyrical sections). Later in the period, Bach became known for his choral cantatas, but Strozzi was one of the early composers in the form. Below is an excerpt from her cantata Lagrimie mie:


Giulio Strozzi’s proto-feminist sensibilities garnered Barbara an opportunity that would be closed to most women composers for centuries: getting published. She published eight collections of her vocal works between 1644 and 1664, seven of which survive. She likely sang a number of her works in academic meetings at her father’s music school, the Accademia degli Unisoni, and in private performances and social gatherings at the family home among various members of the Venetian high society. Renowned for both her poetry and her music, Strozzi was a woman ahead of her time — far ahead of her time, as it would still be several centuries before most women could have serious careers as composers.


“Shakespeare’s Sister” and the Women Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries


Those of you who have read your Virginia Woolf will remember the story of “Judith Shakespeare,” a fictional, equally-talented sister of Shakespeare who Woolf mentions in A Room of One’s Own to show how it was impossible for a woman to have Shakespeare’s career and impact in his time. You can read the whole excerpt here, but suffice it to say that her point is that a woman with Shakespeare’s genius could never have achieved what he did because of her lack of access to the same opportunities, including education, and parental and social support for her ambitions.

What is interesting when looking at the history of women composers is there are at least two real-life examples of the “Shakespeare’s Sister” principle: Maria Anna Mozart (1751-1829) and Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847), sisters of the far more famous Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Felix Mendelssohn. Though they shared their brothers’ precocious talents and early training, beyond childhood they were limited by the restrictions placed on women during their time.

It’s well-known that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was playing and writing music from an early age, and had toured all over Europe before he was ten, thanks to his “stage parent”-like father, the composer Leopold Mozart. What’s less well-known is that young Mozart’s music lessons were inspired by the ones Leopold gave to older sister Maria Anna, nicknamed “Nannerl;” Wolfgang admired his sister’s brilliance at the keyboard and wanted to be like her. However, while Wolfgang continued to develop his career as an adult, becoming one of the most famous and influential composers of all time, Nannerl was forced to stop in 1769, when she reached “marriageable age.” Though some scholars think she could have been just as talented as her famous brother, we’ll never know, as none of her compositions survive.


There’s a somewhat more encouraging story with Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. Both Fanny and Felix, like the Mozart kids, showed prodigious musical talent and were writing original compositions from an early age. However, while her brother was able to get public performances, Fanny’s music was limited to her own private salons. Her father wasn’t very supportive of her composing career, thinking a musical career inappropriate for a woman of her social class; her brother praised his sister’s abilities but only thought people would pay her pieces attention if he published them under his name, which he often did. However, Fanny’s husband, the painter Wilhelm Hensel, supported her, which is why her salons — where she presented her own works, which include over 250 songs and 125 piano pieces — were able to be as influential as they were. But her father and brother’s lack of support meant it was hard for Fanny to do much outside of the small private sphere. Most of her pieces were published after her death, when she started getting attention as a brilliant composer in her own right, not merely “Felix Mendelssohn’s sister.”

Among Fanny’s masterpieces are Das Jahr (1841), a group of piano pieces inspired by the twelve months of the year, and her Piano Trio, op. 11, the only one of her ensemble works published in the 19th century (in 1850, three years after her death). Below is a full recording of Das Jahr:


But Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was a woman in the 19th century who had a fairly illustrious career. While she’s better known now as the wife of composer Robert Schumann, during their lifetimes, Robert was the one known as “Clara Wieck’s husband.” Clara had an ambitious father, Friedrich Wieck who, like previously-mentioned musical parents, taught her piano from an early age and had her touring Europe beginning at age nine, making her one of the era’s most famous pianists and earning her the admiration of such big names in the Romantic-era piano world as Chopin and Liszt. Unlike Nannerl or Fanny, though, Clara had no brother to compete with her, and her father supported her continuing her career into adulthood. In fact, he might have watched over her a little too much; when she wanted to marry Robert, who was one of her father’s students and nine years Clara’s senior, he did everything in his power to prevent them from doing so, which resulted in a long legal battle that eventually ended with Clara and Robert prevailing. After marriage, Clara often found her desire for a career as a touring pianist and composer at odds with Robert’s lack of interest in touring himself, and his desire for a more traditional wife, but she didn’t let that stop her. In fact, she used her influence as a popular concert pianist to promote her husband’s compositions, and was also able to keep their finances afloat with her performing career when Robert’s mental and physical health began to deteriorate.

Clara composed a great deal from her youth into middle age, including larger scale works like a piano concerto, and would perform her own works in her public programs, earning her an audience inaccessible to most female composers of the time. She said, “Composing gives me great pleasure…there is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound.” However, later in life, she began to lose confidence in her abilities, claiming “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?” But the growing modern audiences for her work would seem to disagree. You can judge for yourself here:


It’s also been speculated that Clara Schumann had a relationship with a certain famous B-composer whom Clara and Robert mentored, Johannes Brahms, though historical evidence doesn’t suggest anything more than Brahms having a very strong unrequited crush on her. (I mean, who wouldn’t?) But a lot of their letters were destroyed, which leads some to speculate that there must have been a reason for their destruction. Regardless, or perhaps because, of the lack of solid evidence, the Robert Schumann-Clara Schumann-Brahms love triangle is kind of a hot topic in classical music geek circles, leading to shipping debates of Team Edward vs. Team Jacob proportions.

Next: Sisters of the 20th century doin’ it for themselves!

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.


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.


  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. Greatly appreciated having this little gem of knowledge to read at work on a Monday morning. Excellent work, keep articles like this coming!

  4. 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: Also one of my favorite contemporary composers, Jennifer Higdon:

      • 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.

        • Shiiiiiit, how did I live in and go to music school in Baltimore for four years and only now learn that Marin Alsop is a lesbian?

    • Also, Sofia Gubaidulina is also way cool! I’m glad to see so many people here are also fans of contemporary women composers.

  5. Oh my God thanks for this, Rose! :D 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! :D 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.

      • I totally didn’t know about Francesca Caccini, and feel kind of embarrassed because I’m a huge opera fan/composer who wants to write opera. Thanks!

      • 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: (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.

  6. 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:

    • 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”:

        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!

        • Wow, I have Gender and the Musical Canon on my Amazon wish list! Your old professor sounds awesome; maybe I’ll get to meet her at one of the musicology conferences one day!

  7. 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:

      New music box had some great dialogue around International Women’s Day. Personally I prefer this post: and a few others, and don’t completely love the the other article that someone else linked to.

  8. This article was awesome! Thank you so much for writing this! I’m going to be starting college as Music Ed major this year and this got me super excited! :D

  9. 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!
    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))

    • Thanks! I can’t wait to check out both of them – but especially Serowa since I’m a huge Russian opera fan! (Seriously, my first time at the Met was Boris Godunov and I was in heaven.)

    • I’m just going to imagine that Gonzaga University was named after her, cause that’s way more cool than the dude the school was named after

  10. 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:

      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.

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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
    [email protected]

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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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  20. 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!”?

  21. 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.

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  23. 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.

  24. Just want to say…THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR WRITING THIS ARTICLE!!! I appreciate your research and writing on the topic. I learned a lot, and I am inspired to study the queerness and musicality of Dame Ethel Smyth for an incoming research paper!

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