The month of March is designated Women’s History Month and also plays host to Mothering Sunday and International Women’s Day. At The Gift of Music, we’re all for celebrating wonderful women, and we’ve put together a list of female composers from the medieval era to the present day.
Women composers have often been sidelined by history, but there’s actually a strong tradition of women writing beautiful music in both secular and sacred contexts. Here are some of the greats:
1. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
Abbess Hildegard was one of the extraordinary creative personalities of the middle ages. In her youth she saw vivid mystical visions, and she turned these into poetry and music. Both her music and lyrics are extraordinarily free by the standards of the time; Hildegard once wrote ‘my new song must float like a feather on the breath of God.’ Her sacred songs celebrate the range of the virtuosic female voice, which is extremely rare in early music.
Listen to a sample of Hildegard’s O Vos Angeli below
2. Francesca Caccini (1587-1641)
Born in the city of Florence, Italy, at the beginning of the Baroque era, Francesca Caccini was a prolific composer of chamber and stage music. She was employed by the wealthy Medici family and by 1614 she had become their highest paid musician. She produced a series of works for enormous pageants and elaborate staged performances, and she is credited with producing the earliest opera ever written by a woman. Sadly, however, very little of her work survives today.
3. Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)
Often overlooked in favour of her more famous brother, Fanny Mendelssohn composed a huge number of works over the course of her life. Her piano music was sometimes published under Felix Mendelssohn’s name and much of it is written in a similar style. In fact, some claim that Fanny was composing “songs without words” before her brother made them famous. It’s said that when Queen Victoria met Felix Mendelssohn, she proposed singing Italien, her favourite piece of his, which the composer then had to admit was actually by his sister.
4. Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Amy Beach was the first successful woman composer in the United States. Originally an acclaimed pianist, after her marriage (to a man 24 years older than herself) she agreed to limit her public performances to two recitals a year, and devoted herself more fully to her composing. She produced large-scale works, including her well-known Gaelic Symphony and Mass in E-flat Minor. The latter became the first piece by a woman to be performed by the Handel and Haydn Society, well-known for its conservatism.
5. Judith Weir (b.1954)
Judith Weir is one of the best known women composers working today. Growing up, she was taught by Sir John Tavener before studying composition with Robin Holloway at the University of Cambridge. She is best known for her operatic works, which include Blond Eckbert and Armida. Her compositions often draw on stories from Medieval history or her homeland of Scotland.