Bangable Women Classical Composers in Music History

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Wed, May 18, 2011 at 8:35 AM

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Think that classical composition was only for the menfolk? Think again! Plenty of women composed and performed music, so many, in fact, that there were 750 entries in a 1902 Biographical Handbook of Women's Work in Music. That same year, a Los Angeles publishing house put out a 16-page booklet entitled "Some Facts About Women in Music," listing American and European women composers of opera and theater. In 1903, a 12-chapter volume of Women's Work in Music was produced by a Boston publisher. But somehow, this piece of music history has largely been swept aside and conventional wisdom has it that music was (and kind of still is, in some ways) a man's field. Let us introduce (or re-introduce!) you to our five favorite women classical composers in music history.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

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Hildegard of Bingen was a 12th century German abbess who managed to compose a prolific amount of religious music when she wasn't founding monasteries, reforming the clergy, producing philosophical treatises, and going on speaking tours She was well-known and admired in her day -- regarded as a mystic of sorts --- and her poems, songs, and liturgical song cycles made her famous throughout Europe. Spiritus Sanctus, one of our favorite compositions of hers, is here.

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677)

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Barbara Strozzi was the illegitimate daughter of a Venetian merchant and his domestic servant; even so, his father nurtured her talents by providing her with music lessons, texts for the pieces that she wrote, and even encouraged her to perform before the Academy of the Like-Minded--a group he founded solely to act as an audience for her work. She made her public career by publishing volumes of her compositions, cranking out eight volumes of her work between 1644 and 1664. Her hundred plus works are all vocal music, mostly solo voice and accompaniment (usually lute, which she apparently would play herself sometimes). Why wouldn't she perform in public, you might ask? Composing music and playing it in the home was one thing; performing in public, in front of men, was quite another and could have exposed the young Barbara to scandalous rumors. In spite of her father's best efforts, she was the subject of slanderous, vicious rumors by the age of 16 although it seems like she entered into her twenties with her reputation intact. Barbara Strozzi was one of the most prolific composers of secular music in her time; you can hear one of her pieces here.

Francesca Caccini (1587-1630)

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Francesca Caccini was a woman of many talents. She was the highest paid court composer at the court of Tuscany under not one, not two, but three grand Dukes; she also had such a lovely singing voice that Henry IV proclaimed her the best singer he ever heard in France and begged her patron, the Grand Duke, to let her come to the French Court. The Duke wouldn't spare her. Unlike Barbara Strozzi, she was able to sing in public--debuting at age 13 during a royal wedding celebration--and in so doing, produced a cadre of disciples that she trained for public opera performances and for special services to the court. She came by it honestly as her father, Giulio Roman Caccini, is generally credited with writing the very first opera (and also wrote Amarilli Mia Bella which is generally taught to this day to just about every aspiring classical vocalist). You can hear one of her vocal pieces here.

Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)

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Born into a family of instrument makers, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre took to music almost immediately, performing both in public and at the court of Louis the XIV. Young Elisabeth was noticed by the Sun King when she performed at court at a child, improvising and performing on the harpsichord with such skill that her musical education was supervised by from then on by the French court. Word of her talent spread quickly: by 1677, the French journal Mercure Galant was marveling at her talent for sight-reading, and her ability to compose pieces and then transpose them on the spot. A year later, that same journal was referring to her as the "marvel of our century."

Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896)

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A child prodigy, Clara Wieck Schumann was praised by such figures as Mendelsshon, Chopin, and Liszt, and of course by her husband, the Romantic composer and pianist Robert Schumann. Like Barbara Strozzi and Francesca Caccini, her father was extremely supportive of her talents, acting as her manager when she was a teenage pianist and encouraging her to include at least one of her own songs in her programs. And she did--she performed 182 programs between 1828 and 1840 and each included at least one of her own tunes. Although she expressed great love for composing, she also was extremely ambivalent about her ability and her role as a composer, no doubt influenced by the fact that her husband was a genius in his own right. You can hear one of her piano concertos here.

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