Female Composers You Didn’t Know About

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M-A Orchestra director William Flaherty said, “It’s possible, even today, to go all the way through a comprehensive program of music education and earn a Master’s degree in music without hearing about even some of the most famous female classical artists.” Since women first entered professional orchestras in 1913, they have made large strides. However, female representation in the modern orchestral repertoire has remained limited. Listen to a few extraordinary female composers whose stories highlight the incredible influence women have had on orchestral music.

Amy Beach, arguably the most famous female composer in history, struggled against the explicit instructions of her husband to keep out of the public eye and halt her career as a concert pianist. Following the death of her husband, she entered the limelight with the release of her Gaelic Symphony (1896), the first symphony ever composed by an American woman.

After submitting two pieces to the anonymous Berkshire Festival Competition, Rebecca Clarke rose to prominence as one of the most compelling composers of her generation. Although she narrowly lost the competition to the already-famous Ernest Bloch, she demonstrated her potential as a noteworthy composer. She is most well known for her breakout pieces submitted to the Berkshire Festival: Viola Sonata (1919) and Piano Trio (1921). Clarke’s pieces disrupted a space traditionally dominated by men; journalists even speculated her pieces were really composed by a man.

Florence Price fought through racial prejudice alongside gender inequality within the music industry and is most well known for her Fantasie Négre (1932) and Symphony No. 1 (1933). Born to a Black father and white mother, she passed as a Mexican-American student in college to avoid anti-Black prejudice. At age 41, she divorced her husband and supported her two children by playing the organ at silent film screenings, with her success as a composer eventually bringing her performances to a bigger stage. She was the first Black woman to have her compositions performed by a major American orchestra and was a part of the Chicago Black Renaissance, devoting her work to the advancement of African-Americans within classical music.

Fanny Mendelssohn’s music has long been overshadowed by the fame of her younger brother, Felix. While they learned composition side-by-side, her talents were stifled under Felix’s strict orders to keep to her duties within the house. In fact, her most famous composition—Easter Sonata (1920)—was initially assumed to be the work of her brother after it was discovered with the signature F. Mendelssohn.

Jennifer Higdon has earned international acclaim for a range of creative compositions, most notably her Percussion Concerto (2006). She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize of Music in 2010 for her Violin Concerto, a full-circle moment for her as a self-taught violinist in her teens. While she began composing classical music relatively late in life, Higdon has already received three Grammys for her change-making compositions and has one of the most performed repertoires of any living composer. 

Andrew is a senior at M-A in his first year of journalism and hopes to share his interest in classical music through his writing.

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