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Women Composers - as Emerging from the Shadows

Karolina Kizińska

Clara Schumann

Nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the time when there are significantly more woman composers then in the previous centuries. Does it mean that there were almost no women composers earlier? Of course there were, and that since ancient times - including Megalostrata and Praxilla in Antiquity, the Countess of Dia, and Hildegard of Bingen in the Middle Ages, Maddalena Casulana, Vittoria Aleotti Vagnoli or Virginia in the Renaissance, Francesca Caccini, and Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre in the Baroque and Marianne von Martinez, Corona Schröter and Julie Candeille in Classicism. But it was not until Romanticism and the subsequent twentieth century, when the unprecedented wave of new women names in the field of composition appeared – e.g. Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Luise Adolph Le Beau, Nadia Boulanger, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Elisabeth Lutyens, Nancy Van de Vate or contemporary - Joan Tower, or Sofia Gubaidulina. The Polish women composers that need to be at least mentioned in this introduction are Maria Szymanowska, Grazyna Bacewicz, Marta Ptaszynska and Krystyna Moszumanska-Nazar. Let us look at this period - why then the woman composer emerges from the shadows?

Women from middle and upper classes received a basic education in music since ancient times. This education included playing a musical instrument, which was considered a valuable addition to the overall ideal bride-to-be. In the period of Classicism and early Romanticism such instrument was the piano. Therefore, many works were composed for home "usage" - they were composed for women and they were not very technically complicated. Sometimes women in this period achieved success as pianists (such as Clara Schumann), but in the field of composition a success was not easy to come by. There were many reasons for this. First of all, the belief that women (if they have to) can interpret music through playing an instrument (the piano was perfect), but cannot create it, was widespread, despite the admiration for the achievements of many women composers. For a long time women were seen as emotional rather than intellectual creatures (as opposite to men). At the end of the nineteenth century the number of women composers has increased considerably. Works by women were in different styles and genres – as an example: we have simple songs by Maude Valerie White, impressive orchestral works by Amy Beach and powerful operas by Ethel Smyth. Twentieth century gives us even more names and works – the modernist works by Ruth Crawford Seeger, a series of 13 string quartets by Elizabeth Maconchy, soulful orchestral and chamber music by Sofia Gubaidulina and sound worlds by Pauline Oliveros and Meredith Monk are a good example (Grove).

Women had to go a long way before they were able to create and publish their works. First of all, they had a problem with gaining necessary education. Even in the eighteenth century, women were still excluded from the church’s musical life and musical education, which it has assured. Most women musicians gained their musical training at home, if they were born to the families with musical traditions, though we find in the history some exceptions (e.g. in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were Ospedalis in Venice. Ospedalis were state-funded foundations for poor girls. They were providing them with musical education, and “produced” many great artists, such as violinist and composer Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen) (Ibidem). Generally, however, for a long time women have had no opportunity to receive professional music education. And yet, most musicians would agree that music education is essential in the composition, at least in the Western art (especially after 1750). Indeed traditions that are based more on improvisation or oral transmission, such as folk music or jazz, depend on formal education to a lesser extent (Citron, 2000, p. 59). Unfortunately, many conservatories did not open their doors to women for a long time. France was the most progressive in this aspect, it has been accepting women since 1795. In Central Europe only conservatory in Leipzig provided women an opportunity to pursue piano as the main instrument since 1843 (Gwizdalanka, 2001, p. 101). Nineteenth century is the time when the doors of universities and conservatories slowly open to the ladies, although at first in a limited form (e.g. women were often accepted into universities as unenrolled students).

While occasionally acquiring musical education was difficult for women because of the traditional beliefs of their parents (as was in the case of Ethel Smyth, who locked herself in a room to force her father’s approval for her studies at the Leipzig Conservatory; Cecile Chaminade, whose father forbade her to study at the Paris Conservatory, but has allowed private tutoring that she received from professors working there; Rebecca Clarke, Germaine Tailleferre and Augusta Holmes), the biggest problem was the fact, that universities were preventing women from attending certain classes that were available only to men (Citron, 2000, p. 59). Even at a time when university education was available for women, it was not at the same level of advancement as that offered to male students. The first woman admitted to the class of score reading at the conservatory in Munich was Mabel Daniels. She mentions in 1897, that women could not study counterpoint, only basic harmony (Ibidem). Similarly, the Paris Conservatoire for a long time prevented women from learning advanced theory and composition. Very often the teachers themselves refused to teach girls. This was in the case of Ethel Smyth, who in 1944 (!) addressed a problem of finding a composition teacher, who would agree to accept a female student under his wings (Ibidem). Also Helen J. Clarke mentioned this issue in her polemic with the views of Edith Brower Is the Musical Idea Masculine? from 1894, contained in an essay The nature of Music and Its Relation to the Question of Women in Music from 1985. She says that German male teachers strongly denied women harmony lessons, because, they claimed, the woman would not understand it (Neuls-Bates, 1996, p. 211).

Elizabeth Sterling, in turn, was the first woman admitted to the Department of Music at Oxford, but has not won a degree, because until 1921 the university did not consider such an option for women (Bowers, Tick, 1987, p. 306). In the Leipzig Conservatory, the three-year course of theory was available only to men, while women were required to pass a simpler and shorter course, lasting two years. For the female students there is a separate class in harmony organized for their needs (Solie, 1995, p. 135). In 1859, the Paris Conservatory offered men two types of classes, written harmony, as well as harmony and accompaniment, while women could only attend courses in harmony and accompaniment, and were forbidden to study written harmony until 1879 (Ibidem, p. 136). In 1902, Mabel Daniels, composer struggling with the stereotypical treatment of women, managed to get to a score reading class at the Conservatory in Munich. This was no mean achievement, because, as she admitted:

You know that five years ago women were not allowed to study counterpoint at the conservatory. In fact, anything more advanced than elementary harmony was debarred. The ability of the feminine intellect to comprehend the intricacies of a stretto, or cope with double counterpoint in the tenth, if not openly denied, was severely questioned (Neuls-Bates, 1996, pp. 220-221).

The school authorities were shocked to find out that a women was allowed to attend counterpoint class, but Bernard Stavenhagen, director of the Munich Conservatory, was more tolerant and said: Because a Fraulein never has joined the class is no reason why Fraulein never can (Ibidem, p. 221). Daniels also talks about the reaction of other students (males), that she received when she appeared at the classroom for the first time:

I encountered the astonished haze of thirty pairs of masculine eyes. […] I had created a sensation. […] They seem to have accepted me as inevitable, although occasionally I catch one of them staring at me with an expression which says so plainly as words: What on earth does a woman want of score reading? (Ibidem, p. 222).

Only a few schools offered classes in composition for women. In Paris to 1822 regulation explicitly said that harmony, counterpoint and fugue are for men, and composition – especially just for men (Solie, 1995, p. 136) (male students). A woman (or rather a girl) who changed the situation at the Conservatory in Leipzig, was Clara Barnett Rogers, who has been accepted to the university on a special basis, as she was only 12 years old. In 1859, after hearing her string quartet (she wrote it at the age of 13), the university administration decided to create a composition class for women (Ibidem, pp. 108, 177). Beside the fact that there were different classes available for both sexes, often the training was also held for them in different parts of the building (at the Paris Conservatory boys and girls used separate staircases and entrances) (Ibidem, p. 135), or on different days of the week (at the Conservatory in Brussels Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were reserved for girls, while Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays for boys) (Ibidem). Only such activities as declamation, pedagogical techniques and mixed choir, were co-educational.

The fact that the university had a certain approach to the issue of women musical education can be well  seen in a letter of Ernst Rudorff, Deputy Director, to Joseph Joachim, director of the Berlin Hochschule für Musik from 1881:

I would like to ask you to consider seriously whether it is right for us to allow women to take part in orchestra classes and performances. They add nothing to the orchestra performances; indeed, I am more and more convinced by the last few rehearsals that the week and uncertain playing of the young girls not only does no good but actually makes the sound indistinct and out of tune. […] They can learn rhythm and sight-reading in other ways, and they should not be trained to become orchestra players anyway. […] At the very least we have to make sure that orchestras will not have men and women playing together in the future. […] Thus I propose that in the new year, which offers the opportunity for a good beginning, the participation of women in orchestra classes and performances come to an end, once and for all (Ibidem, pp. 144-145).

It is not surprising that the majority of women composers, at least those whom we have heard of, came from a musical or artistic homes. Among them there were such families that supported the aspirations of young composers and thus contributed to their success. This was the case of Lili Boulanger, who, thanks to the support of the family and the environment, has become a professional musician and was the first woman composer to  won the Prix de Rome Prize in 1913 (Citron, 2000, p. 61) - a prize given to artists for their compositions (her sister, a great musician and teacher Nadia Boulanger (one of her students was Aaron Copland) managed to win second prize in this competition in 1908) (Neuls-Bates, 1996, p. 239). Unfortunately, Lili was never given a chance to expand her talent, as she suddenly died at a very young age. Her achievements, however, were significant, especially when considering that woman were trying to be considered as contestants in the prix the Rome competition for many years (e.g. Maria Isambert in 1874, and Marie-Juliette Toutain in 1902) (Gwizdalanka, 2001, pp. 188-189). It is worth to mention a few other pioneers here. Maude Valerie White was the first women composer to get Mendelssohn’ scholarship (Bowers, Tick, 1987, p. 307). Jean Tower was the first woman to win the prestigious Grewemeyer prize in 1986 (Neuls-Bates, 1996, p. 351). Antonia Brico was the first American, who graduated from the Staatliche Hohschule für Musik in Berlin (Bowers, Tick, 1987, p. 360).

In conclusion, it is difficult to estimate how many women never became composers because they did not receive proper training. Anyway, this problem was summed up by Luise Adolph LeBeau’s statement, who a hundred years ago said, that it is silly to expect from women to compose at their very best if they are denied the education (Gwizdalanka, 2001, p. 126). Anyway, so far in many conversations about women composers there is always one returning argument - women do not have sufficient talent and creativity, because there was no female Mozart or Beethoven. In response to this Anna Harley stressed that it should never be forgotten that women were not allowed, had no right to study, conduct, did not have their place and concludes: it is not a matter of talent that is responsible for the lack of great female composers, but the lack of professional opportunities (Harley, 1997/19, p. 16). And Amy Fay in response to the same argument said: If  it has required 50,000 years to produce a male Beethoven, surely one little century ought to vouchsafed, to create a female one (Citron, 2000, p. 76).

Another issue was the situation of women after receiving education. Even then, the transition to a professional level of performing music for them was difficult. This is because the vast majority of women after graduating from the Conservatory were forced to become teachers. The positive aspect here is the fact that women were even allowed to teach at universities, however, they experienced (and continue to experience) the "glass ceiling" effect in those institutions. In the Paris Conservatory women were prevented from gaining higher degrees, and paid less than their male colleagues. Louise Farrenc, composer and piano teacher, started working at the same time as Henri Herz, however, the university paid him two hundred francs more than her. In 1850 she decided to stand up for justice, but without success. Moreover, despite the success in the field of composition and publication, she was never awarded a professor title - she remained a member of the piano faculty only. Between 1795 and 1859, twenty-six women were teachers there (the school had 325 teachers in total), but without exceptions, they could only teach voice, keyboard instruments, keybord harmony and solfege (Solie, 1995, p. 137). As a rule, regardless of their education and origin, women received a lower rank and salary than their male colleagues. Similarly, today, there is still a problem with women being paid less, occupying lower positions and being promoted slower than men at universities. For example Carole Sue Deval, who is a world-known ethnomusicologist and has received special award for overall academic achievements from the Ethnomusicological Society as well as published many important works on African instruments, has not yet received a professorship at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). The administration of the university, full of narrow-minded men, did not want her at UCLA (Harley, 1997/19, p. 14). This problem was addressed at the congress, entitled Wake up! Proceedings in cases of discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation (Ibidem).

Dedication to the composition is a problem not only associated with obtaining education, but also with the stereotypical division of the life into private and public sphere. Women have always faced the dilemma: home and family - or work? Making music requires extraordinary focus, calmness, time and dedication, and women could rarely afford those. Women were, and often still are, responsible for raising children and caring for the house. It was difficult for women to make a choice and freely follow their career paths. I omit here the issue of bias on the part of the society towards women opting for such a step.

The combination of being a mother and a professional musician is not (and never was) easy. A professional composer must have the time to succeed in this field. Starting a family was associated (even in the nineteenth century and especially for middle-class women) with complete cessation of education, work, or even hobbies. Therefore, many female musicians either did not marry at all (like Ethel Smyth and Luise Adolph Le Beau), or decided to marry in their old age (eg, Cecile Chaminade, at the age of 54, Rebecca Clarke - 58) (Citron, 2000, p. 92). There were also some other women, who were just lucky enough to have tolerant husbands (who were usually also musicians, as in the case of Priscilla McLean, who openly talked about the benefits of marriage of two composers) (Ibidem, p. 94), or have decided to divorce when their husbands were not able to accept the success and the brilliant career of their wives (as was the case with Maria Szymanowska). Husband of Clara Schumann, Robert, believed that a woman is destined for the kitchen and nursery. He influenced his wife so much, that she questioned her own abilities: Yes, I would love to compose, but none of that ... I console myself with the thought that I belong to women, and they are not destined to compose (Gwizdalanka, 2001, pp. 120-121).

Many spouses were against the continuation of music careers by their wives. Germaine Tailleferre’s husband, Britain Radio, stated before the wedding, that the ceremony would not take place, if she chose to be a composer "seriously" (Citron, 2000, p. 92). Similarly, Joseph Joachim, though he had many female students, insisted that his girlfriend Amelia Weiss gave up performing after their wedding, which made her extremely unhappy (Solie, 1995, p. 140). Also, Clara Kathleen Rogers, who married a lawyer, was forced to abandon music, but because it was something that she was engaged in since early childhood, and something she loved, she considered it to be too much to be asked for. Under a compromise, she resigned from public life, but continued teaching music (Ibidem). The fact that marriage often meant the end of a career for a woman, could be well illustrated with a situation that happened to Elisabeth Maconchy. She was declined to receive Mendelssohn Scholarship by sir Hugh Allen, who said: If you are admitted a scholarship, you will still end up married and will not write a single note (Gwizdalanka, 2001, pp. 114-115).

Not only a husband could stand in the way for talented women composers. Very often it was the father or the whole family, who discouraged them. An example can be the situation of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, who, after getting a proper education, could not work as a composer. Although allowed to compose, Fanny was not able to publish her works. No one will sing to my tune, no one will dance the way I play him. Her father made it very clear, when he said in 1820 that for Felix (F. Mendelssohn, Fanny’s brother) music will become a profession, but never for her, as a woman is not suited for this life (Ibidem, p. 119). Therefore, despite the fact that she wrote over four hundred works, including songs, piano music, string quartets, cantatas and choral and orchestral works, she was never regarded as a professional musician. Male family members discouraged even the most talented young women. Some women after giving birth to children wanted to return to the abandoned career (as Ruth Crawford), but it was not easy. For the first time Ethel Leginska, conductor and pianist openly spoke on these topics. In 1915-1920 she repeatedly stressed in her interviews what a big problem is dealing with both motherhood and work (bowers, Tick, 1987, p. 335). It was not until the twentieth century and the emancipation of women, that some changes in this regard were brought.

When discussing the topic of female work as composers, it is necessary to refer to the place where women started their emancipatory path in the field of music. Music, which in the nineteenth century penetrated to private homes from courts, was now in the “kingdom of women” (Gwizdalanka, 2001, p. 93) as men liked to call it. Robert Schumann even created a special term Salonmusik, referring to the specificity of the repertoire of the salons (Ibidem, p. 171) - simple, appropriate for young girls, nice to listen to, good for house performing. Adjusting to such expectations, more and more women were composing. Salon gave women the opportunity to express themselves and to develop their musical talent. Women like Fanny Arnstein, Henriette Herz, Rahel Levin and Fanny Hensel had the ability to create and have their music performed thanks to salon. For Fanny Hensel it was extremely important, because at home she could be not only a composer but also a musical director, pianist and conductor (Neuls-Bates, 1996, p. 147). In fact, only in her salon, on “Sunday concerts”, which continued for many years (in Berlin), there were also larger pieces performed - chamber music, choral works, and even oratorios and operas (although usually only with piano accompaniment) (Rottermund, 1997/19, p. 29). It was quite unusual, as the music usually created for the salons was supposed to be simple, as indicated above. Why simple? Because this music was supposed to be appropriate for women, and women were considered subtle, emotional, melodic and uncomplicated. So were the melodies. It might be shocking today, but this was the case.

Salon was thus a kind of a shelter for the musically talented women. Unfortunately, despite the opportunities that it created for women, it had also negative consequences for female musicians. Label of salon musician, and thus somebody who is not taking music seriously, was extremely difficult to remove. Women were assigned to salons, and salons were treated as a marginal musical activity. Thus, despite the fact that thanks to salons women could compose and perform, nobody paid much attention to their work. It was because of very unique women, that this situation changed, and that from salons filled with simple melodies, women moved to the socially higher situated sphere of professional music performing – to the concert halls. Women began to compose orchestral pieces, ignoring that this was not expected from them. The belief that the woman belongs only to the salon, to house music, was less and less common.

Not only salons gave women opportunity to appear in the music world and to develop their musical skills. Home magazines also did - newspapers intended primarily for women, popular in the U.S. in the nineteenth century. On the pages of these magazines composers could publish their works, poets - their poems and writers - their works. That is why the U.S. nineteenth-century’s home magazines are great sources of songs and piano pieces, composed by women. Like in the case of salons, also those magazines accepted compositions by women, because they were simple and published for entertainment - not for concert halls performance. Publishing works in such magazines allowed women to achieve nationwide notoriety and visibility without compromising privacy and contemporary mores. Women could present their works to the wider audience (Cook, Tsou, 1994, p. 165). Although ninety percent of the music in such periodicals was still composed by men, in at least a few of them - especially “Columbian Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine”, “Godey’s” and “Ladie’s Home Journal” – also women published their musical pieces (e.g. Anne Sloman, Augusta Brown and Cecile Chaminade) (Ibidem).

For composing to become equally accessible way of life for women and men, many organizations and festivals were created. In 1975 composer Nancy Van de Vate  created International League for Women Composers. Earlier, in 1911, there was Musicians created in England, and in 1924 - Association of American composers. In 1926 – we have a Society of Women Artists in Hamburg emerging, and in 1950- A festival and a competition for women composers was organized in Basle by a singer - Leni Neuenschwander. In 1956 this idea was continued by the Women’s Council in New York and another contest  for women composers only was organized (there were female composers from 32 countries!). The full list of festivals and associations for women that were created in recent decades is too large to be cited here. The International Alliance for Women in Music, organization founded in 1995 from the union of three former American women’s organizations from the 70s, collects and disseminates data on women’s self-help worldwide ( (Gwizdalanka, 2001, pp. 193-194). In addition, there has been a great increase of interest in women musicians among musicologists and also feminist musicology was created. As we can see – many things changed for women composers in the 19th and 20th centuries.



  1. Cecilia Reclaimed. Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music, ed. by S.C. Cook i J.S. Tsou, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago 1994.
  2. Citron M. J., Gender & the Musical Canon, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago 2000.
  3. Gwizdalanka D., Muzyka i płeć (Music & gender), Krakov 2001.
  4. Musicology and Difference. Gender and sexuality in music scholarship, ed. by R.A. Solie, University of California Press, Berkley and Los Angeles, California.
  5. Wisdom, Wit, and Will: Women Choral Conductors On Their Art, ed. by J. Catoni Conlon, Chicago 2009.
  6. Women in music. An Anthology of Source Readings from the Middle Ages to the present, ed. by C. Neuls-Bates, Boston 1996.
  7. Women Making Music. The Western Art. Tradition, 1150–1950, ed. by J. Bowers i J. Tick, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago 1987.
  8. „Ruch Muzyczny” 1997/19.
  9. Grove – The New Dictionary of Music and Musicians,

Opublikowano: 2012-08-25

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