Amazing Women in Classical Music History

All pioneering and inspiring in their stories and music.



Ethel Smyth


 

One of this country's greatest composers was an English composer from Sidcup, Kent in 1858. Her father was opposed to her pursuing a career in music, but Smyth was determined to make it as a composer and her studies led her all the way to the prestigious Leipzig Conservatory. Her compositions include works for voice, piano, chamber groups and orchestra. In 1910 she joined the women’s suffrage movement and her composition The March of the Women became the anthem of movement. Smyth was awarded Damehood in 1922 - the first female composer ever to receive such an honour.

Teresa Carreño



Teresa Carreño was a pianist, singer, composer and conductor born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1853. Her father was from a very musical family and gave her music lessons from an early age and was quite the prodigy. Over her life she became a world renowned pianist and composed around 75 pieces for voice, piano, choir, orchestra and instrumental ensemble. She also sang roles in operas like Don Giovanni, Les Huguenots and many more. What a star.


Marianna Martines

 

 

Let's go back to Vienna in 1744 where an exceptional pianist, singer and composer was born. Marianna Martines took keyboard lessons from none other than Joseph Haydn (you'd want to do you practise with a teacher like that). She soon began to show a talent for composition and took lessons with Imperial Court composer Giuseppe Bonno. As her music became more well known she joined the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna in 1773 and really indulged in the Italian style (it was very fashionable at the time). Her compositions included two oratorios in Italian as well as a number of cantatas, motets and masses - and here's one of her sonatas.


Isabella Leonarda

 

 

Isabella Leonarda was a composer from Novara, Italy. She entered the Collegio di Sant'Orsola, an Ursuline convent, at the age of 16 and remained there for the rest of her life. Her compositions spanned almost every genre of sacred music, including psalms, responsories and Magnificats. She was also the first woman to publish sonatas, writing many in her lifetime. Listen to her 'Sonata duodecima' for violin solo and continuo - it's just stunning.

Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre



Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre was a French harpsichordist and composer, born in Paris in 1665, into a wonderful (and possibly quite noisy) family of musicians and instrument-makers. She received her music education as a child from her father, performing to King Louis XIV at a young age. As a teenager her education was overseen by the king’s mistress in the French court. After her marriage in 1684 she taught, performed around Paris and composed opera and ballet. Her opera Céphale et Procris was the first opera to be published by a woman in France.

Augusta Browne
This American composer and author was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1820 and crossed the Atlantic with family when she was a child. She gained fame in the mid-1800s as part of the first wave of female composers in the US. She liked to compose music that would be enjoyed by the masses, writing over 200 works for piano and voice in addition to numerous hymns and secular pieces. She was also a rather outspoken writer and music critic.

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Happy Birthday Clara Schumann

 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.
— Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann was a German musician and composer, considered one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era. She exerted her influence over a 61-year concert career, changing the format and repertoire of the piano recital and the tastes of the listening public. Her husband was the composer Robert Schumann. Together they encouraged Johannes Brahms. She was the first to perform publicly any work by Brahms.


Clara Schumann had a brilliant career as a pianist from the age of 13 up to her marriage. Her marriage to Schumann was opposed by her father. She continued to perform and compose after the marriage even as she raised seven children.

In the various tours on which she accompanied her husband, she extended her own reputation further than the outskirts of Germany, and it was thanks to her efforts that his compositions became generally known in Europe. Johannes Brahms, at age 20, met the couple in 1853 and his friendship with Clara Schumann lasted until her death. J. Brahms helped Clara Schumann through the illness of her husband with a caring that bordered on love. Later that year, she also met violinist Joseph Joachim who became one of her frequent performance partners. Clara Schumann is credited with refining the tastes of audiences through her presentation of works by earlier composers including those of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven as well as those of Robert Schumann and J. Brahms.

Although for many years after her death Clara Schumann was not widely recognized as a composer, as a pianist she made an impression which lasts until today. She was one of the first pianists to perform from memory, making that the standard for concertizing. Trained by her father to play by ear and to memorize, she gave public performances from memory as early as age thirteen, a fact noted as something exceptional by her reviewers.

She was also instrumental in changing the kind of programs expected of concert pianists. In her early career, before her marriage to Robert, she played what was then customary, mainly bravura pieces designed to showcase the artist's technique, often in the form of arrangements or variations on popular themes from operas, written by virtuosos such as Thalberg, Herz, or Henselt. And, as it was also customary to play one's own compositions, she included at least one of her own works in every program, works such as her Variations on a Theme by Bellini (Op. 8) and her popular Scherzo (Op. 10). However, as she became a more independent artist, her repertoire contained mainly music by leading composers.


Clara Schumann, "one of the most soulful and famous pianists of the day", according to Edvard Grieg

Clara Schumann's influence also spread through her teaching, which emphasized a singing tone and expression, with technique entirely subordinated to the intentions of the composer. One of her students, Mathilde Verne, carried her teaching to England where she taught, among others, Solomon; while another of her students, Carl Friedberg, carried the tradition to the Juilliard School in America, where his students included Malcolm Frager and Bruce Hungerford.

Clara was also instrumental in getting the works of Robert Schumann recognized, appreciated and added to the repertoire. She promoted him tirelessly, beginning when his music was unknown or disliked, when the only other important figure in music to play Schumann occasionally was Liszt, and continuing until the end of her long career.

Happy Birthday John Cage!



An American composer and music theorist. A pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde. Critics have lauded him as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. He was also instrumental in the development of modern dance, mostly through his association with choreographer Merce Cunningham, who was also Cage's romantic partner for most of their lives.

Born in Los Angeles in 1912, Cage studied for a short time at Pamona College, and later at UCLA with classical composer Arthur Schoenberg. There he realized that the music he wanted to make was radically different from the music of his time. “I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said ‘You’ll come to a wall you won’t be able to get through.’ So I said, ‘I’ll beat my head against that wall.'” But it wasn’t long before Cage found that there were others equally interested in making art in ways that broke from the rigid forms of the past. Two of the most important of Cage’s early collaborators were the dancer Merce Cunningham and the painter Robert Rauschenberg.






The piece 4’33” written by John Cage, is possibly the most famous and important piece in twentieth century avant-garde. 4’33” was a distillation of years of working with found sound, noise, and alternative instruments. In one short piece, Cage broke from the history of classical composition and proposed that the primary act of musical performance was not making music, but listening.

A Musician's Brain is Different!

Aside from general pleasure, learning and playing music benefits your mind in a number of ways.

Happy Birthday Claude Debussy


Born in 1862, Claude-Achille Debussy was one of the most important French composers ever to sit at a piano, but he also boasted a romantic history to make even the most salacious tabloid journalist salivate.

Aged just 18 Debussy began an eight-year affair with Blanche Vasnier, wife of a wealthy Parisian lawyer. After Blanche, Debussy lived ‘in sin’ with Garielle Dupont, a tailor’s daughter from Lisieux. He cheated on Gaby with Thérèse Roger (to whom he was briefly engaged) before leaving her for her friend, fashion model Rosalie Texier, whom he did eventually marry. Rosalie clearly had the looks but not the brain to interest Debussy long-term, and she was soon packed back to her father’s home when Debussy met the captivating Emma Bardac, the mother of one of his students and wife of a Parisian banker. It’s something of an understatement to say that Rosalie did not take the rejection well. She shot herself in the chest while standing in the middle of Paris’s Place de la Concorde. Amazingly she survived this violent suicide attempt, but the bullet stayed lodged in her spine until her death 28 years later.

Claude Debussy at the home of Ernest Chausson

This was one scandal too many for Debussy. He and the now pregnant Emma found themselves so unpopular that they were forced to flee to England, before eventually returning to France for the birth of their eponymous daughter Claude- Emma.

When Parisians first heard Debussy’s music they didn’t know what to make of it. It was different to anything they had heard before, but they liked it. His visionary Préludeàl’après-midi d’unfaune premiered in 1894 and even now when you listen to the music, every note is surprising. It sounds incredibly earthy and sensuous, yet deliciously light. Predictably the work was not without its critics, but it got a standing ovation at its premiere and it is still popular today.

Inspired by Stephane Mallarmé’s poem ‘Afternoon of a Faun’, the work tells of a faun trying to seduce two nymphs. The poem is full of the sounds of nature and has a sultry, hazy atmosphere, all of which can be heard in the music. The faun tries to seduce his nymphs with sound by making a flute, an incident from the poem which can clearly be heard in the work. Just as Mallarmé’s Faun inspired Debussy, Debussy’s Faun inspired a ballet by the world renowned Vaslav Nijinsky in 1912.



Though he rejected the term himself, Debussy is considered to be a central figure of the Impressionist movement by music historians.

When Debussy died in Paris in March 1918 after a long illness, Stravinsky honored his colleague with a musical tribute:

 “I was sincerely attached to him as a man, and I grieved not only at the loss of one whose great friendship had been marked with unfailing kindness towards myself and my work, but at the passing of an artist who, in spite of maturity and health already hopelessly undermined, had still been able to retain his creative powers to the full, and whose musical genius had been in no way impaired throughout the whole period of his activity.”

When the Parisian Revue Musicale published a memorial supplement to Debussy, Stravinsky submitted a chorale that would, a short while later, form the final section of his Symphonies of Wind Instruments, a single-movement piece for twenty-four woodwind and brass instruments dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy.






5 Surprisingly deep benefits of listening to classical music

VIOLINS

Even for a country or rock fan, classical music can reduce stress and boost creativity, among other things.

Many of the greatest classical composers attributed their masterpieces to their worship of God. Johann Sebastian Bach once said, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”

Classical music provides its listeners with a number of benefits, both physical and psychological.


1. It boosts brain power and creativity

Craig Ballantyne, editor of the self-improvement website Early to Rise, explains the “Mozart effect” as a mental result of listening to classical music, particularly Mozart’s. “In a controlled University of California study, students who listened to 10 minutes of Mozart before taking SATs had higher scores than students who didn’t,” explained Ballantyne. He also pointed to a study done by the University of Washington in which copyeditors who listened to classical music while editing caught 21 percent more errors than those who did not.

Author Cinda Yager raves about the psychological effect that classical music had on her. “Encouraged by the music, my imagination came out to play. It played through scenes in the novel I was working on, presenting solutions to problems, giving me ideas to flesh out characterizations, suggesting necessary edits I had not seen before. This was amazing to me.”


2. It deepens musical appreciation

The instrumentals contained in classical music are unlike those of any other genre in their ability to reach a person. Fittingly, Albert Einstein once said that Mozart’s music “was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.”


3. It has healing properties

If the sound of classical music results in water’s formation of elegant ice crystals, one has to wonder what it can do for our bodies, which are made up of 70 percent water. The man responsible for the study, Dr. Masaru Emoto, “sees energy as vibrations moving through matter.” These vibrations include the sound waves of music, which can affect us in various ways. Dr. Emoto refers to the vibrations as hado. He gives several examples of specific classical songs and their healing effects.


4. Acts as a stress reducer

PsychCentral reported that classical music “can have a beneficial effect on our physiological functions, slowing the pulse and heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and decreasing the levels of stress hormones.”


5. It aids in expressing one’s emotions


Southern Methodist University conducted a study in which 85 individuals were asked to verbally reflect upon their life’s most significant experience. The participants whose interview involved classical music playing in the background were found to be more expressive and detailed in their reports. This is because classical music is “cognitively and in turn emotionally arousing,” the report concluded.

Having trouble articulating your feelings? Try listening to some Mozart or Beethoven and see if it helps you express your deepest self.


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Lili Boulanger: the fragile, forgotten genius of classical music

Lili Boulanger was one of the most exciting composers of the early 20th century, until her tragically early death at the age of 24. 


 Lili Boulanger was a child prodigy 

Marie-Juliette Olga (Lili) Boulanger was born on 21 August 1893. When she was just two the great composer Gabriel Fauré – a friend of the family – spotted that she had perfect pitch. At the age of two she also contracted bronchial pneumonia. She survived, but the illness left her immune system weakened for the rest of her life. 

She came from musical – and royal – stock 

Her mother was a Russian princess who fell in love with, and eventually married, her Paris Conservatoire teacher Ernest Boulanger and both her grandparents (on the Boulanger side) had been musicians. Lili herself played (deep breath) piano, violin, cello, harp and organ. Oh and she sang. 

She was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome 


Photo: Lili with composers (L) Claude Delvincourt, Lili Boulanger, (R) Marc Delmas and Edouard Mignan.


The Prix de Rome was the most prestigious honour for artists. It was a prize, first awarded in the 17th century, that allowed the winner to live in Rome for three to five years, all expenses paid. In the 19th century it was awarded to a composer for the first time. In 1913 Lili Boulanger became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome… though the judges couldn’t quite bear to let her enjoy the honour on her own. So they also awarded first prize that year to Claude Delvincourt. 


She wrote her cantata Faust et Hélène in just 4 weeks



It’s the piece that gave the Prix de Rome judges no choice but to give her the award. The rules of the competition stated that the piece had to be written in four weeks. So that’s what the precocious 19-year-old Lili did. It’s 30 minutes long and is written for a full orchestra. It tells the story of Faust, the man seduced by the power offered by Mephistopheles. And the music Boulanger uses to tell the story sounds Wagnerian, with hints of Debussy. It’s no surprise it won the most prestigious prize of the day. 

She was famous for her use of harmony 

In her own time she was noted for her lush harmonies, instrumentation and elegant text setting. Try this eerie setting of Psalm 130, ‘Du fond de l’abime’ (also known as De Profundis, or in English ‘Out of the depths’) 




Her final work is a beautiful Pie Jesu 

Lili was 24 when she wrote this piece. She dictated the piece to her sister from her sick bed. The text asks Jesus to grant someone ‘everlasting rest’. She died shortly afterwards. 





Nadia found a new calling 



Her sister Nadia was so affected by Lili’s death that she stopped composing and turned her attention to teaching. She went on to become one of the most renowned teachers of the 20th century and taught composers including Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Thea Musgrave, Leonard Bernstein and Philip Glass. 

Here she is with Leonard Bernstein, composer of West Side Story and Candide. (Picture Getty) 

And Lili’s star lives on 

Lili may have only lived for 24 short years, but there are plenty who admire her music – including the jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, who calls her one of his favorite composers. This year marks the centenary death. Perhaps 2018 will be the year her genius gets the attention it truly deserves. 

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