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.