A woman ran for president of the United States this last election and, while she was not the first woman to do so, she is the first to be nominated by one of the two major political parties. There are so many instances like this where women are making strides in so many professional arenas we thought it would be fun to shed a little light on women composers.
So much time has been spent discussing Mozart and Wager, who are amazing composers, we thought it was time to take a glance at some women who created some beautiful symphonies, ballets, and operas.
1. Francesca Caccini
Born in 1587, our first female was of Italian heritage was employed as a composer by the Medici family, who ruled over Florence while it was the epicenter of the Renaissance, a period when art forms like ballet and opera where first created. It is not surprising that Caccini would turn to music for a career since her father, Giulio Caccini, a notable composer and singer who was an intricate force in forming a style of music called monody, which is a song by a soloist with a simple melody and embellished accompaniments. The elder Caccini was active in exposing his daughters, Francesca and Settimia, to the music scene in Florence.
Francesca looked elsewhere than Florence for composing work but didn’t have much luck so she worked with her father, which was her introduction to working for the Medici family. She worked as a singer to entertain he court and as an educator of singing and had students that spanned all social classes. While teaching she also composed music and the amount of music she created is unknown. Her only opera that still exists is La liberazione di Ruggiero, which is said to be the oldest woman composed opera.
2. Thea Musgrave
With choral works, dramatic concerti, chamber music and operas under her belt, this composer of Scottish decent began her adult education in music and medicine. By time she graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1950 she had chosen a life in music and spent time in France furthering her music education with Nadia Boulanger, a top educator of musical composition of her time.
Her first opera, performed in three acts, The Decision, premiered in 1967. The abstract plot surrounds a miner and the story is told primarily through musical styling. Other operas composed by Musgrave include Harriet, the Woman Called Moses, The Voice of Ariadne, Simón Bolívar. The ballets she composed include Beauty and the Beast and Orfeo
Yet she didn’t start composing operas and ballets right off the bat. After she finished with her education her first commissioned piece, Suite o’ Bairnsangs, premiered in Scotland in 1953. Other early works include chamber works and vocal creations with use of chromaticism and serialism. Later works include Narcissus, which features the flute with digital enhancement, Three Women-Queen, Slave, Mistress, featuring soprano vocals along with a full orchestra, and Phoenix Rising, played by a full orchestra.
3. Amy Beach
Beach is the first American born composer on our list today. In her day, she was considered the best female composer of the era. Her repertoire is massive and her musical stylings shocked audiences and her male peers who dominated the scene. Born in New Hampshire in 1867 to a wealthy family got her musical talent from her mother, who was also a musician and singer.
By the age of five Beach was composing symphonies and waltzes and she began her first lessons in piano the next year. She played Chopin, Beethoven, and other complicated composers by the age of seven and wowed audiences at recitals. After the Beach family moved to Bostin young Amy continued her formal education but preferred to be self-taught.
While spending time under the tutelage of Junius W. Hill, Beach especially enjoyed her education. This was when she was fourteen, studying theories like counterpoint and harmonies. Due to her rigorous schedule imposed by her musical training Beach was homeschooled by her mother for six years. It is said she enjoyed learning about science and learning German and French.
Besides composition Beach was a successful writer composing scripted works for newspapers, journals and other publications. Unfortunately, after her death in 1944, Beach was all but forgotten. Yet there has been a current interest into reviving her works.
4. Dorothy Quita Buchanan
Hailing from Christchurch, New Zealand, this female composer was born into a musical family of six girls. Buchanan studied music at the University of Canterbury and earned her B.A. in Music in 1967. From there she would earn a teaching degree from Christchurch Teachers’ College.
In 1976, the year after she earned her teaching degree, Buchanan became the initial composer-in-schools, and served in that position until 1993. She also held the titles of assessor with Creative New Zealand, president of the Composers’ Association of New Zealand, and started the Christchurch Music Workshops.
Buchanan is also a founding member of Nota Bene, a music publishing company, this cooperative has a library of compositions for educational use, and the New Zealand Film Archive’s “composer in residence” for nearly a decade. This female composer has lectured about composition at several universities, served as a mediator, musical advisor and director.
Awards presented to Buchanan include the Philip Neill Memorial Prize for her composition Fragments and Letters. The Composers Association of New Zealand gave her an outstanding achievement award and she won an award for outstanding musical leadership from the Vernon Griffiths Memorial. In 1993 the New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal was given to this female composer and she was also made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, which was awarded for her dedication to the advancement of musical composition in New Zealand.
Works composed by Buchanan include operas Clio Legacy, Woman at the Store, The Mansfield Stories, and The Ancient of Days. Besides operas Buchanan also created works for television, film, symphony, string quartets, school choirs, dance companies, and live theater productions.
5. Claude Arrieu
Parisian Arrieu was born in the City of Light in the early days of the 20th century and began her musical education when she was just a child. She was a fan of Mozart, Bach, and Stravinsky and drew her inventiveness from Ravel, Fauré, and Debussy. In the early 1920s Arrieu trained at the Conservatoire de Paris under prominent educators like Paul Dukas, Jean Roger-Ducasse, and Marguerite Long.
Yet, evolving her own musical signature was important to Arrieu. Her interest spanned several musical techniques and she implemented an array of programs when she was a member of the French Radio Broadcasting Program Service. Her work won the Prix Italia in 1949.
Some of her works include operas Noé, Le deux rendez-vous, La princesse de Babylone, Cadet Roussel, and Cymbeline. Cadet Roussel was her first attempt at a comedic opera or opéra bouffe. Besides operas, Arrieu also composed music for films like Les Gueux au paradis, Marchands de rien, Le Tombeur, and Julie Charles.
Arrieu also composed concertos, chamber music, and a plethora of instrumental works. It’s her works that involve vocals that are most notable. She enjoyed composing music around the poetry of artists like Jean Cocteau, Joachim du Bellay, Louis Aragon, and Stéphane Mallarmé.
And what about female conductors? Which ones do you know of, or have you seen in action?