In honor of International Women’s Day yesterday, I’ve compiled a list of some awesome women composers throughout the Romantic Era and early 20th century:
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847)
The oldest of four children (including brother Felix Mendelssohn), German pianist and composer Fanny Mendelssohn was extremely gifted and known for her musical abilities as a child. She wrote over 460 pieces of music throughout her life, and most* who knew her supported her art.
*Many people at the time were not supportive of women composing (especially as a means of income), her father included.
For more information about Fanny, read here.
String Quartet in E flat major (1834)
While Fanny has a plethora of gorgeous music, I want to show you her String Quartet in E-flat Major:
This seemingly understated work packs in the emotion. The piece opens with several short musical ideas that are passed around the instruments like echoes, and the first movement is full of tension as a result of the changing harmonies and dramatic melody. The second movement is reminiscent of Baroque styling with its lilting and precise rhythms. The third movement is full of longing, while the final movement is bursting with energy.
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
Like Fanny, German pianist and composer Clara Schumann (neé Wiek) was also a child prodigy. Clara was known for her virtuosic piano playing from a young age, and her skills spanned a 61-year career as a concert pianist. She married fellow pianist and composer Robert Schumann in 1840, and together they spent their lives immersed in music.
Even though Clara was a renowned pianist and teacher, she was suppressed as a composer because of her gender. In fact, her own compositional output drastically decreased in the later years of her life. However, her works are becoming more well-known as studies on female composers increase.
For more information on Clara, read here.
Piano Trio No. 1 in G minor (1846)
This piece is one of Clara’s most famous works to date (the music starts at 1:38 in the video above). The first movement is full of drama; contrasts in mood and dynamics propel the themes forward. The second movement (13:37) is a direct opposite to the first with its snappy rhythms and cheerful warmth, and the third movement (19:16) is emotional and romantic. The fourth movement (24:55) utilizes counterpoint and triumphant harmonies to end the piece.
Amy Beach (1867-1944)
American composer Amy Beach was the first successful female American composer to write “large-scale” music (symphonies, concerti, etc.). She was by all accounts a child prodigy (surprise), and she spent her life composing, performing, and teaching.
Like the other composers in this article, though, Amy’s music was not created without some oppression. Her husband prevented her from teaching piano lessons and performing in public (except for two concerts a year, where the proceeds would go to charity), and he would not let her study composition with a tutor. However, she rose above the restrictions and went on to become one of America’s greatest composers. She also began teaching after her husband died.
Read more about her life here.
Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, Op. 45 (1898/99)
This work is absolutely stunning. It takes characteristics of late Romanticism and interjects them with a fresh musical perspective. In many ways it reminds me of Scriabin’s piano concerto with the flowing piano, the dramatic swells, and the soaring orchestral lines (the two pieces were composed around the same time). The first movement is a swirling conversation between the orchestra and the piano, where the two main themes are developed by both orchestra and piano throughout. The second movement (19:26) consists of a “piano accompaniment” set against an orchestral melody: the piano plays a lyrical and unbroken rhythm while various instruments interject with a song-like melody. The third movement (25:18) is dark and longing, and it moves straight into the bright and cheerful final movement (30:16).
Do you have any favorite women composers? Stay tuned for Part 2!