Last year I started my quest for discovering more music by women composers. Why? Because I realised I had to think very hard before I could even think of any. I’m a female musician in 2021, so this should not have been so hard. But it was. Let’s do a little exercise.
Maybe you knew Amy Beach. You will probably have heard of Hildegard von Bingen. Lili Boulanger. But if your answer was “none”, that also makes sense. There are not many female names in the canon of Western Classical Music. Therefore, discovering or stumbling upon them, does not happen as frequently as it does with other names.
Why we don’t hear music by women composers
So the search for female composers is not the easiest, especially as we go further back in time. It is undoubtedly true we know of relatively few women composers at all. Especially when compared to the number of male counterparts. This is, of course, partly due to the fact that there simply were less women who had the means to compose at all. Those who managed to still compose, despite the restrictions of their time and limited access to education, performance and a community of musicians, are therefore even more remarkable.
But too often these reasons are forgotten, to be replaced with ideas about an innate lack of talent, or the idea that women’s music sounds “too feminine” and therefore somehow has less value. Both ideas are of course ridiculous – listen to any music by pretty much any male romantic composer and get back to me about sounding “feminine”, whatever that may mean. And don’t even get me started on talent.
Yes, similar barriers have applied to men over the ages. No access to finances or exposure has been the downfall of many a great composer. But the continuous limitation of gender-norms cannot be underestimated. Even women who should by all other reasons have had a chance, often did not. (Getting married and having children is apparently more important than exploiting talents – I’m looking at you, Leopold Mozart! We probably could have had TWO geniuses instead of one!!!)
Why we should hear music by women composers
All the little musical threads contributed by both male and female composers make up the giant tapestry of the history of Western music. We simply don’t hear many works from those whose name we don’t already know, even if they deserve to be heard. Remember, we would probably not have known much of J.S. Bach’s music if it hadn’t been for Felix Mendelssohn’s appreciation and efforts! Evidently, being forgotten is not synonymous to having music unworthy of listening to.
Thankfully, musicologists and historians are publishing more and more information on forgotten composers every day. For most composers that I wanted to include, there were available recordings. The information and resources are there. Now on to discovering them for ourselves to listen to!
Finally, and this may seem like a redundant footnote, naturally not all women composers were also great composers. Some wrote mediocre works at best. But some wrote absolute masterpieces that have been forgotten in time. I don’t encourage programming women for the sake of having a woman on your list. As the Institute for Composer Diversity puts it:
There here have been many recent calls in the musical community to program diverse voices, not to simply “check a box” or avoid criticism, but to bring those voices to audiences and student bodies who might never have heard them otherwiseInstitute for composer diversity website
If my humble list can even be the first baby step towards your discovery of one of them, and maybe passing it on to your audience or friends, I consider that a mission accomplished.
Listen to the list on Spotify here, or use the code below the image. I am continuously updating it with new works, and I might have missed some seriously important ones that I will hopefully still discover for myself! I have recently mostly focussed on old music, and I am slowly moving closer to our day and age as I progress.
Finally, if you do not have Spotify, here’s a spreadsheet, but I don’t expect to be updating that as frequently as the Spotify one.
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