The Women who Changed Classical Music

Detail shot of a female playing the violin
A historian claims Bach’s wife wrote some of his works. That’s up for debate, but these 10 female composers deserve recognition, Clemency Burton-Hill argues.

Scandal threatened to rock the classical music world recently when a music historian named Professor Martin Jarvis reasserted his explosive theory that some of JS Bach’s music was in fact written by his second wife, Anna Magdalena. Over the years, plenty of minor works by JS Bach have been reattributed to others, with little furore. So why is this causing such a stir? Not only are the pieces in question some of Bach’s greatest – including some of the Cello Suites and Well-Tempered Clavier – but the suggestion they might have been written by a woman rather than another man is raising the musical patriarchy’s collective hackles.

Ever since Hildegard von Bingen in the 12th Century, women – as in other art forms – have made a significant contribution to classical music which has often been overlooked. Whether Anna Magdalena was the ‘real’ Bach behind some of that glorious music or not, let’s hope Professor Jarvis’ arguments can inspire and empower classical-music-inclined females to slip out from their male counterparts’ shadows. Here are 10 female composers who should be recognised for their contributions to the classical canon:

1. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

The original multitasking female, Hildegard wrote over 70 musical works. Her Ordo Virtutum – which features melodies for the ‘human soul’ and 16 Virtues, but keeps the role of the devil quiet – is the oldest surviving morality play, a genre which went on to grip the imaginations of generations of leading male writers including Nicolas de la Chesnaye.

2. Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)

A pianist so talented that some of the leading musical lights of the day wanted to teach her – including the composers Moscheles and Hummel – her own compositions were also widely celebrated. Star performers such as virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim were eager to perform her works in public.8

3. Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)

Fanny composed almost 500 works, many of which are intimate little masterpieces, including her chamber music, piano works and gorgeous song settings.

4. Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

The piano-store owner, critic and musician Friedrich Wieck was enlightened enough to teach his young daughter Clara piano and composition. She wrote her first piano concerto at the age of 14, when most of her peers would have been being primed for marriage and childbearing. She went on to become one of the most distinguished performing artists of her day, with a career spanning more than six decades.

5. Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)

She was a prodigious talent, playing some of her music to Georges Bizet when she was just eight, and went onto produce piano music, songs, ballet music and impressive orchestral works – all of which have been largely ignored since.

6. Amy Beach (1867-1944)

Amy Beach was an accomplished pianist before her marriage forced her back inside the domestic realm.  After her husband’s death, she returned to the keyboard and toured Europe and America, playing her own compositions to huge acclaim. Her music includes a terrific Mass in E-flat major, a violin sonata, and the ‘Gaelic’ Symphony, which tapped into the rich contemporary heritage of Irish-American music.

7. Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)

She composed interesting music – including piano concertos, a harp concertino and some magnificent ballet music – throughout the 20th Century’s many shifts in style. She was still writing and playing the piano until the day she died at age 91.

8. Lili & Nadia Boulanger (1893-1918; 1887-1979)

At 19 she won the coveted Prix de Rome for her composition Faust et Hélène, becoming the first female composer ever to do so. She died tragically young, and the asteroid 1181 Lilith was named in her honour. Her older sister Nadia went on to teach many of the leading composers of the 20th century including Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Quincy Jones and Philip Glass, as well as conductors John Eliot Gardiner and Daniel Barenboim. The soundscape of contemporary music would be much the poorer without her genius.

9. Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)

An ardent feminist and tireless activist for women’s rights, her composition March of the Women became an anthem for the suffragettes. Smyth serves as a reminder that we have come far – but not far enough.

10. Judith Weir (1954-)

The title says it all: Master of the Queen’s Music.

Originally appeared on


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