Let’s get one thing out of the way first, in case there is any doubt: “Women Composers” is not a genre. Neither is “music by women,” as a category, written with any different level of skill or sensitivity than is “music by men.”
As music scholars and arts presenters alike have come to acknowledge, women and people of color have been scooted to the margins of classical music primarily by the cultural biases of the past.
“For a long time we have been playing a limited canon of works composed over maybe a span of approximately 300 years by mostly male composers, which, of course, had to do with the role of women in the historical context,” says Erina Yashima, assistant conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra.
In the Shadows
Even those women who did rise, relatively speaking, to the highest ranks of classical music remained relatively unnoticed. Fanny Mendelssohn’s extraordinary work was published—but under her brother Felix’s name. The French composer Cecile Chaminade wrote one of the seminal works of the solo flute repertoire and the fact that she’s a woman can easily go unnoticed.
“I think we know that she’s a woman composer, but...I have a feeling a lot of people don’t, and in a sense I think that’s OK,” says Mimi Stillman, a flute soloist, music scholar, and artistic and executive director of Dolce Suono Ensemble (whose recent Festival of International Women Composers featured Ethel Smyth, Florence Price and many others). “There are so many ways to appreciate music. Hopefully the performance we bring to the work will inspire the listener to find out more.”
And yet, women have been fundamental contributors to the culture of classical music in Europe and in the United States for centuries, not only as composers and performers but as presenters, teachers, and supporters and entrepreneurs.
Ethel Smyth was a prolific composer of operas, with more than one performed by the Met. Marian Bauer in the U.S. and Nadia Boulanger in France were composers in their own right who also taught Milton Babbitt, Aaron Copland, and many others.
Mary Louise Curtis Bok founded the Curtis Institute of Music in 1924. Eben Tourjée founded the New England Conservatory in 1867 expressly to support women and people of color, including Florence Price. Ada Clement and Lillian Hodghead founded the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1917.
These influential women have, in many ways, laid the groundwork for the exponential increase in the number of women in music today.
“I think we would strive to say we play music on the basis of it being great music, regardless of who or what the person looks like,” says Juliette Kang, first associate concertmaster of The Philadelphia Orchestra. “But in fact, representation does matter, and [there was a time when] women’s voices were heard but were pigeonholed or dismissed. I think of people like Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, who were known as the wife of, or the sister of, or a great “woman” composer. As we let go of our inborn prejudices or assumptions about people, then we can enjoy the work and creative spirit that people of any sort have."
Thankfully, as times change, so do the number and visibility of women in all areas of classical music.
“It is not by chance that most female composers whose works are being performed today are living composers,” Yashima says. “We live in a time of new awareness for unjustly underrepresented groups, and we in the classical music industry, in particular, have to think about how to keep our art form relevant in the 21st century.”
“The Clara Schumann, the Fanny Mendelssohn, the Florence Price… it’s all trickle-down inspiration from the ages,” says Jennifer Montone, principal horn of The Philadelphia Orchestra. “It is beautiful how, each time, kind of like a family tree, it grows, and their success is providing more and more artistry in performing and composing.”
Philadelphia’s own Andrea Clearfield is one composer who is part of this ever-expanding family tree, having both benefited from female mentors and supporting and advocating for diverse musicians with her salon series (now Zalons, as Covid-19 has moved events online).
“Personally, I didn’t know women could be composers. I was a pianist who also wrote things,” Clearfield says. “I was very fortunate to have met a woman who became my mentor, Margaret Garwood. I was grateful because she was revolutionary in her generation. Having a mentor like that paved the way for me, and now I think about how I can pay that forward and mentor other young composers.”
At WRTI, we strive to do our part to expand the diverse musical family tree, and we’re excited to share with you, and celebrate, the composers who have gifted us with some of the brightest gems of our catalog. Below are highlights from our ever-increasing playlist of composers who are women and who are being celebrated on WRTI during Women's History Month.
“One of the most astonishing woman composers for me is maybe Lili Boulanger,” says Yashima. “She suffered from poor health and died prematurely in 1918 at the age of 24, but the works she has written during her short life are incredibly mature and deep, very unique and ingenious in the instrumentation.”
“One of her last and most admirable works – she was already too weak to write the music down herself and had to dictate it to her sister Nadia. You just have to listen to this otherworldly piece to understand the importance of this composer.” - Erina Yashima
Of a Spring Morning
“It’s colorful, and vibrant and I think, really stunning!” - Jennifer Montone
“Farrenc’s Second Symphony, which The Philadelphia Orchestra recently played, is a fantastic work, worth being played and heard regularly in concert halls.” - Erina Yashima
Trio for flute, cello, and piano Op. 45 (1856)
Nonet in E-flat major, Op. 38
Gabriela Lena Frank
“Gabriela Lena Frank's music is lively, rhythmic, and exciting," says composer Jennifer Higdon. "Her musical language reflects her American and Peruvian roots (and her pianistic gift). I also find that it reflects her interest in mentoring through her Creative Academy of Music...there is a humanity present in both her compositions and in her everyday actions to assist others.”
“There are many works by women composers that The Philadelphia Orchestra has recently played that I absolutely loved – from Valerie Coleman’s Umoja and Seven O’Clock Shout, Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas to Florence Price’s orchestral works. All of them have their own distinct musical language and their unique ways of composing.” - Erina Yashima
“It is a particular thrill to remember that Jennifer Higdon is not only a wonderful composer but also a wonderful person but she’s also a woman who’s had opportunities and passed them along as well in her mentoring. It’s nice to be reminded of what hasn’t always been fair and how we can continue to make it more equitable.” - Juliette Kang
The Singing Rooms
“Jennifer Higdon is a longtime friend and I’m familiar with many of her works. This piece is for an unusual instrumentation of violin soloist, chorus, and orchestra. She does so many things well, and one of those, which she does so well in this piece, is that she’ll take a musical idea and keep it going, and growing, and it will go for a long time and then all of a sudden just explode into a dramatic climax that I find very moving.” - Andrea Clearfield
“It is really a stunning work. When I play it, I think of what a warm and generous spirit she is. And it has a nice concertmaster solo, so that’s always a plus. And it has a special timbre…. I hear her voice very strongly in that piece.” - Juliette Kang
Florence Price (1887-1953)
Symphony No. 1
Piano Concerto in One Movement
Price persevered through overt and covert marginalization throughout her career. In a letter about the submission of works for solo piano to publisher AMI, she wrote: "I don't think AMI can hide their changes, omissions, insertions and other assaults upon my manuscripts by saying the contract gives them the right to do so…. I am now convinced their purpose is not to promote my work as it was in the form in which they accepted it."
Her work has experienced a resurgence in the past few years, most recently in Philadelphia Orchestra performances of her Piano Concerto in One Movement with Michelle Cann—recently appointed chair of piano studies at the Curtis Institute of Music—as soloist.
“Chen Yi's music is a great combination of western and eastern art music. Her sound world reflects her native China, while also carrying the emotional heft of having emerged from the Cultural Revolution with determination to celebrate freedom and joy of making art. When you talk with her, she has great joy, but she is very serious about everything pertaining to music.” - Jennifer Higdon
“Chen Yi is a dear old friend. I don’t think I had met anyone who had lived through the Cultural Revolution, and I had no idea what it was, honestly…. She said that when she was in high school she had worked on a farm. I thought of bunnies and such. She said, “Yes! Forced labor - fun!’ She had such humor about what must have been a traumatic experience, and I hear her irrepressibly optimistic nature in her music.” - Juliette Kang
Romance of Hsiao and Ch'in
Higdon calls this piece “the perfect example of Chen Yi's musical language and the mixing of East and West.” Featuring patterns on a pentatonic scale, forms typical of Asian folk music, and orchestration for Western instruments that expands the color palette to incorporate the sounds of Eastern instruments, the piece is dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin (“a western artist,” Higdon notes) for his 80th birthday.
Meg Ryan is a Philadelphia writer, editor, and musician who has covered classical music for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and whose work has also been published by American Photo, Popular Photography, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and others.
Women’s History Month on WRTI is supported by Temple University, which celebrates the legacy of Agnes Berry Montier, class of 1912, and the first Black woman to earn a medical degree from Temple.