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Women Composers: A Selection of Women Composers

This research guide suggests resources that may be useful in researching the lives and works of women classical composers.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098 - 1179)

Hildegard of Bingen was a German abbess of a Benedictine convent, and was a writer, composer, scientist, philosopher, and polymath.  Her works consist mainly of sacred monophony, and include liturgical songs for female chorus, the mortality play Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), hymns, responsories, sequences, and antiphons.  Hildegard is notable for writing not only the music but also the text of her works:  most chants of the period took their texts from Scripture.

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Francesca Caccini (1587 - after 1641)

Francesca Caccini was a Baroque composer, singer, lute player, and music teacher.  She is generally considered to be one of the first female composers of opera.

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Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665 - 1729)

Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre was born into a prominent Parisian family of musicians and instrument makers.  Her family's position and her innate musical talent won her a place in the court of King Louis XIV, to whom she dedicated many of her compositions.  She wrote both instrumental and vocal works, was a pioneer in the composition of "dramatic music" like cantatas, and was well-known during her lifetime as a composer, teacher, and performer -- a rarity for a 16th-century woman.  (Picture credit:  Public domain.)

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Clara Schumann (1819 - 1896)

Clara Schumann was a distinguished concert pianist whose career spanned six decades -- quite the feat for a 19th-century woman.  She maintained her concert career after marrying composer Robert Schumann, and after his death as well.  She was a successful composer in her own right, a friend to Johannes Brahms, edited her husband's compositions, and taught piano in Frankfurt.

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Ethel Smyth (1858 - 1944)

Ethel Smyth was a 19th/20th-century English composer and suffragist who struggled to have her works accepted as other "mainstream" classical compositions were.  Many critics of the day noted that her music was too masculine to have been written by someone they termed "a lady composer."  However, King George V appointed her to be a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1922, the first "lady composer" to be so recognized. (Photo credit:  Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection)

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Amy Beach (1867 - 1944)

Amy Beach's biography includes a number of "firsts" for American women composers.  She was the first  to  publish a symphony of her own composition in the United States; she was the first to succeed as a composer without having been trained in Europe; and she was among the first to premiere large-scale compositions (i.e., for ensembles larger than chamber music) in the US.  She was one of the most respected composers and pianists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Germaine Tailleferre (1892 - 1983)

Germaine Tailleferre was the only woman to be a member of the French group of composers known as Les Six.  Her works, many of which were written during the early 20th century, include ballets, piano and harp concerti, and film scores.

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Florence Price (1887 - 1953)

Florence Price was an African-American composer, pianist, organist, and music teacher.  She is generally credited as the first female African-American classical composer, and the first to have her compositions performed by a major symphony orchestra.

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Nadia Boulanger (1887 - 1979)

Nadia Boulanger's influence in 20th-century music extends beyond her body of compositions.  She was a celebrated teacher of keyboard and composition, and her students included Philp Glass, Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, Astor Piazzolla, and John Eliot Gardiner, among many others.    She was also the first woman to conduct the BBC Symphony, the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelpha Orchestra, among others.

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Undine Smith Moore (1904 - 1989)

Known as the Dean of Black Women Composers, Undine Smith Moore trained as a classical pianist.  However, her preferred genre as a composer was vocal music.  She wrote many choral works based on African spirituals and folk music, and taught piano, organ, and music theory at Virginia State University for over 40 years.  (photo credit:  musicbyblackcomposers.org)

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Zenobia Powell Perry (1908 - 2004)

Zenobia Perry's passions extended beyond composing to include education and civil rights activism.  She taught music at several Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and was highly honored during her lifetime.  Her scores and music manuscripts are housed at the Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College, Chicago, and are described in this finding guide.

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20th Century Composers