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14 minutes reading time (2830 words)

Women of exceptional accomplishment: eight women composers


Editor's note: Nicholas Phillips wrote a companion piece recommending intermediate repertoire from these eight composers. You can find it here.

Recently I participated in a concert featuring works by women composers at the community college where I study piano. I am an amateur pianist but a historian by profession, and I was curious about the backgrounds of these long-neglected figures. So, along with preparing my musical selections, I also investigated the lives of the composers and the social and musical contexts in which they worked. Some of the composers I researched—Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Clara Wieck Schumann, Amy Beach—are practically household names. Others—Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Maria Szymanowska, Cécile Chaminade, Margaret Ruthven Lang—were successful in their own times but less prominent today. Still another—Clara Gottschalk Peterson—was obscure during her lifetime and remains almost completely unknown. All, however, deserve a place in both the performing and teaching repertoire.

Given the general lack of prominence of women composers, it is instructive to realize that while historically women were discouraged from pursuing music as a career, whether as performers or composers, that doesn't mean that they didn't make music. Quite the opposite, in fact. Example 1, a French fashion plate from 1835, shows two young ladies playing piano and singing in what looks like a domestic setting. It's likely to be after dinner, and they've been asked to provide the evening's entertainment. The singer is holding sheet music, not performing from memory, so they are probably sightreading (see Example 1).

This image perfectly encapsulates what music-making was like for women across most of modern western history. Change the clothing and the hair, and the scene depicted could be any time from the Renaissance until well into the twentieth century. During that time, learning to sing or play was among the expected "accomplishments" of a young lady, on a par with dancing, needlework, and drawing. Think of characters in novels by Charlotte Brontë or Jane Austen. But accomplished young ladies like the ones in the picture were expected to sing or play only at home, for family and their guests. To perform in public outside the domestic setting, and especially to be paid for it, was considered disreputable and even morally suspect. This dichotomy, between public and private, amateur and professional, home and concert hall, was central to the experience of many women composers. While they were constrained by these expectations, they also transcended them.

Women's musical educational opportunities were also mostly confined to the private domestic setting. Until recently, women were either excluded altogether from conservatories or tracked into a less-demanding curriculum that omitted topics like composition, counterpoint, and orchestration. So, while many women have been musicians, many fewer have been public performers and even fewer have been composers. Often, these exceptional women came from musical families, obtaining the advanced musical training they would otherwise have been denied from their fathers (like Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Clara Wieck Schumann) or alongside their brothers (like Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel or, perhaps, Clara Gottschalk Peterson). Some found mentors who were willing to teach them privately, like Maria Szymanowska or Margaret Ruthven Lang. Some were mostly self-taught, like Amy Beach.

Given the expectations for women's musical performance and the limitations of their training, most female composers composed small-scale works that could be performed in intimate settings rather than large-scale works (symphonies, concertos) more suitable for the concert hall. Notice that the names of the genres that women composers worked in ("salon pieces," "parlor pieces," even "chamber music") are all associated with the home.

One of the few acceptable professional outlets for women musicians was teaching—typically private teaching, done in the home of the student or teacher, as most academic or conservatory posts were closed to women. Some compositions by women composers were written for teaching purposes, like Chaminade's Album des Enfants1 or Amy Beach's Children's Carnival and Children's Album.2 Often the professional status of women composers was influenced by their family and marital situation. Fanny Mendelssohn was forbidden by her father to perform in public; her compositions were almost all unpublished during her lifetime and many of them remain so. Maria Szymanowska divorced her husband when he would not support her performing career. Amy Beach was allowed by her husband to give only two public performances per year, but when he died she maintained a full touring schedule. Widowhood sometimes created a need for a woman to "turn pro;" both Clara Schumann and Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre supported their families by their music after their husbands' early deaths.


Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)

Picture Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV: the splendid Hall of Mirrors, the magnificent gardens designed by Andre le Nôtre, the plays of Molière, the music of Jean-François Lully and Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. Wait a minute — who? Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre was well-known in her day but forgotten for centuries. Recently, she has begun to regain some of the recognition she deserves. Élisabeth Jacquet was born in Paris in 1665 into an extended family of musicians, instrument makers, and music engravers. She received her training from her father, a harpsichord maker, harpsichordist, and organist, so as to enter the family business. She was presented at the court of Versailles as a young girl and joined the household of Mme. Montespan, mistress of Louis XIV, playing the harpsichord and singing. She was especially admired for her skill at improvisation. Élisabeth Jacquet married an organist, Marin de la Guerre, in 1684 and returned to Paris where she continued her career as a harpsichordist and composer. Both her husband and their ten-year-old son died in 1704. Jacquet de la Guerre supported himself in her widowhood until her death in 1729 through her playing, teaching, and composing. 

Jacquet de la Guerre's first publication was a collection of harpsichord suites (Pièces de clavecin) published when she was twenty-one; she later published a second volume.3 Several of the movements in these suites, especially the minuets, sarabandes, and rigaudons, would be suitable to introduce intermediate and late-intermediate students to Baroque keyboard music. She also wrote sonatas for violin and viola da gamba, cantatas, and an opera, Céphale et Procris, the first French opera composed by a woman. Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance in recent years; many of her works have been reissued and recorded. Her rediscovery has enriched our appreciation of the French baroque.

Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831)

Let's play a game of "Who Am I?":

I was born in Poland and later moved to Paris. I am a virtuoso pianist and play my own compositions in my concerts. I am a Polish patriot and was the first to adapt Polish national dances such as the Polonaise and the Mazurka into solo piano works. I died young of an infectious disease. Who am I?

The correct answer is not Fréderic Chopin; it is Maria Szymanowska. She was born Marianna Agata Wolowska in Warsaw in 1789 (twenty-one years before Chopin) and moved to Paris in 1810 (the year of Chopin's birth in Poland). She made several concert tours of Europe, performing her own compositions as well as other virtuosic works of the day. Her husband, Józef Szymanowski, disapproved of her performing career, and they divorced. Szymanowska supported her three children by performing, composing, and teaching. She composed mostly songs and solo piano works, including genres that would later be associated with Chopin, such as Polonaises, Mazurkas, Nocturnes, Waltzes, and Preludes. She moved to St. Petersburg in 1828, where she was court pianist to the Tsarina and presided over a popular salon. She died there in 1831 during a cholera epidemic. 

 Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847)

Of all the composers considered here, the one whose work was most affected by the divide between the public role of men and the private sphere of women was Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. Born in Hamburg and raised in Berlin, she

as her brother Felix, four years younger. She was recognized by her family and teachers as a virtuoso pianist, and compositions flowed freely from her pen. Yet, while her brother was encouraged to perform professionally and to publish his compositions, both Fanny's father and her brother forbade her to do the same. Her husband Wilhelm Hensel actually urged her to publish, but she was reluctant to do so without Felix's approval. Her performances, of her own and others' compositions, took place in the semi-public space of the weekly musicales, or Sonntagskonzerte, that she held in her home. Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel's works include over 300 lieder (songs), choral works, chamber music, and many character pieces for piano. Both she and her brother wrote Lieder ohne Worte, or "Songs without Words"; today it is impossible to untangle who influenced whom. A few of her songs were published in collections of Felix's works, under his name, in 1827 and 1830. Only in 1846 did Fanny agree, against her brother's objections, to begin publishing in her own name. The publication project had barely begun when she died of a stroke in 1847 at the age of forty-one. Felix died six months later from the same cause, after having completed his final string quartet in her memory.received the same rigorous musical education 

 Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896)

Clara Wieck's father, Friedrich Wieck, was a well-known teacher of piano and composition. Unlike Fanny Mendelssohn's father, Wieck raised Clara to be a concert pianist. Robert Schumann came to study with him in 1830 when Clara was eleven. He proposed marriage to Clara in 1837 and they wed, over her father's opposition, in 1840. She wouldn't have known the phrase, but Clara Schumann had to cope as much as any twenty-first-century woman with the challenges of work-life balance. She and Robert were married for fourteen years; in that time she bore eight children (seven survived). She supported the family with her performing career both before and after Robert's death in 1856. Clara Schumann was among the first performers to do solo recitals and to perform from memory, which remains the standard recital format today. She gave her last public performance in 1891, dying in 1896.

Clara Schumann performed her husband's  compositions in her concerts; in fact, she premiered almost all his works for piano. But she was also a composer herself, although she was always ambivalent about her abilities. Her Opus 1 appeared in 1831 when she was only twelve; her final published work, Opus 23, in 1855. Most of her works, both published and unpublished, were for the piano; she also composed songs, choral works, and chamber music.

Clara Gottschalk Peterson (ca. 1837-1910)

When you think of musical brother and sisters, you probably come up with Wolfgang and Maria Anna (Nannerl) Mozart or Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn. A brother and sister you might not have heard of are Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) and Clara Gottschalk Peterson. In all three cases, the brother's career overshadowed the sister's. With the Gottschalks, the overshadowing was so thorough that Clara has yet to come into the light. Clara Gottschalk Peterson is best known, to the extent that she is known at all, for editing her brother's memoir, Notes from a Pianist, published in 1881.

The Gottschalk family lived in New Orleans. Eldest brother Louis Moreau became a virtuoso pianist who toured the world. His compositions employed American and Latin idioms and are now regarded as forerunners of ragtime and jazz. Clara Gottschalk Peterson was also a concert pianist and composer. Her works include a collection of folk songs, Creole Songs from New Orleans, and the "Staccato Polka," which first appeared in Etude magazine in 1909.4 Here's what the editors had to say about the "Staccato Polka":

This is a cleverly constructed polka caprice, by a talented sister of the celebrated American pianist. . . The whole piece demands considerable freedom and contrast. It will afford excellent practice in the staccato touch, and also in the singing style. . . . A good recital number, and valuable as a teaching piece.

Clara Gottschalk Peterson died in New Jersey in 1910. Her obituary in the  New York Times called her "a composer of more than ordinary ability."5 

Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)

If you were an American amateur pianist in the early twentieth century, you might have belonged to a Chaminade Club. The works of Cécile Chaminade, a French pianist and composer, were so popular in America, especially after her 1908 American tour, that over 200 groups formed to play her music to each other. Chaminade was born in Paris and learned piano first from her mother and then studied piano and theory privately with professors from the Paris Conservatoire. She wrote and published hundreds of works, mostly for voice or piano. Many of them, as the existence of the Chaminade Clubs suggests, were salon pieces. Her most popular work today is the Concertino for Flute and Orchestra. Cécile Chaminade died in obscurity in Monte Carlo in 1944, her works having gone out of fashion. But at least three Chaminade Clubs still exist, one in Yonkers, NY, one in Providence, RI, and one in Attleboro, MA. They continue the tradition of amateur musicians performing for each other.

Margaret Ruthven Lang (1867-1972)

Virginia Woolf famously wrote that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is  to write fiction."This statement holds true for women composers as well. Imagine what widowed Clara Schumann with her seven children might have produced had she had financial independence and time to herself in a quiet, uninterrupted space. This was true for New England composer Margaret Ruthven Lang. She came from a wealthy family and never had to work, despite remaining unmarried for all her 104 years, and she rented a room in a neighbor's house to use as a studio where she could compose without distraction. Lang's mother was an amateur singer, and her father was a prominent Boston music teacher, pianist, organist, and conductor; he conducted the world premiere of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in 1875. He was Lang's first music teacher and subsequently paid for her private instruction in piano, violin, and composition. Like many women composers, Lang composed mostly vocal and piano works.6 But she also holds the distinction of writing the first orchestral work by a woman to be performed by an American orchestra—in 1893, her "Dramatic Overture" was premiered by the Boston Symphony. Lang was dissatisfied with her compositions for orchestra, however, and she destroyed them; they are now lost. Her vocal works, by contrast, were published and frequently performed in the early twentieth century. Lang ceased composing at age fifty and fell into obscurity, although some of her works have recently been recorded.7

Amy Beach (1867-1944)

Amy Beach, born as Amy Marcy Cheney, performed and published as Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. These changing names reflect the changing life stages that influenced Amy Beach's career. She was born in 1867, the same year as Margaret Ruthven Lang. Amy Cheney was, like Lang, a New Englander. She was a child prodigy on the piano and began to compose at a young age. She began her piano studies with her mother and then graduated to private instruction. When she was in her teens, she performed concertos with orchestras and in solo recitals in Boston. In 1885, at age eighteen, she married the forty-three-year-old Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, and thereafter her concert programs and published works bore the name Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. Her husband allowed her to give only one or two public performances a year. Some sources suggest he did this to encourage her to focus on composition. Perhaps, but given that the proceeds from her yearly concerts went to charity, it is more likely that he disapproved of his wife being a professional musician who performed in public for money.

Whatever the motive, Mrs. H.H.A. Beach's compositional output in these years was prolific. She was the first American woman to write both a Mass and a symphony. Her other works include a violin sonata, a piano concerto, many works for solo piano, and hundreds of songs. After her husband died in 1910, Amy Beach resumed her performing career, including a tour of Europe, and continued to compose piano, vocal, chamber, and church music. Amy Beach was the most prominent American woman composer of her day and remains, along with Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, one of the "Big Three" of women's music.

Since several of these women were virtuoso pianists themselves, many of their compositions are beyond the reach of the average student pianist. Judicious selection, however, can make works by women composers accessible to students of intermediate level and above, continuing and enriching the tradition of amateur music-making in the home. 

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