Classical Music

This Week’s Classical Music Moments In Women’s History

Our first installment about the classy ladies of classical music throughout history.

Each day on our Facebook page during Women’s History Month, Houston Public Media Arts and Culture is making a post about the important contributions of women to classical music throughout history. Once a week, we’ll share a “round-up” of these posts here on our website. Without further ado, here are our classical music moments in women’s history so far!

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Hildegard von Bingen
Hildegard von Bingen. Icon by Augustinian Father Richard G. Cannuli.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was many things, including a composer. Some say the nun was a visionary. She wrote Ordo Virtutum, a group of 69 compositions. Each piece of music is complete with its own poetic text. Among medieval composers, Hildegard’s is one of the biggest repertoires.

When she was freed from slavery in the Dominican Republic, Teodora Ginés (1530-1598) and her sister Micaela emigrated to Cuba. They joined the orchestra at the Cathedral of Santiago de Cuba. Teodora played the bandola, and Micaela was a violinist. The sisters also established a popular band. Though it is still up for debate, Teodora is usually credited with composing the first Cuban “Son”, Son de la Ma Teodora.

Francesca Caccini
Francesca Caccini.

Francesca Caccini (1587-1641ish), aka “La Cacchina” or the “song bird”, was a composer, teacher, singer, and lutenist during the Baroque era whose skills were highly sought after. She’s the first known woman to have written an opera. Caccini composed and performed at the Medici Court for years and after some time, became their highest paid musician. Though she was clearly prolific and well-known, very little of her music is still around and once she left the Medici Court, she disappeared from public record.

Also called Barbara Valle, Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) was a gifted singer and prolific composer. She published her first opus, dedicated to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, in 1644. While historical accounts often state that she may have also been a courtesan, evidence shows that, in fact, she was probably just the target of jealous rumors.

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre
Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. Painting by François de Troy. Public domain.

A child prodigy who was taken into the court of Louis XIV as a musician at 15, Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729) was a harpsichordist, a singer, and a composer. She was a trailblazer in composing music for harpsichord, and was the first woman to compose an opera in France.

An Austrian composer of Hispanic heritage, Marianne Martinez (1744-1812) was the only woman known to have composed a symphony during the Classical Period. As a woman, she couldn’t be employed by a church or noble family as a composer (the way that most composers formally worked then), so she wrote for friends and social events.

Maria Theresia Paradis
Maria Theresia Paradis. Public domain.

By the time Maria Theresia Paradis (1759-1824) was 5 years old, she’d gone blind. She also became a performing singer and pianist in Vienna, later became a composer, and helped establish a school for the blind, and a music school for girls. Oh, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 in B flat major (K. 456) is rumored to have been written for her. Git. It. Girl!

Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) was a pianist, composer, professor, and author. By 15, her skills were so apparent that her parents sent her to study (privately) at the Paris Conservatory. Later, with her husband Aristide Farrenc, she performed throughout France. She was the only female professor at the Paris Conservatory in the 19th century; for the first decade, she was paid less than her male colleagues. But after the premiere of her Nonette with violinist Joseph Joachim was a success, she demanded and got equal pay.

Fanny Mendelssohn
Fanny Mendelssohn.

Like her brother Felix, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) received a musical education as a child. But when they got older, Felix was encouraged to make a career of it while Fanny was told by her father that, “Music should be an accomplishment, an adornment, and never a career for women.” Fanny and Felix were supportive of each other and Felix published some of Fanny’s pieces under his name. When Fanny got married, her husband was supportive of her musical career and she was finally able to publish her own work under her own name. She composed over 400 works in her lifetime.

Clara Schumann
Clara Schumann around 1850. Photo by Franz Seraph Hanfstaengl. Public domain.

Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was a composer, a multi-instrumentalist, a teacher, and a performing artist. Clara’s father decided that he would raise a great musician before she was even born. And that he did: Clara was concertizing by age 12, and – though uncommon for women at the time – continued to do so. She married Robert Schumann (much to her father’s chagrin). They both taught at the Conservatory in Leipzig. Clara became a known as an interpreter of Robert’s work. She also raised their 8 children when Robert was institutionalized for mental illness and then passed away. Clara’s own compositions remained unknown until the later 20th century and many are still unpublished.

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