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Classical Music

Classical Music Moments In Women’s History, Part 2

Our second 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’s our second round of classical music moments in women’s history so far!


Laura Netzel
Composer, pianist, and conductor Laura Netzel. Public domain.

Laura Netzel (1839–1927) was a Finnish-born Swedish composer, pianist and conductor. She published over 70 works under the pseudonym “Lago,” including choral pieces, chamber works and songs. Musically trained in Stockholm and Paris, Netzel made her debut at age 17, and her performance career lasted nearly 40 years. Netzel was also active in social causes. Her career as a composer was a way for her to fundraise and give financial support for hospitals, as well as efforts to aid homeless women and children.

Eloísa D’Herbil de Silva (1842–1943) was the first woman composer of tango. Born in Cádiz, Spain to a noble family, she was a child prodigy, nicknamed “Chopin with Skirts” by Franz Liszt, her childhood piano teacher. At age 18, she moved with her father to Cuba, where she studied with the great American pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Because her father sold meat to Brazil from Cuba, she periodically went to Argentina, where she heard her first tango. She was captivated by the music. She concertized in Europe and South America and eventually settled in Buenos Aires, when she married Federico de Silva, a successful businessman and music lover himself. She began to compose pieces for voice, recitation and piano, as well as tangos. She wrote over 100 works and lived to be 101 years old.

Edgar and Caroline Alice Elgar
Edgar and Caroline Alice Elgar, c. 1891. Public domain.

Though not a composer or professional musician, herself, Caroline Alice Roberts (1848–1920) was a strong influence behind the scenes in classical music. She was the wife of composer, Edward Elgar, whom she married long before he was famous. She endured her upper-class family’s disapproval to be with Elgar – he was a younger man, a struggling artist and a Catholic (her family was Anglican). Her faith in her husband’s talent was a great source of strength and support for Elgar. She devoted her life to nurturing his career, giving up her own artistic ambitions. She was also his business manager, social secretary, and even ruled his score paper. Acting like a PR agent, she did her best to gain her husband the attention of influential society. She inspired or encouraged some of his most beloved works (Salut d’Amour, Serenade for Strings, Enigma Variations). She was also a pianist and an accomplished writer, who had published a two-volume novel 4 years before she married.

French composer and pianist, Cécile Chaminade (1857–1944), was a musical child prodigy who received her first lessons from her pianist mother. Her father wouldn’t let her attend the Paris Conservatory, so she studied privately with some of its professors, including composer Benjamin Goddard. At age 18, she gave her first public concert, and from then on she performed as a pianist all over the world, often playing her own music. She toured France several times and was very popular in England. She was also a big hit in the United States when she made her American debut in 1908. Soon after, many “Chaminade Clubs” (musical performance clubs inspired by her) began sprouting up in the US. In 1913, she was the first woman to receive the Legion of Honor by the French government. A trailblazer, Chaminade was one of the relatively few women composers of her time to achieve popularity and financial success, writing nearly 400 compositions (including 125 songs and many piano pieces) almost all of which were published. 

Maud Powell
Violinist Maud Powell. Public domain.

In 1867, two pioneer American women in classical music were born: Maud Powell (1867–1920) and Amy Beach (1867–1944). Born in Peru, Illinois, Maud Powell was the first American violinist – man or woman – to achieve international acclaim. She trained at top conservatories in Europe, soloed with the Berlin and New York Philharmonic orchestras, and was even an early recording artist for the Victor Company. New Englander, Amy Beach, was a child prodigy-turned-concert pianist. After her marriage to Dr. Henry Beach, she scaled back her touring and performance schedule, and instead devoted herself to composing. With works like her “Gaelic Symphony” and “Piano Concerto” (both premiered by the Boston Symphony), she became the first American woman to find major success as a composer.

Ethel Leginska
Conductor Ethel Leginska. Photo courtesy of

Concert pianist, composer and conductor, Ethel Leginska (1886–1970), was a pioneer of women’s opportunities in classical music.  She became the first woman to conduct many of the world’s leading orchestras. She conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, as well as orchestras in Boston and Los Angeles. She founded the National Women’s Symphony Orchestra in New York in 1932, and served as director of the Chicago Women’s Symphony Orchestra. Born the same year as Ethel was fellow Englishwoman, Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979), a composer and violist, best known for her chamber music featuring the viola. She studied at the Royal College of Music, where she was one of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s first female composition students. As a violist, Rebecca became one of the first female professional orchestral musicians. Her compositional career was sparked when her Viola Sonata tied for first place (with a work by Ernest Bloch) in a competition in 1919. Although she wrote nearly 100 works, only 20 were published in her lifetime. The Rebecca Clarke Society was established in 2000 to honor her life and music.

Florence Price
Composer Florence Price. Photo courtesy of

Florence Price (1887–1953) was an award-winning pianist and composer, who became the first African American woman to have her work played by a major orchestra. Born in Arkansas, Florence was valedictorian of her high school and attended the New England Conservatory of Music. Eventually settling in Chicago, Florence became a single mother to two daughters after her divorce. To make ends meet, she worked as a silent film organist and composed jingles for radio ads. Her breakthrough came in 1932 when she won First Prize in the Wanamaker Competition for her “Symphony in e minor.” That work was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, sparking her national and international reputation as a composer. Florence went on to write more than 300 compositions in her lifetime, including concertos, art songs and chamber music. Her unique style often blended African American spirituals, jazz and blues with Romantic European compositional techniques. She was inducted in the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1940.