History is notorious for recognizing male achievements throughout the ages, leaving countless women and their invaluable contributions unrecognized. This is especially true in music, as many female composers’ careers were stifled by their male counterparts, who held more prominence and weight in society. However, their work has not remained unknown, with many notable female composers’ work coming to light and gaining recognition in modern times.
Here are several female composers whose work you must become familiar with:
Born into a noble family in 1098, von Bingen showed special potential at a very early age. At the age of three, she began having visions of both herself and other people, whom she referred to as “living sparks” of God’s love. These visions not only led her to becoming a Benedictine nun at the Monastery of Saint Disibodenberg, but an author, artist, poet, and composer as well. However, her 70-plus musical creations are often overlooked in favor of her theatrical works, which include Ordo Virtutum, the oldest surviving morality play. In 2012, von Bingen was canonized and named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI.
Jacquet de la Guerre was born into an artisan family in 1665, with many of her family members holding careers in musical performance or instrument building. Although the era was not exactly conducive to promoting women’s careers — especially in music — Jacquet de la Guerre held such great natural talent that even her male counterparts did not shy away from admitting it. This talent not only gained her recognition, but the honor of being mentored by King Louis XIV’s mistress, Madame de Montespan. Jacquet de la Guerre’s later work includes countless compositions for the harpsichord, as well as a published opera, Céphale et Procris.
Born in 1805, Fanny was the eldest sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn. Although she is often overlooked in favor of her younger brother’s work, Fanny was just as musically talented and received the privilege of being mentored by the same music teacher. Throughout her life, Fanny composed over 500 musical pieces, including 120 pieces for the piano, multiple lieder (art songs), chamber music, cantatas, and oratorios. Six of her songs were even published under Felix’s name in his two sets of Twelve Songs. Her death in 1847 ultimately contributed to Felix’s demise just months later, as the two were incredibly close.
Similar to many artists of the past and present, Smyth was known for intertwining her music with her personal political affiliation. Born in London in 1858, Smyth showed exceptional musical talent. Throughout her life, she composed symphonies, comical operas, and choral works. Little did Smyth know that she would grow into a composer whose work would serve as the backdrop of the renowned Women’s Suffrage Movement. In 1911, she composed The March of Women, which eventually became the battle cry of the British Women’s Movement. In 1912, Smyth and her cohort Emmeline Pankhurst were arrested for throwing stones at the houses of suffrage opponents. Although Smyth eventually gave up her musical career due to hearing loss, she remains a highly regarded composer and political voice of the 20th century.