Historical Women In Classical Music, Part II

My last column was focused on women composers born before the 20th century, so now I will be spotlighting more contemporary women musicians who directly led us to the 21st century. 

The past hundred years were a tipping point for women in classical music. In the United States, women were finally joining professional orchestras, becoming music instructors, and gaining recognition as soloists. In 1930, Edna Phillips became the first woman to ever play in a major American orchestra when she was hired by the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that women were widely accepted into major orchestras, and it was still difficult for them to be accepted into music schools and institutions. Clara Baur was the first woman to start a music conservatory, and she brought faculty from Europe and surrounding professional orchestras to teach her students. The 20th century saw the emergence of not only women composers, but teachers, players, performers, directors and conductors as well.

Florence Price was born into a mixed-race family in Arkansas in 1887. In 1910, she became the head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University, a historically Black school. Throughout the 1920s, she studied liberal arts, music, and language at a variety of colleges, and met many composers and conductors who supported her composing career. This led to her winning two Wanamaker Foundation Awards in 1932 for her piano sonata and Symphony No. 1 in e minor. In 1933, the symphony was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, making Price the first African American woman composer to have a piece performed by a major US symphony. Throughout her life, this remarkable woman composed pieces for the orchestra, chamber ensemble, violin, organ, and piano. Her work was largely forgotten after her death in 1953, but recent years have seen more of her masterpieces being rightfully performed.

Rebecca Clark (1886-1979) was a British composer and pioneer in viola repertoire. Her virtuosic viola playing led to her becoming one of the first women to join a previously all-male orchestra when she became a member of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra. From 1916 on, she toured the United States and wrote a widely acclaimed viola sonata as well as a piano trio. For the next few years, she made several recordings, performed on BBC, and joined a chamber ensemble. Clark was in the US at the time when World War II broke out, so she was unable to return to her homeland, Britain. She established residency in America and married celebrated pianist and music instructor James Friskin, but ceased to compose after marriage. Sadly, like many women composers, her 63 works for voice, 21 pieces for chamber ensembles, piano trio, and viola sonata faded from concert halls in her later life. However, the Rebecca Clark Society was founded in 2000 to revive her music. Since then, she has gained much recognition as one of history’s leading violists and composers.

Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) was a Black composer, pianist, activist, and song arranger. Her musical talent was apparent from when she was a toddler; she wrote her first composition, called “Marquette Street Blues,” at the age of five. She studied with Florence Price during her high school years, and at the young age of sixteen was accepted into Northwestern University. There, she earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in music. Collaborating with other writers, Bonds went on to write many pieces set to poems and spiritual sonnets. She also opened a school called the Allied Arts Academy, and she formed the Margaret Bonds Chamber Society, which consisted of Black musicians playing Black composers’ pieces. During this time, Bonds was also actively performing, and she made history as the first Black musician to solo with the Chicago Symphony, where she played as a pianist. Her compositions gained much attention, especially her vocal works, one of which won the Wanamaker Foundation Award. She also wrote many piano pieces, as she was a concert pianist herself. Bond’s legacy of activism, music, and arts continues to pave the way for more people of color to find opportunities in the world of classical music.

These three women were not just contributors to the great change classical music saw last century. They also led the way for more women to have equal rights in all fields of work with their resilience, hard work, and defiance of discriminatory standards.

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