Historical Women In Classical Music

Avatar of Leila Yokoyama

Until recently, career opportunities for women around the world were limited. As in most other fields of study, women in classical music were not granted the same opportunities as the men of their time were, and many of their well-deserved credentials were not recorded. It was not that women could not play classical music; well-bred European ladies in the 19th century were expected to have some musical instruction, and many women were asked by choirs to sing soprano and alto parts. But the idea of women playing in public was seen as shocking, wild, and mostly unacceptable by all standards. Fortunately, we have a few “radicals” to thank for breaking down many of the restricting barriers put up by society. These women composers didn’t accept the ridiculous conclusions made by the general public, and they revolutionized the world of classical music so it could become what it is today.

Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) was born to a wealthy family in Paris. Her father, a harpsichord maker, taught her music, and at the age of five, she performed for the French king Louis XIV. The monarch saw her talent and accepted her into the royal court, where her musical education continued. Jacquet de la Guerre was apparently a very clever woman, and she continued to get funding from the King by slyly dedicating many of her pieces and performances to him. She was also well-respected by other French composers of the era, and she frequently held house concerts with her husband, organist Marin de La Guerre. In 1694, she made history by becoming the first woman in France to compose an opera, Céphale et Procris, and have it performed. Her legacy also includes a wonderful set of trio sonatas, many harpsichord compositions, new innovations on how to mix French and Italian styles, and two published books on singing. 

Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) was the elder sister of the famed composer Felix Mendelssohn. She was a prodigy at a young age, playing complex piano pieces and impressing family visitors. Mendelssohn and her brother were very close, and they often helped each other with their pieces. However, as with most women composers of the 19th century, many of her works were published under a different name, sometimes even her brother’s. Queen Victoria even took notice of one of these compositions, and Felix had to tell her that it was really his sister who had written such an extraordinary piece. Later in life, she did publish some of her compositions under her married name, “Fanny Hensel,” and though her music isn’t as well-known as her brother’s, due to a tragic tale of patriarchal beliefs, we can respectfully appreciate her wonderful compositions in the 21st century. 

Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was an English composer and women’s suffrage activist. She studied music at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany, where she met renowned composers, including A. Dvorak, P. Tchaikovsky, J. Brahms, E. Grieg, and fellow woman composer Clara Schumann. She wrote many pieces for strings, and she composed a well-received opera. In 1910, Smyth became a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union and devoted herself to the suffragette cause, writing music and songs for the movement. She was awarded a damehood in 1922 for her work, becoming the first woman to receive such an honor.

Without attaching their gender to the narrative, these composers are just three examples of musicians who shaped history. Whether they were aware of it or not, their musical legacy helped gain representation for female classical musicians all over the world.