9 Women Composers You Should Know, Part II

In the first part of this series, you were introduced to Hildegard von Bingen, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Clara Schumann. Their professional lives were challenged as composers simply because they were women. However, they followed their path and are earning their rightful place in history. If you missed the first part of this series, here is the link: 9 Women Composers You Should Know About, Part I

Below are three more composers you should know about.

Amy Beach

Amy Beach was a child prodigy who harmonised lullabies with her mother as an infant, composed waltzes at 4, and performed Beethoven sonatas by 7. Even more remarkable was her ability to analyse and compose without the aid of a musical instrument. Despite these gifts, Amy was not granted the opportunity to study music in Europe, at the time the place to receive extensive and elite training. This was a privilege her male counterparts enjoyed and therefore Amy resorted to other ways of training herself. She learned fugal composition by memorising most of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, writing fugues down and comparing them to the original scores. She also learned about tone colours by going to concerts and memorising the themes she heard with proper instrumentation. She then wrote them down and compared them to the original works. Eventually, Amy became the first American woman to publish a major symphonic work. Although her work met with positive reviews, the prevailing attitudes of the 19th Century offered her acceptance into the symphonic world – “as one of the boys”.

Like Fanny, Amy encountered the stigma of being an upper-class woman working in music. Her husband, Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, stopped her from being a piano tutor and limited her performances to two a year with proceeds donated to charities. However, he did encourage her to continue composing.

The general view held in Victorian society was that women were solely interpreters but too emotional for the science of writing music, to which Amy responded:

“From the year 1675 to the year 1885, women have composed 153 works, including 55 serious operas, 6 cantatas, 53 comic operas, 17 operettas, 6 sing-spiele, 4 ballets, 4 vaudevilles, 2 oratorios, one each of fares, pastorales, masques, ballads and buffas.”

“…more women are interested in the serious study of the science of music as well as the art than formerly.” – Amy Beach

(Amy Beach = “Gaelic Symphony”, ca. 1894)

Florence B. Price

Florence B. Price was the first black American woman to have a work performed by a major American symphonic orchestra. Her harmonies blended European tradition with Negro spirituals and black American folk tunes, a blend Czech composer Antonín Dvořák urged decades before for American musicians to embrace:

“The future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” – Antonín Dvořák

Florence excelled at piano (her mother taught her) and eventually auditioned at the New England Conservatory of Music. Adhering to her mother’s advice, she passed as someone of Mexican descent and won a spot. She also studied with renown composer, George Whitefield Chadwick, who encouraged her to take up composition. Florence started her career as a pianist and teacher, but was limited in her professional aspirations and denied acceptance into all-white music associations. She founded Little Rock Club of Musicians instead and taught in segregated black schools. Because of troubling race relations in Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence and her husband moved to Chicago. Eventually, her husband left Florence to support herself and her small children. However, she continued to enter composition contests and eventually won first place in the 1932 Wanamaker Prize, leading her “Symphony in E Minor” to be performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and earning her initial recognition.

Unfortunately, Florence B. Price’s work was overshadowed by the musical canon of WASP male composers; and while few gave her work a platform, she is slowly finding her rightful place in the symphonic repertoire.

“To begin with I have two handicaps – those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins…”

“…I would like to be judged on merit alone.” – Florence B. Price

(Florence B. Price = “Concerto in One Movement”, ca. 1934)

Germaine Tailleferre

Attitude is what Germaine Tailleferre was born with – and lots of talent. A talent that was nurtured by her amateur pianist mother but disdained by a father who thought to be a musician was equivalent to being a prostitute; in addition, a woman in those days was not meant to be a composer. By age 2 Germaine was showing signs of a child prodigy and by age 8 she was already composing short pieces. Germaine’s mother secretly arranged for her to audition at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris and was accepted. Two years later her father found out and enrolled her in a convent school. However, Germaine continued to defy her father, even after he discontinued to finance her education. Germaine then supported her studies by teaching and went back to the Conservatoire, winning multiple prizes. Impressed by her talents, quirky composer Erik Satie named her his “musical daughter”, while the poet and writer Jean Cocteau invited Germaine to his eclectic group of artists, comprised of five prominent French composers. This group would later become known as the famous “Les Six”, with Germaine being the only female member.

Germaine Tailleferre suffered some ups and downs in her personal life and her low self-esteem prevented her from receiving much-needed exposure. However, in recent years there has been an emerging interest in her work.

“… A woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” – Cecil Gray, music critic commenting on Tailleferre’s work, ca. 1927

(Germaine Tailleferre = “Fandango for 2 Pianos”, ca. 1920)

Spotify Playlist:

To learn more about these composers, please check out my Spotify list containing some of their works. Next time, stay tuned for three more women composers whose works and importance are being re-discovered.

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