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HISTORIC FEMALE COMPOSERS


While doing some random search during the concert-free period of 2020, I came across a movie called Komponistinnen, which highlights the biographies of Fanny Hensel, Emilie Mayer, Mel Bonis and Lili Boulanger. I found their biographies very moving and I found their creative output - in spite of many obstacles in society - tremendously impressive. And it seemed that in most cases their oeuvre had been forgotten after their deaths. I, personally, couldn’t think of many orchestral compositions by historic female composers that I had heard - let alone performed. Thus, I began to explore the orchestral repertoire of historic female composers, aiming at a greater variety of music to introduce to orchestras and audiences.

I believe that it requires multiple excellent performances and recordings in order to establish a composition in the repertoire. As a conductor, I hope to be able to make a contribution to building a podium for compositions which unfairly aren’t performed any more.

Below, I introduce historic female composers and some of their compositions which I would like to integrate into my program suggestions. This is very much „work in progress“ and I am very keen on learning your thoughts about that topic. Have you heard a fantastic piece which is not listed below? Is there a historic female composer you particularly like? I would be very grateful if you shared your suggestions.



Amy Beach (1867-1944)

Although regarded as a Wunderkind, Amy Beach had to fight for her career as a pianist and composer, as at that time this was not considered socially acceptable. Her husband forbade her to appear as a soloist more than twice a year and even to teach piano. As a composer she was largely self-taught.

Amy Beach was barely 30 years old when her Gaelic Symphony was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was the first symphony composed by an American woman to gain public attention. The symphony is strongly influenced by Dvořák 9, featuring Irish, Scottish and Celtic folk music quotations - alongside quotations from her own songs. Critics were enthusiastic about the work. Like many other late 19th-century composers, Amy Beach was interested in folk music. She got exposed to melodies from the Balkan by a missionary.

Originally, the Variations on Balkan Themes were composed for piano. There is only a fragment of the orchestral version, which was completed by Hector Valdivia, based on Amy Beach’s orchestration of the Gaelic Symphony and her Piano Concerto. The extensive first movement of her Piano Concerto in c reminds me of Franz Liszt with its expansive piano cadenzas, whereas the light last movements seems to be inspired by Chopin. Dedicated to Venezuelean pianist and composer Teresa Carreño, this extensive 4-movement composition was intended as a way for Amy Beach to return to the concert platform after a long pause. Carreño accepted the dedication, however she never played the work and Beach had to advocate the piece herself. The piano concerto has autobiographical elements, quotations from earlier songs and the idea of conflict between the piano (Beach) and the orchestra (forces in her private life and society that made her career so difficult). That conflict can be experienced mostly in the expansive first movement. As Amy Beach put it, soloist and orchestra are „vying with each other“. The second movement „Perpetuum mobile“ and the tragic, dark third movements quote from her songs „Empress of Night“ and „Twilight“. Both had been written on texts by her husband. The Rondo Finale is fluid and agile, as if the soloist was finally emerging free and triumphant.


Program suggestions:

  • Dvorak Carnival Overture 9’ - Szymanowski Violin concerto 1 22’ - Beach Gaelic Symphony 42’
  • Carreño Serenade for Strings 20’ - Beach Piano Concerto 37’ - Samuel Barber Symphony 2 29’
  • Beach Variations on Balkan themes 20’ - Enescu Sinfonia Concertante 22’ (or Pejacevic Sinfonie Concertante 15’) - Bartok Concerto for Orchestra 40’

Mélanie (Mel) Bonis (1858-1937)

Mélanie Bonis

Mélanie Bonis was fascinated by legendary women. She orchestrated three of her character pieces for piano: Le songe de Cléopatre, Ophélie and Salomé.
As a woman, Bonis had to fight her entire life to pursue a professional life as a musician. She chose the artist name „Mel“ so that people would assume she was a man. When she wanted to marry a musician, her parents made her stop her studies at the conservatoire and married her to a wealthy industrial widower, 20 years her senior. Bonis had an illegal daughter with her beloved one, who she had to hide. 

From her „Suite orientale“, Mel Bonis only orchestrated the first two movements „Prelude“ and „Danse d’Almèes“ (Perhaps the third and longest movement „Ronde de nuit“ is still to be arranged for orchestra?). Mel Bonis put a lot of work into the „Suite en forme de Valses“, and she published it simultaneously in several different versions: an arrangement for a large symphony orchestra, one for piano “after the orchestral suite” and one for piano with four hands. The music, with its slight orientalist flavour, emanates an air of elegant nonchalance. The Ballabile has a very marked oriental dance character, Interlude et Valse lent has a melancholic introduction which is followed by a charming waltz. Scherzo-Valse combines two original and gracefully developed themes with lightness and elegance. It brings the suite to an end on a cheerful note.


Program suggestions:

  •  Bonis, "Suite orientale" 8’ - Liszt, Piano Concerto N°2, 21’ - Rimsky-Korsakow, "Shéhérazade", 45’

  •  Bonis, "Suite en forme de Valses", 12’ - Ravel, Piano Concerto in G, 22’ - Debussy, "La Mer" 27’ - Ravel, "La Valse", 12’

  • Bonis, "Trois femmes de légende", 14’ - Prokofiev, Violin Concerto N°2, 28’ - Shostakovich, Symphony N°1, 33’




Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)

Lili Boulanger

Lili Boulanger became famous by winning the prestigious „Prix de Rome“ in 1913. That prize had been awarded to Berlioz, Bizet, Debussy, and Lili’s father, Ernest Boulanger. Gabriel Fauré was fascinated by her talent when she was a little child.

Her entire short life was overshadowed by a severe illness. Her working periods were often interrupted and she had to dictate her latest works to her older sister Nadia, who wrote them down for her.

Nadia always supported Lili, as she considered Lili to be the greater talent. She called Lili’s compositions „utile“ and her own compositions „inutile“. After Lili had died of tuberculosis in 1918, Nadia promoted Lili’s music and conducted many of her works and became one of the most influential music teachers in the world. Among her students were Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and Astor Piazzolla. Nadia discontinued to compose by herself in her mid 30s.

Lili’s symphonic compositions were created between 1913 and 1918. „D’un Soir Triste“ and „D’un Matin de Printemps“ were the last compositions Lili was able to notate without the help of her sister Nadia. Both pieces form a dyptichon, perhaps displaying the two extreme facets of Lili’s personality. One is sad and fragile, culminating in desperate attempts to unsuccessfully battle the fatal illness, but then giving up. The other one is full of curiosity, wit, energy and sweetness.

A devoted Catholic, Lili composed music for the Psalms 24, 129 and 130. Written surrounded by the First World War, these psalms have been described as „3 prayers for piece“. The music is strong, harmonically daring, emphasizing mostly middle voices, brass and percussion.
Psalm 129 „Ils m’ont assez opprimé dès ma jeunesse“ has been seen as Lili’s most autobiographical statement. It can either be sung by a barytone or by a chorus (the tenors and basses singing in octaves, the female voices entering in the later part of the piece, with a vocalise which resembles music from beyond).

„Vielle Prière Bouddhique“ was premiered posthumously in 1921 and received enthusiastic critics pointing out the majestic architecture which resembles the „Temple of Angkor“ as well as the perfect balance between Western idiom and oriental flavor. The text of the prayer is about piece, redemption and tolerance. The prominent use of a solo flute recalls Debussy’s „Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune“ or Ravels „Daphnis et Chloe“.

By far the most epic of her Psalm compositions, Psalm 130 „Au fond de l’abîme“ was written with many interruptions between 1914 and 1917. Dedicated to her father, who passed away when she was six years old, this large scale composition can be seen as Lili’s most personal work, showing a great amount of compositional and spiritual maturity.

„Faust et Hélène“ is a cantata for mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone and orchestra, which Lili wrote aged 19 and with which the won the prestigious „Prix de Rome“. The libretto is by Eugène Adenis, based on Fausts encounter with Hélène in Faust II. The composition is dedicated to Nadia.

The piece is clearly written in the tradition of Liszt and Wagner. However, with emotional depth and compositorial finesse, she creates an intense operatic scene, which shines through lyrical beauty as well as through dramatic power and imagination.

Nadia Boulanger’s „Fantaisie Variée“ was premiered in 1912, when Nadia was already renowned as an organist and for her outstanding academic performance in harmony and counterpoint. The soloist for all performances was her mentor and lover, the famous Raoul Pugno, to whom Nadia dedicated the composition. The critics of the Paris premiere were enthusiastic, pointing out its free concept based on one theme only, its masterly development and picturesque vigor. Nadia’s music was considered to be „most promising“ and also „masculine“. The „Fantaisie variée“ is inspired by César Franck’s Symphonic Variations. The piece embraces impressionism, Wagnerian romantic and modernism.


Program suggestions:

  • Boulanger, Psalm 130 "Du fond de l’abîme", 25’ - Brahms, "Ein Deutsches Requiem", 75’

  • Boulanger, "D’un Soir Triste" 11’ and "D’un Matin de Printemps" 5’ - Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto, 28’ - Saint-Saens, Symphony N°1, 31’

  • Boulanger, "Vieille Prière Bouddhique" 8’ - Tailleferre, Piano Concerto, 17’ - Berlioz, Te Deum 50’

  • Boulanger, "Vielle Prière Bouddhique" 8’ - Milhaud, "La Création du Monde", 18’ - Ravel, "Daphnis et Chloe", 57’

  • Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms 21’ - Honegger Symphonie Liturgique 30’ - Boulanger,  Psalm 130 „Du fond de l’abime“ 25’

  • Fauré, "Pelléas et Mélisande" 20’ - Nadia Boulanger, Fantaisie variée (piano), 20’ Boulanger, "Faust et Hélène" 30’


Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)

Cécile Chaminade

Cécile Chaminade was a superstar. She had a great career as a pianist in France, later in England, where she played for Queen Victoria, and in the US. Postcards with her face were printed and one could find „Chaminade-Clubs“. Ambroise Thomas said she was not a young woman composing, but a composer. For Chaminade herself, gender was not a category in music.

As a child, she played for Bizet, who called her „my little Mozart“, later she studied privately with Debussy and Albéniz. Bizet suggested she should study at the Paris Conservatoire, but her father forbade it. More and more, her character-pieces that made her such a celebrity, wouldn’t suit the 20th century any more. Critics viewed her oeuvre as old-fashioned and „salon-music“. Chaminade gradually retired from public life.

Her ballet Callirhoë was played 200 times in 1888. The beautiful suite displays four characteristic dances. The beginning of the energetic Konzertstück op.40 may have been inspired by Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Throughout the composition, references to Liszt and Saint-Saens are audible, often featuring exotic harmonies. It’s a highly individual piece, which combines vigorous verve with lyrical melody.


C. Chaminade
 Callirhoe Suite N°1, Prélude 
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Moritz Gnann, conductor

Program suggestions:

  • Chaminade, Callirhoë Suite, 16’ - Unsuk Chin, Mannequin 20’ - Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker Act 2, 47’ (if a soloist is desired, Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto 22’ could replace Mannequin)

  • Dukas, L’Apprentice Sorcier 14’ - Chaminade, Konzertstück op. 40 15’ - Stravinsky, Firebird (complete) 47’
  • Fauré, Pelleas et Mélisande 19’ - Chaminade, Konzertstück op. 40, 15’- Franck. Symphony d minor. 40’

Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)

Louise Farrenc

Highly appreciated during her lifetime, both as a pianist and as a composer, Louise Farrenc was a very versatile and independent artist. Her teachers were Anton Reicha, Hummel and Moscheles. Schumann and Berlioz spoke highly of her compositions. She married the flutist and music publisher Aristide Farrenc, who later published some of her compositions. Farrenc was the first woman who got appointed professor at the the Paris Conservatoire, where she was one of the most respected teachers. In a time when orchestral music was not too fashionable in Paris, she composed three symphonies, two overtures and two concert variations for piano and orchestra.

Her Symphony No.3, I believe, has the potential of taking a place in the standard repertoire. The first movement begins with a brief melancholic introduction. Very soon the string instruments mark an agitated motive, which quickly leads to a dramatic Allegro - perhaps a homage to Beethoven. The most beautiful song-like „Adagio Cantabile“ is founded on a steady pulse, like a calm march. The turbulent „Scherzo Vivace“ may have been inspired by Mendelssohn. The Finale is oscillates between sadness and hope, until the music is completely torn apart in the development section (Mozart KV 550 comes to mind) and builds to a wild, desperate culmination. Certainly no „female“ music…Comte Gallenberg (1783-1839) was a composer who mainly wrote ballets. He was ballet director in Naples under Napoleon, later in Vienna. Written in a „style brillante“, Louise Farrencs Variations remind me a bit of Chopin.

Program suggestions:

  •  Schumann, Overture: Scherzo and Finale, 18’ - Farrenc, "Grandes Variations sur un thème de comte Gallenberg", 14’ - Brahms, Symphony N°2, 40’

  • Méhul, Overture: "Le jeune sage et le vieux fou", 7’ - Beethoven, Piano Concerto N°1 , 38’ - Farrenc, Symphony N°3, 34’

  • Farrenc, Overture in E-flat, 7’ - Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto 28’ - Berlioz, "Symphonie fantastique", 55’


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Viteszlava Kaprálová (1915-1940)

Viteszlava Kaprálová

Born in Brno, Kaprálová studied composition and conducting in Prague and conducted her own compositions. Bohuslav Martinů advised her to intensify her studies in Paris. There, she studied conducting with Charles Munch and took private conducting lessons with Martinů. Their artistic partnership led into a love affair. Besides Martinů, Kaprálová was particularly inspired by Bartók and Stravinsky. During the German siege of Tchechoslovakia, she stayed in Paris and married the writer Jiří Mucha in 1940. Very soon she fell ill with tuberculosis and passed away, aged only 25.

Káprálová had been impressed by Stravinsky’s „Pétrouchka“ from an early age. In the first movement of „Suita Rustica“, she uses stravinskyan folk music elements, which build a contrast to a dissonant and rhythmic environment. The second movement is reminiscent of Dvořák and Smetana, whereas the third movement is again dominated by rhythmic elements.

The „Partita for Piano and strings“ is a neoclassical piece, rather dissonant and influenced by Martinů. Perhaps the Partita is Kaprálová’s most modern composition.The charming suite for small orchestra, „Suite en miniature“, op. 1, came into being in autumn 1935, at the beginning of the composer’s composition studies with Vítězslav Novák at the master school of the Prague Conservatory. Its ideas are much older, however; the composition is based on the musical material of the composer’s piano suite from 1931, still rooted in Slavic romanticism combined with French impressionist elements.

Program suggestions:

  • Kaprálová, Suite en miniature, 9’ - Mozart, Flute Concerto in D, 20’ - Suk, "Asrael Symphony", 60’

  • Kaprálová, Suita Rustica, 15’ - Dvořák, Cello Concerto, 42’- Stravinsky, "Pétrouchka", 35’

  • Dvořák, Wind Serenade, 25’ - Kaprálová, Partita for piano and strings ,19’ - Brahms, Serenade N°2, 30’


Marianna von Martines (1744-1812)

Marianna Martines

Marianna von Martines was one of the most important female composers in Vienna during the Mozart-era. A protegé of Pietro Metastasio, she developed her profile as a pianist, singer and composer at a very early stage. The young Joseph Haydn was one of her teachers. Especially her cantatas and harpsichord concertos immediately caught my attention.


Program suggestions:

  • Martines, Overture in C , 11’ - Haydn, Symphony No.52 in c, 27’- Martines, Cembalo Concerto in E, 17’ - Haydn, Symphony N°102, 23’
  • Mozart, Symphony N°25, 23’ - Martines, "Berenice Ah che fai", 12’ - Martines, "Il Primo Amore“ 11’ - Mozart, Jupiter Symphony, 35’
  • Martines Overture in C 11’ - CPE Bach Oboe Concerto in E-flat 23’ - CPE Bach Symphony Wq 182 in b minor 11’ - Haydn Symphony No.101 „Clock“ 27’

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Emilie Mayer (1812-1883)

Emilie Mayer

Emilie Mayer was highly respected by the music world in her lifetime. However, on her death performances of her compositions ceased and her works remained unperformed for many years. An incredibly prolific composer, especially for orchestra, Emilie Mayer composed eight symphonies, numerous overtures and a piano concerto. Furthermore she left behind an extensive oeuvre of chamber music, Lieder and piano music.

Her prolificness as a symphonic composer inspired some to see her as a „female Beethoven“. Her Symphony No.1 in c-minor may still be influenced by her studies with Carl Loewe, yet it conveys a compelling dramatic narrative. Her Piano Concerto is of a classical lightness and elegance, reminiscent of the early Beethoven, whereas her Faust-Overture follows a more romantic idiom with its variety of expressive contrasts.


Program Suggestions:

  • Mayer, Symphony N°1, 35’ - Brahms, Violin Concerto N°4, 2’ (or Beethoven, Piano Concerto N°5 , 38’)
  • Carl Loewe, Overture in d-minor : "Das Märchen im Traum", 9’ (or Schubert, Rosamunde Overture 11’) Mayer, Piano Concerto, 30’ - Beethoven, Symphonie nº 3 "Eroica", 50’
  •  Mayer, Faust: Overture 12’ - Beethoven, Piano Concerto N°2, 31’ - Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra, 34’

Florence Price (1887-1953)

Florence Price

Florence Price’s „Symphony in e“ was the first composition by a black female composer to be performed by a major American orchestra. The premiere happened at the 1933 Chicago World Fair with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as part of a concert dedicated to „The Negro in Music“. However, after its premiere it was rarely performed. The symphony wasn’t published till 2008.

Price was a student at New England Conservatory, when her teacher George Chadwick introduced her to the style of Dvořák, whose main endeavor in America was to engage in „American music“. In Dvořák’s opinion, African-American and Native-American music should be key columns of an own national style of music.

The first movement of the Symphony in e is very much inspired by Dvořák 9. The second movement is to a large part built on a brass-hymn (perhaps imitating a spiritual), accompanied by drums. In the concise „Juba Dance“, that Price was particularly fond of, African drums slap rhythms as the strings play an upbeat melody. The Juba Dance was brought from West Africa to America by slaves, who were not allowed to play instruments and thus played body-percussion instead. In the short Finale, tarantella-like figures oscillate in pentatonic scales, which are also used in Jazz and Blues.

"Ethiopia's Shadow in America" is an orchestral composition that was written by Florence Price in 1932. It received honorable mention in the Rodman Wanamaker Music Contest the same year. According to Florence Price, the three linked movements are intended to portray:
I. Introduction and Allegretto: The Arrival of the Negro in America when first brought here as a slave.
II. Andante: His Resignation and Faith.
III. Allegro: His Adaptation, a fusion of his native and acquired impulses.

Program Suggestions:

  • Price, "Ethiopia’s Shadow in America", 14’ - B.A. Zimmermann, Trumpet Concerto "Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen" , 14’ - Dvorak, Symphony N°9, 44’ (or Copland, Symphony N°3, 42’,  Appalachian Spring (complete), 38’)
  • Prokofiev, American Overture, 7’ - Prokofiev, Piano Concerto N°3, 28’ - Price, Symphony N°1 38‘
  • Gershwin, An American in Paris, 19’ - Schönberg, 5 Orchesterstücke op.16, 16’ - Price, Symphony N°1, 38’
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Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)

Ethel Smyth

Dame Ethel Smyth was described to be a rebel, fighting for the suffragette movement in the UK. She studied in Leipzig, where she was part of a musical circle including Clara Schumann and Brahms and also met Tchaikovsky and Grieg. Her opera „Der Wald“ was the first opera by a female composer given at the Met for 100 years. „The Wreckers“ was her most successful opera, performed in Leipzig, Prague and in London (Thomas Beecham). Conductors who supported her music, were Thomas Beecham, Arthur Nikisch and Bruno Walter. The Concerto for violin, horn and piano was premiered in 1927 and still embraces a romantic style. It is very inventive and colorfully orchestrated. Due to a hearing loss, Smyth gave up composing in 1939.


Program suggestions:

  • Smyth, Overture: "The Wreckers", 10’ - Britten, "Les Illuminations", 23’ - Smyth, "On the Cliffs of Cornwall",  (Prelude to Act 2 of The Wreckers) 8’ - Mendelssohn, Symphonie nº 3 "Scottish", 38’

  • Mendelsohn, "Calm sea and prosperous voyage", 13’ - Smyth, Concerto for violin, horn and orchestra 26’ - Elgar, Variations on an Original Theme Op. 36 "Enigma Variations", 33’ - 

  • Smyth, Mass in D , 70’  This piece is considered to be her masterpiece. G.B.Shaw was a great admirer.

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Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)

Germaine Tailleferre
Germaine Tailleferre is known - to some - because she was the only woman of the composer’s group „Les Six“. She wrote a vast oeuvre of about 300 compositions. Ravel praised her secure musical instinct and complete craftsmanship. Her musical idiom is mostly neoclassical.

The ballet „Le Marchand d’oiseaux“ was premiered by Ballets Suédois in 1923 at Théâtre des Champs Elysées. It was performed more often than any avant-garde ballet, and it increased in popularity from its premiere in 1923 to the company’s disbanding in 1925. The numbers speak for themselves: Le marchand d’oiseaux was relatively more popular and more lucrative than ballets by Tailleferre’s mentor, Satie, and by her colleagues in Les Six.

The joyful and optimistic „Concertino pour harp et orchestre“ (1927) was dedicated to her first husband, the NYC based caricaturist Ralph Barton. A critic wrote „Tailleferre remains faithful to the subtle harmonies that bathe in a clearly debussyan orchestral light. We find there her slightly mocking mischievousness, her lively grace and also this modern illogicality, that makes her associate the most daring dissonances with the most classical wisdom.“

It is rumored that the night of the work’s premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky, Barton yelled at Tailleferre that he didn’t want to be seen as „Mr. Tailleferre“. The marriage didn’t last long, neither did her second one to the French lawyer Jean Lageat. Her Ballade pour piano et orchestre (1922) starts with an athmospheric introduction which reminds me of Ravel’s „Jeux d’eau“ before the piano takes on the melodic line and carries us into a light Valse in 5/4 meter, which soon develops into a lively 3/4 dance. The Coda leads us back to the calm tonal spheres of the introduction.

Program suggestions:

  • Tailleferre, "Le marchand d’oiseaux", 19’ - Haydn, Cello concerto in C, 25’ - Bartok, "Miraculous mandarin", complete 33’
  • Tailleferre, "Le Marchand d’Oiseaux", 19’ - Ravel, Piano concerto for the left hand, 19’ - Saint-Saens, Organ symphony, 38’
  • Milhaud, "Le Boeuf sur le toit", 18’ - Tailleferre, Concertino pour harpe et orchestre, 17’ - Rachmaninov, Symphony n°3 , 42’
  • Milhaud, "La création du monde", 18’ - Tailleferre, Ballade pour piano et orchestre 15’ - Holst, "The Planets ", 50’
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