Women Composers in Classical Music

The role of women composers in the evolution of classical music is often underappreciated. The reason is obvious: classical music spanned a period in history when women did not possess many rights and freedoms. During this time it was generally seen as unorthodox for a woman to compose. Though the Feminist Movement began as early as the mid-19th century, the first eight decades were dominated mostly by the activities of the Suffragettes, whose main goal was to promote feminine equity with regards to voting. Gender equality in employment, family care, arts, culture, and other areas of everyday life did not hit the scene until the 1940s and 1950s (second period). However, ideas surrounding this concept had already been circulating long before they became reality. While advocacy consisted mostly of writing and literature, its manifestation in other forms of expression is easy to disregard, probably because they are so much more difficult to understand. 

In this issue we shall explore the presence of Feminism in classical music. We shall look at the lives of two women who, aside from being dedicated mothers, were also incredibly gifted composers. Both lived and died before the second period of the Feminist Movement took place, but in their collective musical repertoire one can already feel the ripples of an intense struggle to be free. Together, they not only demonstrated the ability of women to voice their social opinions through music, but also played a direct role in advancing the style of classical music.


Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896) was a German musician and the wife of the man who usually comes to mind when one mentions her last name: Robert Schumann. From childhood she was dominated by powerful male figures in her life. Her father the music teacher Friedrich Wieck, seeing that she was a child prodigy, determined to train her into a mindless piano-playing machine. As a wife, she took the responsibility of caring for eight children. And even when pursuing a successful music career after her husband’s death in 1956, she fell constantly under the shadow of Robert’s talented student Johannes Brahms. It was perhaps due to all these intimidating forces that Clara possessed a submissive and simple personality, so much that she often failed to understand even her husband’s music. Her most famous quote was probably this: “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose – there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?” Such belief pervades throughout her music up to her final and most mature composition: Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano (1946). Here we hear an innocence that is almost childlike. Though the music is passionate at times, it never becomes too powerful. And what is most striking is that the style clearly resembles that of Robert, with its lyrical passages filled with an underlying angst, but without Robert’s complex contrapuntal and chromatic sounds. Despite all this critique however, the music is undoubtedly beautiful, and we must credit Clara for her courage to write this in the first place. Clara Schumann’s compositional career spanned only fourteen years, but whatever little she wrote continues to touch people’s hearts today and testifies to her creative genius.

Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Op. 17

1st Movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hz87GVnDY7s

2nd Movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcQIzwfQRuY

3rd Movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCsG_o-e9UY

4th Movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMSi329IHbc


While Clara Schumann was an epitome of the pre-Feminism woman, American musician Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was a different character altogether. Like Schumann, Beach too was a child prodigy and received intensive training in piano. With her marriage at the age of eighteen to a prominent physician, she was naturally obliged to limit her musical activities. But never did it seem to cross her mind that women were musically inferior to men. Throughout her life, Beach served in many music leadership positions and used her compositions to advance music and to showcase her abilities as a pianist. In her one and only Piano Concerto (1899), Beach combined the passionate lyricism of European Post-Romanticism with the blues and folk style of American music. The piece is clearly Feminist, from the opening to the end. Even as one listens to the introduction with the gloomy orchestra and the piano entering forcefully with head-bashing chords, one can only think: “Man, this girl’s intense…” In none of the passages does Beach attempt to copy her male colleagues such as Edward MacDowell and George Gershwin. The concerto is unique, containing sounds that had never been presented in the history of music, and rampages relentlessly to a triumphant conclusion. Beach herself performed the premier in 1900, and by doing so announced the coming of a new century where women, like men, would be recognized as leaders in musical composition.

Piano Concerto, Op. 45

1st Movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qS1om-GC1RY&list=PLBE0BAC550B6862D4


2nd Movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Xz6sNhGCIY&list=PLBE0BAC550B6862D4

3rd Movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9GVc5pXU_0&list=PLBE0BAC550B6862D4

4th Movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5Yqi3s6MuI&list=PLBE0BAC550B6862D4


Sometimes it is interesting to wonder how the history of classical music would had played out had women always possessed the freedom to compose. Would it still progress through the stylistic periods that we know today? Or would it sound completely different? It is unfortunate that throughout most of music history this entire side of humanity was excluded and absent. But we are comforted by the rare sounds of feminine classical music that we still have, brought to us by exceptional individuals such as Clara Schumann and Amy Beach who dared to deviate from societal norms in order to follow their artistic bent. Though the suppression of women’s rights limited their contributions to music, it did give rise to a unique musical style—the Feminist Style—which is a source of inspiration to both men and women alike.

2 thoughts on “Women Composers in Classical Music

  • Clara Schumann only lived in the 19th century. The date for Robert Schumann’s death and her compositions seems dubious!

  • You know, I remember making the same mistake for my RCM Level 5 History exam. Must had been a long day…

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