|Barbara Strozzi, Ethel Smyth and Lori Laitman
For centuries composition was not considered an appropriate role for women and, even when they did composer, their works were not taken seriously. Fortunately, a rich legacy of works by women composers is available online. Here are a few of our favorites (and this list is by no means comprehensive!).
Barbara Strozzi was a gifted singer and composer in the 17th century. Encouraged by her father Giulio Strozzi, a noted librettist and dramatist in his own right, she wrote eight volumes of dramatic vocal music. Many of her songs were set to lyrics penned by her father. He music is marked by chromatic tensions, expressive lines and long virtuoso vocal runs.
Kirk Eichelberger sings Barbara Strozzi's L’eraclito amoroso:
Francesca Caccini was born into the Medici court and was a gifted composer, singer, lutenist, poet, and music teacher of the early Baroque era. She was also known by the nickname "La Cecchina," originally given to her by the Florentines. She was the daughter of composer Giulio Caccini. Her 1625 work comedy-ballet, La liberazione di Ruggiero, has been widely considered the first opera by a woman composer. She composed 32 songs, wrote music for the court, penned liturgical music and at least 16 stage works.
Francesca Caccini's La liberazione di Ruggiero:
The Hamburg born Fanny Mendelssohn is the sister of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, who was also an acclaimed pianist and composer in her own right. She is also the granddaughter of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. She showed prodigious musical ability as a child and began to write music, but was limited by prevailing attitudes of the time toward women.
She composed over 460 pieces of music, including her famous Piano Trio in D-minor, Opus 11 . A number of her songs were originally published under her brother's name in his Opus 8 and 9 collections.
She died in Berlin in 1847 of complications from a stroke suffered while rehearsing one of her brother's oratorios, The First Walpurgis Night. Her brother died less than six months later from the same complications.
Maarten Koningsberger sings Fanny Mendelssohn's Fichtenbaum und Palme and Traurige Wege::
Clara Schumann is the half of the composing team that included her husband Robert. She was not only a formidable talent as a composer, but a gifted pianist who premiered many of the works of Johannes Brahms. Her songs, not as well known as her works for piano, are among the treasures of her creative work and can take their place with the best of the German Lieder repertoire.
Robert Schumann had always urged her to compose songs, and he even undertook the necessary negotiations to get them published. Despite this, many of her songs have been erroneously attributed to Robert. All of Clara's songs published during her lifetime were written after her marriage to Robert and almost every song was intended as a Christmas or birthday gift for her husband. Her songs were performed by the leading male and female singers of the nineteenth century throughout the concert halls of Europe. In 1906, the her Ihr Bildnis and Liebst du um Schönheit.
Schumann was a unique phenomenon, honored and respected during her lifetime. Her triumphs as a musician may have compensated in part for the many personal tragedies she endured: the lengthy mental illness and death of her husband in 1856, the hospitalization of her incurably ill adult son Ludwig in 1870, and the deaths of three adult children: Julie in 1872, Felix in 1879, and Ferdinand in 1891.
Thomas Hampson sings five songs by Clara Schumann:
Ethel Smyth was an English composer and a member of the women's suffrage movement, whose father strongly objected to her becoming a composer. Her compositions include songs, works for piano, chamber music, orchestral and concertante works, choral works, and operas. In her mid-50s, she began to gradually lose her hearing and managed to complete only four more major works before deafness brought her composing career to an end.
Her opera The Wreckers is considered by some critics to be the most important English opera composed during the period between Purcell and Britten. Her operas Der Wald remains the only opera by a woman composer ever produced at New York's Metropolitan Opera.
In recognition of her work as a composer and writer, Smyth was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1922. Smyth had several passionate affairs in her life,, most of them with women. She died in 1944 at the age of 86.
Ethel Smyth's Mass in D:
Ruth Crawford Seeger was a modernist composer active primarily during the 1920s and 30s and an American folk music specialist from the late 1930s until her death. She was a prominent member of a group of American composers known as the "ultramoderns," and her music influenced later composers including Elliott Carter.
Her reputation as a composer chiefly rests on her New York compositions written between 1930 and 1933, which are concerned with dissonant counterpoint and American serial techniques. She was one of the first composers to extend serial processes to musical elements other than pitch, and to develop formal plans based on serial operations.
Judith Weir CBE is a British composer and Master of the Queen's Music. She studied with Sir John Tavener at the North London Collegiate School and subsequently with Robin Holloway at King's College. Her music often draws on sources from medieval history, as well as the traditional stories and music of her parents' homeland, Scotland. Although she has achieved international recognition for her orchestral and chamber works, Weir is best known for her operas and theatrical works.
She has written seven full length operas, many of which were commissioned by the English National Opera. Her operatic writing has been compared to Benjamin Britten.
George Mosley sings Judith Weir's Blackbirds and Thrushes:
Lori Laitman is an American composer of vocal music. She has composed over 250 songs, setting the words of classic and contemporary English-language poets, including the lost voices of poets who perished in the Holocaust.
Her opera, The Scarlet Letter, to a libretto by David Mason (based on the Nathanial Hawthorne classic), will receive its professional premiere at Opera Colorado in May 2016 starring Elizabeth Futral. The one-hour adaption for five voices and piano will premiere in March 2015 with the Young Artists of Opera Colorado. Her children's opera, "The Three Feathers," to a libretto by Dana Gioia (based on a Grimm's fairy tale), was commissioned by the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech and premiered on October 17, 2014.
The title song of her cycle "Men With Small Hands" refers to a small child gazing up at adults, whose heads appear to be disproportionately tiny. "Refrigerator, 1957" contains an unopened jar of maraschino cherries, brimming with fascination to someone weaned on bland food, and "A Small Tin Parrot Pin" uses internal rhyme and wordplay to smirking effect, coupled with Laitman's light, brisk vocal writing. But the final song might have been the funniest: "Snake Lake," in which the singer uses an overly sibilant "s" in every word that that has one.
Andrew Garland sings Snake Lake by Lori Laitman:
After centuries of being discouraged from composing, women composers are finally coming into their own. Finland's Kaija Saariaho, Russia's Sofia Gubaidulina and Korea's Unsuk Chin are all making a major mark on the opera scene. Meanwhile, on the concert stage the works of Clara Schumann and Barbara Strozzi are gaining in popularity, while women like Laitman, Rebecca Saunders, Tansy Davies and Liza Lim are making a distinct mark on the contemporary music scene.