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5 Female Phenoms of Classical Music

PUBLISHED: November 9, 2012

Classical Music

Editor’s note: Today’s post by orchestral conductor Michael Wheatley is part of an online companion to our Fall 2012 issue on The Female Conscience. Click here to review all blog entries related to our fall issue.


The history of Western classical music is replete with tales of female composers and performers whose accomplishments and contributions have gone largely unsung.

We will never know, for example, if Mozart’s sister Maria Anna had the genius and potential of her younger brother. What we do know is that, as children, the siblings traveled and performed together extensively with Maria Anna receiving top billing. Additionally, her early compositions were praised in letters from their father, Leopold Mozart. Sadly, none of these compositions have survived, and she was urged to abandon her musical pursuits when she was old enough to marry. This story was to be echoed half a century later in the case of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, both of whom showed prodigious musical talent at a very early age.

However, for all of the lost potential of the last few centuries, some women overcame social norms to make lasting impacts on the course of music history. Here are five you should know about.

Saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
Also called Sybil of the Rhine, hers is quite literally among the very first names one would come across at the beginning of Western classical music history. Born in what is now Germany, she was from birth destined for a life in the church and was sent off at age 8 to begin an education near the monastery at Disibodenberg. Taking her vows, she became a Benedictine nun at the age of fifteen and was eventually elected by her fellow nuns to be the abbess of her order. She would go on to become a polymath, a Christian mystic, and a prolific writer of words and music (her first of three books detailing her earliest religious visions is over 150,000 words in length).

Saint Hildegard’s music is mostly in the style of Gregorian Chant. It is generally monophonic (just a single sung line of music at a time), in which a harmonic language is merely implied by the music. When listening to music of this era, it is important to imagine the environment in which it was performed. These notes, recorded in a very early and limited notation system, which lacked specific pitches or rhythms, were performed in churches. The sounds would echo off the stone walls more than five centuries before there would be any orchestras or concert halls.

What makes Saint Hildegard’s music so unique and special in history is the soaring quality of her melodies, which were quite apart from other music of the era. Her musical lines and poetry are evocative of the visionary genius who composed them.

Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
Although a skilled composer herself, Clara Schumann found that the time-consuming duties of mother to eight children (four of which predeceased her), and wife to the mentally unstable personality that was Robert Schumann, prevented her from being as prolific a composer as she might otherwise have become. In his personal diary, Robert Schumann once wrote, ”Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.”

Clara was nonetheless considered to be among the most respected concert pianists in all of Western Europe, and most of her published work is for this instrument. After her husband’s early death in an asylum in 1856, she would become the closest lifelong friend, confidant, muse, and supporter of Johannes Brahms. It is impossible to know whether her relationship to Brahms was ever more than friendship, but the fact that they destroyed their letters to one another is certainly suggestive of the possibility.

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)
Born to musical parents (her father won the coveted Prix de Rome for composition in 1835), Juliette Nadia Boulanger studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire. At nineteen, she became the first woman ever to win the Prix de Rome. Also an orchestral conductor, her unparalleled teaching career began in 1919 and continued for the next 60 years. Over the course of her career she taught at the American School at Fontainebleau, the Royal Academy of Music, the Paris Conservatoire, the Peabody Conservatory, the Juilliard School, and many others.

Boulanger’s influence was felt by the leaders of every compositional movement of the 20th century, including the quintessentially American ballets of Aaron Copland, the tangos of Astor Piazzola, the atonal explorations of Elliott Carter, the operas of Gian Carlo Menotti, the minimalism of Philip Glass, the film scores of Wojciech Kilar and Quincy Jones, the popular music of Burt Bacharach, and countless more. Ned Rorem, a member of her inconceivably long list of students, called her “the most influential teacher since Socrates.”

Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)
Revered and referred to in her native country of Poland as “the first lady of Polish music,” Grazyna Bacewicz was among the most impactful composers of the Polish Renaissance of the mid-20th century, alongside the more celebrated names of Lutoslawski, Penderecki, and Gorecki. Among Nadia Boulanger’s students in the 1930s, Bacewicz became an accomplished concert violinist and composer. She held the post of concertmaster of the Polish Radio Orchestra from 1936-1938. Ever defiant during the Nazi occupation of World War II, she continued to give concerts at underground locations. Although a tragic car accident in 1954 ended her career as a violinist, she turned her career full-time toward composition and continued to publish works until her death in 1969. Her music, brimming with rhythm and energy, greatly influenced the more internationally recognized names above. She left behind a rich body of work including a dozen concertos, four symphonies, a stunning concert overture, and seven string quartets.

Jennifer Higdon (1962 -   )
An emerging celebrity in the contemporary classical music world, Higdon is a composer and teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. New works by her continue to be commissioned and performed by nearly every major orchestra in the United States and abroad. Her ethereal Blue Cathedral, written in the shadow of her brother’s death, has been performed by over 400 orchestras worldwide. Her Violin Concerto won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 and her Percussion Concerto won a Grammy that same year. This season, she is serving as the Creative Director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, where several of her works will be performed.

You can listen to works by all of these composers for free via this Spotify playlist.


About the Author: Michael Wheatley (@maestrodsch) is an orchestral conductor, violinist, and classical music educator based in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has lectured and led orchestral ensembles at colleges and universities across the Midwest, including Southern Illinois University - Carbondale, Northern Kentucky University, and the University of Cincinnati - College Conservatory of Music. He has led professional orchestras on three continents, most recently in England, Russia, and Ukraine.


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