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Composing Women (Part 1)

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In 2014-15, female composers accounted for 1.8% of music performed by American orchestras. Even if you restrict the numbers to living composers, women only managed to claim a little over 14% of the program slots.

That's disgraceful.

In honor of the millions of proud women who are taking a stand throughout the world today, we'd like to introduce you to some fearless ladies whose music you should know. There are far too many to fit into a single post, but that’s a good thing. It'll give us the chance to celebrate a handful of new composers every few days.

Let's meet these amazing women!

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

Hildegard von Bingen has long been the unofficial patron saint of women composers, a position which became slightly less unofficial in 2012, when she was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI.

A mystic renowned for her visions, she entered a Benedictine monastery at a young age and was eventually elected to lead the nuns as magistra. Throughout her life, she was a woman who knew how to play the political system, constantly dismissing herself as an uneducated, weak woman to play to the egos of the men in authority over her.

69 of her compositions survive, all of which are settings of her poetry. She even wrote a kind of proto-opera in the form of a musical morality play called Play of the Virtues. Her soaring unaccompanied melodies pushed the limits of 12th-century music.

Hildegard von Bingen: “O frondens virga”

Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)

English composer Rebecca Clarke studied composition at the Royal College of Music with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who also taught Holst and Vaughan Williams. After college, she began a career as a professional violist, often performing her own works on recital programs. When her viola sonata tied for first place with a piece by Ernest Bloch in a composition contest, journalists and critics speculated that “Rebecca Clarke” must be a male composer’s pseudonym.

Everyone knew that women couldn’t write music like that.

Despite having composed nearly a hundred pieces, more than half of her works remain unpublished to this day.

Rebecca Clarke: Morpheus

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)

Grażyna Bacewicz studied violin, piano, and composition at the Warsaw Conservatory. Upon graduation, she became concertmaster of the Polish Radio Orchestra, which occasionally performed her music. Despite the danger and devastation, she remained in Warsaw throughout World War II, risking her life to organize secret chamber music concerts.

Bacewicz focused solely on composition after injuries from a 1954 car crash ended her violin career. Her music was honored with awards from the Polish Composers Union, UNESCO, and the Belgian government. In 2009, the Polish Post issued a stamp in her honor.

Much of Bacewicz’s music searches for ways in which to connect modern harmonies to traditional forms, but the 1960s saw her experiment with sonorism (prioritizing tone color and texture over melody). More than half of her works feature solo violin. Her catalog includes seven string quartets, five violin sonatas, seven violin concertos, four symphonies, and dozens of other works.

Grażyna Bacewicz: String Quartet No. 4

Joan Tower (b. 1938)

Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. Strike Zones. And...they’re off. Vast Antique Cube/Throbbing Still. Just the titles of Joan Tower’s works hint at this woman’s wit and energy. She credits a childhood in Bolivia for infusing her music with a unique rhythmic sensibility and her geologist father for the frequent titular mineral references (Black Topaz, White Granite, Platinum Spirals, Silver Ladders).

Tower has served as composer-in-residence for the St. Louis Symphony and Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and she was the first woman to win the Grawemeyer Award. Her music has frequently been described as a kind of modern impressionism, with titles that imply strong visual references.

Joan Tower said that Petroushskates was inspired by two ideas: the sound of Stravinsky’s Petrushka and the figure skating competition at the 1980 Olympics.

Joan Tower: Petroushskates

Julia Wolfe (b. 1958)

While Julia Wolfe’s music definitely belongs in the classical tradition, you wouldn’t always know that when you hear it. She has no hesitation about including folk, pop, and rock sounds in her works. In addition to her prolific composing, she was one of the founders of the renowned Bang on a Can music group, founded with composers David Lang and Michael Gordon.

Wolfe has shown a longtime commitment to telling the story of the American worker. Steel Hammer (2009) tells the story of John Henry as an allegory for the dehumanization of the worker in the face of industrialization. Anthracite Fields (2014), an hour-long oratorio which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, uses the history of Pennsylvania coal mining to explore the human impact of our hunger for energy. The second movement, “Breaker Boys”, gives voice to the children who sorted anthracite coal as the sharp pieces passed on fast-moving conveyer belts.

Julia Wolfe: Anthracite Fields, II. Breaker Boys

Stay tuned for our next post, when we’ll bring you five more music-making women!

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