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Composing Women (Part 2)

View all posts in this series.

Last Saturday, we introduced you to five women who have written some incredible— and underrated— music. (If you missed it, you can check it out here.)

It’s shameful that in 2014-15, women wrote only 1.8% of music performed by American orchestras, and even more shameful that they only accounted for 14% of performances of living composers.

So in honor of all the amazing women who marched for democracy last Saturday, here are five more composers you should know:

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847)

Fanny Mendelssohn took her first piano lessons from her mother, who herself studied with one of Bach’s students. She went on to receive a musical education almost identical to that of her younger brother Felix. Most people who met the pair considered them equals, but Fanny still spent her life fighting cultural prejudices against female artists.

Even Felix, though personally supportive, was hesitant about the idea of her becoming a professional composer. He “helped her out” by letting her publish some songs under his name. This led to an awkward moment in 1842 when Queen Victoria told him that her favorite song was his “Italien”, which had actually been written by Fanny.

We like to think the queen knew.

Fanny married Wilhelm Hensel, an artist who supported her musical aspirations. She eventually wrote over 450 pieces.

In the 1840s, she composed Das Jahr (The Year), a suite with one movement for each month. The original score featured illustrations by her husband.

Fanny Mendelssohn: Das Jahr, “Dezember”

Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)

In 1920, critic Henri Collet identified a group of Parisian composers who were rebelling against the ideas of Wagner and Debussy. Under the influence of Jean Cocteau, Les Six would revolutionize the sound of French music.

One of them was a woman.

Tailleferre attended the Conservatoire de Paris with the other five composers— Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and Francis Poulenc. She soon became close friends with Maurice Ravel, as well.

She had a long and successful career, composing ballets, film scores, and concert works. A prolific composer, she had nearly 200 works in her catalog by the time she died in 1983.

Germaine Tailleferre: Concerto for Two Pianos, Chorus, Four Saxophones, and Orchestra

Thea Musgrave (b. 1928)

After studies with Nadia Boulanger and Aaron Copland, Scottish composer Thea Musgrave began a musical career exploring the intersection between drama and music. Her pieces frequently highlight spatial relationships between performers, such as when the soloist wanders throughout the orchestra in her Clarinet Concerto.

This fascination with the theatrical elements of music led to a natural interest in opera. Her stage works focus on the mythologization of heroic figures— mostly women and revolutionaries— such as Mary, Queen of Scots; Harriet Tubman; and Simón Bolívar.

Her reaction to being a woman composer? “Yes, I am a woman, and I am a composer. But rarely at the same time.”

Thea Musgrave: Helios (Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra)

Meredith Monk (b. 1942)

It’s wholly insufficient to call Meredith Monk a composer. She is an instrumentalist, vocalist, stage director, choreographer, and film director. Her works are innovative multi-media affairs which draw on dance and theater in addition to music.

Atlas, for instance, is a three-act opera based loosely on the adventures of Alexandra David-Néel, a Belgian-French opera singer who gave up her performing career to manage a Tunisian casino manager before spending her life traveling through India, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and China.

Meredith Monk: Atlas

Veronika Krausas (b. 1963)

Canadian composer Veronika Krausas is a longtime fixture on the Los Angeles new music scene. Her music demonstrates a fascination with storytelling and frequently involves innovative non-musical elements, such as in her piece Porcupine, which instructs a bass quintet to perform under a tent as the audience mills about the hall.

Veronica Krausas: Sillages