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Composing Women (Part 3)

View all posts in this series.

The New York Philharmonic recently announced their 2017-18 season. Of the 41 composers performed next season, one will be a woman. In 2017, you’d think this would be cause for concern. Sadly, though, this means they feature more music by female composers than the national average.

Most symphony and opera audiences have never encountered a piece by a woman composer. They’re missing out, and here are five more composers to prove that:

Francesca Caccini (1587-ca. 1641)

Known as “La Cecchina” to her Florentine countrymen, Francesca Caccini was a widely-respected composer, poet, and musician in 17th-century Europe— King Henry IV once declared her to be the “best singer in all of France”.

Despite this esteem, only one complete work by Caccini survives. It’s an incredible piece. La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero From the Island of Alcina) is the oldest-known opera by a woman. It was composed less than 25 years after opera was invented and was possibly the first opera performed outside of Italy.

Francesca Caccini: Excerpts from La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina

Florence Price (1887-1953)

Born in Arkansas, Florence Price was educated at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she pretended to be Mexican in order to avoid the discrimination often faced by African-Americans. Like many people of her race, events in her life were frequently driven by the racial discrimination and violence common in America, and after living in Atlanta and Little Rock, she decided she and her family would be safer if they moved to Chicago.

Price became a fixture in the Chicago music scene, receiving encouragement and support from artists including soprano Marian Anderson and poet Langston Hughes. Her work was frequently performed by the Detroit’s WPA Symphony and the Chicago Women’s Symphony, and the Chicago Symphony premiered her Symphony No. 1 in 1933— the first time a piece by an African-American woman was performed by a major orchestra.

Florence Price: Symphony No. 1, Movement I.

Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931)

Were it not for Shostakovich’s support, we might never have heard of Sofia Gubaidulina. Her experimentation with alternate tuning systems was labeled “irresponsible” during her time at the Moscow Conservatory, but the older composer encouraged her to stand strong and continue to explore her interests. That early lesson stayed with her, and Gubaidulina has followed her own path despite having been blacklisted several times by the Soviet government.

Gubaidulina’s music has a deeply spiritual quality to it that betrays her devout Russian Orthodox faith. Frequently drawing on the religious and folk music traditions of her culture for inspiration, she has described her music as a means of reconnecting with God.

(That 1903 opera? It was Ethel Smyth's Der Wald, and we'll be getting to her in a future post.)

Sofia Gubaidulina: Offertorium

Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952)

In December, the Metropolitan Opera produced its first opera by a female composer since 1903, Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin (Love From Afar).

Helsinki-born Saariaho has long been admired for her expressive and innovative music. An early interest in electronic music gave her a sense of sonic imagination that results in works with a rich and colorful tonal palette.

Kaija Saariaho: Excerpts from L'Amour de loin

Mary Kouyoumdjian (b. 1983)

She’s been commissioned by organizations including the Kronos Quartet and Carnegie Hall, and her work ranges from traditional chamber music to complex multimedia collaborations. She’s a fixture in the New York new music scene, but we think Mary Kouyoumdjian’s music deserves a wider audience.

The daughter of Lebanese immigrants who fled that nation’s civil war, Mary’s music often draws on her desire to connect with her family’s culture and history. Her work proves her to be a gifted storyteller who knows how to infuse her work with dramatic intensity and emotional depth.

Mary Kouyoumdjian: Bombs of Beirut