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Women of Note: Composers for the Music History Canon

The term “struggling artist” gains new resonance when the artist in question is a female composer living before 1900. Obstacles created by church, court, educational institutions, and family greatly limited the chances of a woman’s success in the field of musical composition, yet many women persisted; in fact, one of the earliest composers we know by name is Kassia, a woman of ninth-century Greece. We are fortunate that despite both the conditions of their own times and the apparent oversights of historians, we know of hundreds of women who placed musical values above personal ease, and who left us some remarkably appealing and significant works of art.

 

The names of some women composers have in fact become familiar to connoisseurs of art music. The work of the twelfth-century nun and visionary Hildegard of Bingen has become prominent as part of the recent commercial interest in medieval chant; Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (sister of Felix Mendelssohn) and Clara Wieck Schumann (wife of Robert Schumann) have begun to draw attention for more than just their famous family connections. Indeed, the life stories of these women provide fascinating glimpses into social and cultural history, and their music reflects both passion and intellect. Among the many other women composers working before 1900, three more obscure individuals aptly represent both historically important musical styles and the diverse contexts of music by women composers. The inclusion of the work of Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, Marianne Martinez, and Louise Farrenc could greatly enrich the standard music history canon.

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Article by: Jean Kreiling

Bridgewater State College, jkreiling@bridgew.edu