Nine women composers
IN the year when we are celebrating the centenary of the vote for women in the UK, we thought we would celebrate the achievements of women in many different fields – science, music, art, sport, literature, engineering, fashion, food … February marks the actual anniversary (the Representation of the People Act received the Royal Assent on 6th February 1918). In honour of Dame Ethel Smyth, the composer and prominent suffragette, we begin with music.
Hildegard of Bingen (pictured), 1098 to 1179 – For most of her 80-plus years Hildegard lived in an obscure hilltop monastery in the Rhineland. She was a writer, thinker and musician who left illuminated manuscripts, scholarly writings and songs that were written for the nuns to sing at their devotions. Her sublime, meditative music struck a chord in the 20th century with people seeking solace and inspiration in a violent, troubled world. A recording of Hildegard’s music, A Feather On The Breath Of God, by soprano Emma Kirkby and Gothic Voices, became a bestseller and introduced her music to an international audience.
Francesca Caccini, 1587 to 1640 – Francesca and her sister Settimia were introduced to the Florentine musical world by her father, opera and song composer Giulio Caccini. She probably sang in the 1600 production of L’Euridice, an opera that included contributions by her father, (most of the music was composed by Jacopo Peri). In the same year, she may also have sung in her father’s Il Rapimento di Cefalo. Francesca, who joined her father working at the Medici court in 1607. was a composer, singer, lutenist, poet, and music teacher. Her only surviving stage work, La Liberazione di Ruggiero, is believed to be the earliest opera by a woman composer.
Barbara Strozzi, 1619 to 1677 – The adopted daughter of the author and librettist Giulio Strozzi, whose texts were set by Monteverdi, Barbara Strozzi studied composition with the great opera composer Francesco Cavalli. She never appeared on stage at any of the Venetian theatres. Instead, her performances took place in her father’s private Accademia degli Unisoni. But her music was certainly known beyond this narrow circle – she published eight volumes of compositions, mainly chamber cantatas.
Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (pictured), 1665 to 1729 – Born into a family of artisan musicians and instrument builders, Jacquet was a composer, harpsichordist, organist and the first woman to compose an opera in France. She was a child musical prodigy and made her debut as a singer and harpsichordist at the court of Louis XIV. At about 15 she was taken into the court as a musician and placed under the care of the king’s mistress, Madame de Montespan. In 1684 she married Marin de la Guerre, a Parisian harpsichordist, organist, music teacher, and composer from a family of professional musicians. She published music for the harpsichord, when this was still rare in France even for male composers. Her tragic opera, Céphale et Procris, in the style of Jean-Baptiste Lully, is thought to have premiered at the Paris Opéra on 15th March 1694.
Ethel Smyth (pictured), 1858 to 1944 – Ethel was born in Marylebone, moving to Frimley in 1867 when her father, General John Hall Smyth, was promoted to the command of the Royal Artillery, Aldershot. Determined from an early age to devote her life to music, she overcame her father’s vehement opposition and went on to be a significant composer. She became interested in the Womens Social and Political Union (the suffragette movement) as a result of her friendship with the Pankhursts and decided to suspend most of her musical activities for two years to devote her energies to assisting and promoting the movement. In 1912, she was sentenced to two months in Holloway prison for smashing a window of an anti-suffrage politician’s office. Her uncompromising and energetic spirit made her a driving force in the women’s movement and her battle song, The March of the Women, was sung by suffragettes throughout London and elsewhere. When her fellow prisoners marched around the exercise compound singing the march, she conducted them with a toothbrush through the cell window! In the First World War, she trained as a radiographer and subsequently was attached to the XIIIth Division of the French army at a large military hospital in Vichy.
Lili Boulanger (pictured), 1893 to 1918 – Marie-Juliette Olga Boulanger was a French composer, the younger sister of the composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger. Lili, as she was known, was the first female winner of the Prix de Rome composition prize, for her work Faust Et Helene. Her work reflects aspects of Fauré and Claude Debussy and Arthur Honegger was influenced by her innovative work.
Elizabeth Maconchy, 1907 to 1994 – Described as “one of the most substantial composers these islands have yet produced” was born to Irish parents in Hertfordshire and grew up in rural Ireland, playing the piano and writing music from the age of six. She studied at the Royal College of Music with Vaughan Williams, who remained a lifelong friend; but she was attracted less by English pastoralism than by the central European modernism of Bartók and Janáček.
In the post-war era, Maconchy was in demand as a composer among leading professional ensembles, orchestras and soloists. She was President of the Society for the Promotion of New Music.
Judith Weir, born 1954 – As a schoolgirl Judith Weir was an oboe player with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and studied composition with John Tavener. At Cambridge University her composition teacher was Robin Holloway. Her operas include King Harald’s Saga, The Black Spider, A Night at the Chinese Opera, The Vanishing Bridegroom, Blond Eckbert and most recently Miss Fortune, which was premiered at Bregenz in 2011. As resident composer with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s, her works included Forest, Storm and We Are Shadows, which were premiered by the orchestra’s then music director, Simon Rattle. She has written concert works for singers, including Dawn Upshaw and Jessye Norman. She has had a long association with Spitalfields Music Festival; and in recent years has been a visiting professor at Princeton, Harvard and Cardiff universities. In 2014 she was appointed Master of The Queen’s Music in succession to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
Roxana Panufnik (pictured), born 1968 – Roxana, who trained at the Royal Academy of Music, is a prolific and popular composer, whose work includes opera, ballet, music theatre, choral works, chamber compositions and music for film and television. Among her best known works are Westminster Mass, commissioned for Westminster Cathedral Choir on the occasion of Cardinal Hume’s 75th birthday; The Music Programme, for Polish National Opera; settings for solo voices and orchestra of Vikram Seth’s Beastly Tales; a harp concerto Powers & Dominions; Leda, for English National Ballet; and an oratorio, Dance of Life, with a libretto in Latin and Estonian.