This playlist will take you on a whirlwind tour of chamber music by women, with appearances from a few of the brilliant composers who have contributed to the genre. We’ll start with some of the earliest chamber music by women, then travel toward the present day! Along the way, we’ll meet composers from many cultures and diverse heritages, hailing from Italy, Venezuela, France, China, Germany, England, and the United States.
Isabella Leonarda: Sonata duodecima for violin and continuo, Op. 16 no. 12
Composer Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) was abbess from Novara, Italy, where she led her convent’s dynamic musical life. Leonarda composed and published many collections of harmonically adventurous and expressive sacred vocal music. She was such an influential figure in her city that a contemporary described her as “La musa novarese” (The Novarese Muse). Leonarda has the distinction of being the first woman to publish instrumental sonatas: her Op. 16 collection of twelve sonatas was published in Bologna in 1683. These sonatas exemplify the same lyrical melodic language and expressive chromaticism found in her sacred vocal works.
Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre: Trio Sonata in B-flat Major
Composer and harpsichordist Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) spent her early years as a child prodigy in the court of Louis XIV. Subsequently, she established herself as one of the most important concert artists, composers, and teachers of music in late Baroque Paris. We have four trio sonatas by Jacquet de la Guerre. We don’t know exactly when she composed them, but we do know that Sébastian de Brossard copied them in 1695, perhaps for use in the music academy he directed in Strasburg.
Franziska Lebrun: Violin Sonata in B-flat Major for Violin and Piano, Op. 1 No. 1
Franziska Danzi Lebrun (1756-1791) was an operatic soprano from the talented Italian-German Danzi family: her brother was the cellist and composer Franz Danzi. Franziska Danzi launched her singing career in 1772, and soon joined the Mannheim Court Opera. In 1778, she married composer and Mannheim orchestra oboist Ludwig August Lebrun. The couple frequently appeared in concert together, performing arias for soprano with obbligato oboe. Both of their daughters would become professional musicians: Sophie Lebrun, a pianist, and Rosine Lebrun, an actress and singer. In 1779, the Lebruns traveled to London, where Franziska Lebrun sang at the King’s Theater, and where, in 1780, she composed and published two sets of violin sonatas.
Fanny Hensel: String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 277
This string quartet by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) is one of the first composed by a woman. She wrote the piece in 1834, and it received at least one performance in music salon Hensel hosted in her home. The work strays from strict classical forms and often leans more toward the improvisatory style of fantasia. Hensel’s brother, Felix Mendelssohn, criticized this tendency in the work, so different from his own preference for formal classicism. Discouraged by her brother’s reaction, Hensel never wrote another string quartet–but she also declined to change a note of the one she’d written.
Clara Schumann: Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 17
Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896) was an accomplished chamber musician–you can see an illustration of her collaborating with violinist Joseph Joachim at the top of this article. Clara Schumann composed her Piano Trio in 1846, a year of great stress for her. She and her family had recently relocated to Dresden, and her husband Robert became so ill that the burden of supporting him and their four children in an unfamiliar city fell mostly to Clara. She taught and concertized tirelessly, even performing a recital on July 27, a day after her diary hinted that she had suffered a miscarriage. The Trio’s sorrowful character may well reflect the challenges amid which it was written.
Teresa Carreño: String Quartet in B minor
Venezuelan pianist and composer Teresa Carreño (1853-1917) was one of the foremost touring virtuosos of her time. She began her career as a child prodigy (she played for Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1863), and in addition to building an international career as a pianist, this versatile artist was also an opera singer and impresario. Many of her compositions were virtuoso vehicles for her piano appearances, but later in her career, she also composed works for strings, including a Serenade, and this string quartet in 1896.
Lili Boulanger: Nocturne for Violin and Piano (1911)
In 1909, Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) decided to compete as a composer for the Prix de Rome, France’s most prestigious arts prize. Due to her chronic ill health (which would lead to her death at the age of 24), she studied composition privately, and later part-time at the Paris Conservatory. In the midst of her work on a cantata to qualify for the prize, she took two days off in September of 1911 to compose this Nocturne. The next year, she became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome with her cantata Faust et Hélène.
Nadia Boulanger: Three Pieces for Cello and Piano (1914)
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was devastated by the death of her beloved sister Lili in 1918. By the 1920s, she gave up composition altogether. Instead, she devoted her life to the promotion of Lili’s music, and became one of the twentieth century’s most influential teachers of composition. Nadia Boulanger was also a professional conductor and organist, and these Three Pieces originated as a set for organ. Boulanger arranged the set for cello and piano in 1914.
Rebecca Clarke: Morpheus (1918)
English violist and composer Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) wrote Morpheus in 1917. At the time, she was touring America with her colleague, cellist May Mulke. Morpheus, a single-movement work for viola and piano, was one of several chamber pieces by Clarke in their tour repertoire. Morpheus premiered in a recital Clarke and Mulke presented in New York’s Aeolian Hall in February of 1918. The recital actually included two works by Clarke: one listed Clarke as composer, but Morpheus was programmed under a male pseudonym, “Anthony Trent.” Apparently Clarke used the pseudonymn for Morpheus because she felt self-conscious about her name appearing multiple times on one concert program. She explained, with poignant diffidence, “I thought how silly to have my name on the programme yet again.” Of the program’s two works by Clarke, critics paid much more attention to the one attributed to the supposedly male “Mr. Trent.”
Florence Price: "Calvary" from Five Folksongs (1951)
Florence Price (1887-1953) composed this, her third work for string quartet, in 1951. Like her G Major quartet (1929) and her A minor quartet (1935), this piece marries midcentury classical neo-romanticism with elements of modernism and influences from African-American musical traditions. In Five Folksongs, Price looks further back than the Classical-era string quartet for inspiration: she delves into neo-Baroque style, treating each of five African-American folk songs in polyphonic settings. The result is a compelling blend of folk music and academic music, old world and new.
Undine Smith Moore: Afro-American Suite (1969)
American composer Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989) studied at Fisk University, the Julliard School and Columbia University. She served on the music faculty of Virginia State University from 1927-1972, where her accomplishments included co-founding the Black Music Center, an organization for the study and promotion of music by Black artists. Moore was a dedicated choral composer who produced both original choral works, like her oratorio Scenes from the Life of a Martyr, as well as eloquent choral arrangements of spirituals. Moore’s Afro-American Suite (1969) translates her choral technique into the medium of chamber music. Each of its four movements is based on spirituals, lyrically adapted to the idioms of violin, flute and piano.
Liu Zhuang: Wind through Pines (1999)
Chinese-American composer Liu Zhuang (1932-2011) enjoyed a distinguished academic career, teaching at the Shanghai Conservatory, the Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and Syracuse University. She composed symphonic works, songs, and chamber music in a style that paired classical modernism with the melodic contours and harmonies of traditional Chinese music.
In her program note for her chamber work Wind through Pines, Zhuang said: “Wind Through Pines, describing the tranquility of a night in which the wind blows through a pine forest, explores tone colors of traditional Chinese instruments through modern instruments. The title refers to ancient poetic rhythms in terms of style and form – a sonic exploration of the poetry of music. The piano is prepared to sound like a Ching, a unique ancient plucked instrument. The flute represents the Xiao, a low-pitched Chinese wind instrument. Utilizing overtones and harmonies, the cello serves as unfixed tone, both dotted and solid touch. The piece is free-form, but not formless, like Chinese calligraphy, or when reading a poem with some words exaggerated.”
Gabriela Lena Frank: “Chasqui” from Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout
Composer and pianist Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972) is a Grammy-winner and the Composer-in-Residence for the Philadelphia Orchestra. She finds musical inspiration in her own Latinx heritage and her studies of Latin American history and culture, as displayed in works like Leyendas (Legends), An Andean Walkabout (2001).
In her programme note, Frank explains, “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout for string quartet draws inspiration from the idea of mestizaje as envisioned by the Peruvian writer José María Arguedas, where cultures can coexist without the subjugation of one by the other. As such, this piece mixes elements from the western classical and Andean folk music traditions.”
Of the fourth movement, Frank says, “‘Chasqui’ depicts a legendary figure from the Inca period, the chasqui runner, who sprinted great distances to deliver messages between towns separated from one another by the Andean peaks. The chasqui needed to travel light. Hence, I take artistic license to imagine his choice of instruments to be the charango, a high-pitched cousin of the guitar, and the lightweight bamboo quena flute, both of which are featured in this movement.”
Sources for Further Reading
Beer, Anna R. Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. UK: Oneworld Publications, 2016.
Briscoe, John R., ed. New Historical Anthology of Music by Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
Curtis, Liane. “A Case of Identity: Rescuing Rebecca Clarke.” The Musical Times (May 1996). Made available through The Rebecca Clarkes Society, rebeccaclarke.org. Accessed March 4, 2021, rebeccaclarke.org/pdf/identity.pdf.
DeVries, Diane Lynn. The Pedagogical Significance of Nadia Boulanger on the Works of Female Students: An Analysis of Selected Compositions. Michigan State University. School of Music, 1998.
Porter, Cecilia Hopkins. Five Lives in Music: Women Performers, Composers, and Impresarios from the Baroque to the Present. Urbana: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Reich, Nancy B. Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman, Revised Edition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013.
Sadie, Julie Anne, and Rhian Samuel, eds. The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers. UK: W.W. Norton, 1994.
Todd, R. Larry. Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.