Arts Blog

María García’s Five “Must Hear” Women Composers

All Classical Portland is proud to announce that the station has extended pianist María García‘s residency! In honor of Women’s History Month, she is shining a spotlight on five incredible composers.

What is history? Who has been in charge of telling these stories, and how have those choices shaped us? Stories are not created in a vacuum, and many facets help create a complete narrative. Yet traditional books often paint a monochromatic portrait that focuses on a slim portion of the population. For example, throughout the history of Western music, women (and many other groups) have been underrepresented and seen as second-class citizens in a world where they did not create the rules.  

In celebration of Women’s History Month, I would like to share five “must listen to” women composers. All Classical Portland’s Artist Residency has given me an opportunity to bring focus to my art, and a top priority throughout my residency has been to highlight women composers, both living and deceased.

As I research women composers, I’ve often asked myself, “Is the past relevant to our present, and what is our responsibility to it as performers?” None of the books I studied at conservatory talked of women composers, especially those of the past. I have never composed a single piece of music, and my interest doesn’t lie in that realm, so my career as a performer has aligned more with the general role given to women throughout the ages – that of muse and recreator of mostly male art.

When we think of the most commonly known women composers, names such as Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Maria Anna Mozart come to mind. These women lived, to varying degrees, in the shadows of men. Clara was able to compose and tour as a performer, but after Robert’s death, she chose to dedicate herself to curating his music, performing, and teaching. Fanny Mendelssohn couldn’t publish her own works and instead had to publish under her brother’s name. And what of Maria Anna Mozart, who was said to be equally talented to her brother Wolfgang, yet no scores survive?

This month, I honor the tenacity and incredible talent of women whose shoulders we stand on by spotlighting a few women composers who have both been overlooked and are leading the way into the future. 

Emilie Mayer (1812-1883)

Emilie Luise Friderica Mayer was a German composer who began her serious compositional study relatively late in life, at age 28, after the death of her father. She composed eight symphonies, seven symphonic overtures, eight violin sonatas, twelve cello sonatas, seven string quartets, six piano trios, a piano concerto, and an opera, among other works. Mayer is believed to not only have been the first woman to write a romantic symphony but also the most prolific German woman composer of the Romantic era. Yet, only a few of her pieces have been published. Most remain in their original handwritten form, making it difficult for groups to play her music. In addition to composing, Mayer was also a gifted sculptor whose works are featured in collections around Europe.

Below is one of her beautiful compositions for piano, violin, viola, and cello – Piano Quartet in G Major:

Mana-Zucca (1885-1981)

The daughter of Polish immigrants, American musician Mana-Zucca (born Augusta “Gussie” Zuckermann) was a child prodigy who began composing at an early age. At just eight years old, she is said to have performed Beethoven’s first piano concerto with the New York Symphony Orchestra. While some aspects of her earlier life have yet to be verified, we can safely say that the young musician took the world by storm.

Mana-Zucca had three distinct but interconnected careers: one as a concert pianist of great renown, one as a singer who performed leading roles in musical comedy, and one as a prolific composer. Her published works total approximately 400, including music for piano, orchestra, and voice. In addition, she also composed music for young students. Her most famous work is “I Love Life,” written in 1923 with lyrics by her husband, Irwin Cassel.

Below is one of her evocative works for solo piano, Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 27:

Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994)

Dame Elizabeth Violet Maconchy LeFanu was an Irish-English composer considered one of the finest composers from Great Britain. While enrolled at the Royal Conservatory of Music, she studied with Vaughn Williams, among others. Maconchy’s early compositions clearly show the influence of European composers, especially Bartók. In addition to her writing, Maconchy did much to improve the conditions of composers. She was elected Chair of the Composers Guild of Great Britain in 1959, a position she held for several years, and she was also President of the Society for the Promotion of New Music.

Maconchy produced over 200 works. Her cycle of thirteen string quartets, composed between 1932 and 1983, is regarded as the peak of her musical achievements and most distinctly shows her musical individuality. Music historian Anna Beer has contended that the composer “…loved the quartet form because it represented a debate, a dialectic between four balanced, individual, impassioned voices.”

Below is one of her earlier works, String Quartet No. 3:

Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940)

Czech composer and conductor Vítězslava Kaprálová was born into a musical family. Her father was a composer, and her mother was a singer. She studied composition and conducting both at the Brno Conservatory and with Bohuslav Martinů in Prague. In 1946, in appreciation of her distinctive contribution to music, the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Arts awarded Kaprálová membership in memoriam. At the time, the honor had only been bestowed on 10 women out of the 648 members of the Academy.

Despite her untimely death at 25, Kaprálová created an impressive body of work. Kaprálová’s catalog includes art songs, works for solo piano, chamber music, and orchestral works. Much of her music was published during her lifetime and continues to be performed and recorded today.

My introduction to Kaprálová’s music came from this stunning performance of April Preludes, Op. 13 by my dear friend and powerhouse performer, Francine Kay, on her new album release, which is a must-listen item all on its own!

Johanny Navarro (b. 1992)

Puerto Rican composer Johanny Navarro is a rising dynamo. She has composed works for Boston Opera Collaborative, the American Harp Society, New World Symphony, Victory Players, and Coralia Vocal Ensemble. Navarro has an ample catalog of diverse work deeply rooted in Afro-Caribbean musical aesthetics, essentially in Puerto Rican musical culture. Moreover, her music has been presented in Cuba, Mexico, Spain, and France. Navarro’s opera, ¿Y los Pasteles? Ópera Jíbara en dos actos (And the cakes? Native Opera in two acts) was awarded the 2020 Discovery Grant from Opera Grants for Female Composers. She is currently a resident artist at the American Lyric Theater in New York.

Below is Navarro’s work for bassoon and tambourine, Plena Gritería para Fagot y Pandero. I hope to present in the near future, not playing the bassoon part but learning the hand drum part! Why not? It’s never too late to continue evolving and challenging myself as an artist. 

On Thursdays @ Three on March 30, 2023, I will be performing a solo recital of music by women composers. Some of the composers above will be a part of the concert program, so be sure to tune in to the broadcast!

This post on women composers was only possible with the incredible research efforts of Sandra Mogensen and Erica Stipes of Piano Music She Wrote. Their directory is a great place to start if you’re looking for a thorough catalog of works by women composers throughout the ages.

María García, All Classical Portland’s Artist in Residence

This post was edited by Rebecca Richardson, All Classical Portland’s Music Researcher & Digital Producer.

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