Arts Blog

Women We Love to Play On Air: 2024 Edition

Every day on All Classical Radio, you’ll hear music composed and performed by women. In celebration of Women’s History Month, we are diving into the fascinating lives of ten women composers whose music we love to play on air all year round. We are shining a spotlight on historically overlooked figures in classical music and inspire our listeners to learn more about their lives and music.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847)

Recognized as a musical genius from a young age, German composer Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel received rigorous musical training in piano and counterpoint (along with her younger brother, Felix). When she was just 13, Hensel could play the entirety of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier from memory. Unfortunately, unlike her brother, Hensel’s family discouraged Fanny from pursuing a career in music, given her status as an upper-class young woman. Despite these challenges to her artistic pursuits, Hensel subtly rebelled against social expectations by continuing to compose throughout her adult life. Hensel also promoted a weekly concert series called the “Sunday Concerts,” which became one of Berlin’s most sought-after musical events. Defying objections from her family, Hensel finally published her works shortly before her sudden death at 41 years old. Together with compositions published posthumously and those still unpublished, Hensel’s oeuvre comprises nearly 500 pieces, including Lieder and works for piano and chamber ensemble.


Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

German composer and pianist Clara Schumann (born Wieck) enjoyed an unprecedented, lengthy career in music. As a child prodigy, Schumann grew up in a highly disciplined (some might even say tyrannical) household. She made her professional debut as a concert pianist at just 11 years old, and at 14, she premiered her Piano Concerto in a minor, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn. In 1840, Schumann married one of her father’s former music students, Robert Schumann, who himself was a composer and pianist. While she continued to compose until Robert died in 1856, Clara primarily supported her family as an internationally acclaimed concert pianist, all the while promoting her husband’s works. Her performing career went on for several decades while simultaneously caring for her eight children, advising emerging musicians of the day, and editing Robert’s works. An essential part of Schumann’s legacy is that she set new standards for piano performance, including playing concerts from memory.   


Cecile Chaminade

Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)

Parisian composer and pianist Cécile Chaminade displayed a curiosity for music composition from an early age. By age 18, Chaminade began giving concerts, eventually leading to international tours and performances at some of the world’s most renowned concert venues. In the U.S., in particular, Chaminade’s performances led to the founding of many musical societies called “Chaminade Clubs” in celebration of her music. As a composer, Chaminade wrote over 400 works throughout her life, nearly all of which have been published. While most of Chaminade’s compositions are songs or piano pieces, she also composed larger orchestral pieces. For historical context, smaller-scale pieces were more marketable for a woman composer at the time, which likely influenced Chaminade’s compositional efforts. Fun fact: Chaminade was the first female composer awarded the Légion d’Honneur.


Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)

Dame Ethel Smyth was an English composer who became a significant voice not only in music but also as an active participant in promoting women’s suffrage. At 19, Smyth moved to Leipzig to study at the famous Conservatory, where she subsequently became involved in the musical circle of Brahms and Clara Schumann. After remaining in Europe for over a decade and producing several works for voice, piano, and chamber ensemble, Smyth returned to England. In the following years, she embraced larger works for orchestra as well as opera. It would take years, even decades, for the composer to earn recognition for her contribution to British music, including being made a DBE in 1922. As a politically active voice, Smyth was most influential through music as well, writing Songs for Sunrise for the women’s suffrage campaign. The final movement of the work, “The March of the Women,” became the widely used anthem for the movement throughout the U.K. Smyth challenged social norms of the time, preferring to live an independent life and making known her attraction to women despite Victorian ideals. For that, she is embraced by many not only as a remarkable composer but also as a feminist icon.


Amy Beach

Amy Beach (1867-1944)

New England native Amy Beach (born Cheney) was a child prodigy who displayed an unusual talent for memorization, not to mention perfect pitch, within the first couple of years of her life. Beach began performing piano recitals at age seven, including some of her own compositions. While still a teenager, Beach debuted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, playing Chopin’s Concerto in f minor. Following her marriage in 1885, Beach was asked to reduce her public performances, which quickly led to an increase in compositional output. Beach would become the first American woman to achieve international acclaim for large-scale orchestral works due to the massive success of her Symphony in e minor, “Gaelic.” In addition to being a revered composer and performer, Beach worked toward advancing the prominence of American women composers. In fact, she was a founding member of the Society of American Women Composers.

To learn more about Amy Beach and her work, check out Amy Beach: Poetry at the Piano from the Arts Blog archive.


Alma Mahler

Alma Mahler (1879-1964)

Alma Mahler (born Schindler) was a Viennese “it-girl” who quickly became a muse for the period’s most active artistic voices. While in her teens, Mahler became interested in composition and subsequently wrote several pieces for voice and piano. Three sets were published during her lifetime, along with a handful of Lieder published posthumously. Following her marriage to Gustav at 22, Alma agreed to forgo her own interest in composing and focus her efforts on promoting her husband’s works. Unfortunately, the marriage was famously fraught with challenges, not the least of which was Gustav’s disapproval of his wife’s musical aspirations. In the decades following Gustav’s death, Mahler would go on to marry twice more, the latter of which brought the couple to the U.S. in the wake of WWII. In 1946, Mahler became a U.S. citizen and moved to New York City, where she would remain a cultural icon until her death.


Florence Price

Florence Price (1887-1953)

American composer Florence Price received her formal musical education at New England Conservatory in Boston, where she simultaneously studied composition privately with George Whitefield Chadwick. Price moved back to her native Arkansas to teach after graduating from the institution in 1906. After 20 years of building a life in the southern state, and due to increasing racial oppression, Price and her family relocated to Chicago in 1927, a move quickly followed by a burst of compositional creativity. In the 1930s, Price found her stride as a composer. In 1932, Price’s Symphony No. 1 in e minor won the Rodman Wanamaker Symphony Competition. In 1933, the work premiered with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, making Price the first Black woman to have a work performed by a major American orchestra. Despite her relatively late start to a career in composition, Price would go on to gain widespread recognition as a symphonic composer. Her songs are equally well-known and have been performed by renowned singers such as Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price.

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the life of Florence Price, check out this post from the Arts Blog archive: Women’s History Month: Florence Price.


Germaine Tailleferre

Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)

Germaine Tailleferre was a French composer and piano prodigy who became famous for her association with “Les Six”—a group of six 20th-century composers whose music rebelled against 19th-century Romanticism. Tailleferre entered the Paris Conservatory as a young teen, where she won numerous prizes. Composer Erik Satie was so impressed by the young musician’s talent that he claimed Tailleferre as his “musical daughter” and actively promoted her burgeoning career. Tailleferre’s success as a composer declined following the 1930s, partially due to financial difficulties and partly because her inherent modesty and insecurity inhibited her ability to promote her work properly. Nonetheless, she continued to compose until her death. Her diverse works include orchestral and chamber music, songs, incidental music, film and radio scores, opera, and works for children.


Lili Boulanger

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)

Like many of the musicians mentioned in this post, French composer Lili Boulanger received a musical education from early childhood after her music-loving family recognized her natural abilities in the art form. Tragically, Boulanger suffered from chronic ill health her entire life and died at just 24 years old. That didn’t stop the determined composer from producing a substantial number of highly revered works during her short life, including the cantata Faust et Hélène, which earned the composer the prestigious Prix de Rome prize (the first woman to win the award for music). Boulanger was deeply affected by the First World War, and many of her works deal with themes of war or prayers for peace. Lili’s older sister, Nadia, who would become one of the 20th century’s most influential teachers of composition, redirected her own compositional efforts following her sister’s death and instead promoted her sister’s music, whom she felt had been more talented than herself.


Doreen Carwithen

Doreen Carwithen (1922-2003)

Doreen Carwithen (also known by her married name, Mary Alwyn) was an English musician who would become the world’s first full-time female film composer. Given how few women composers have won Oscars in 2024, you can only imagine how big of a feat this was in the mid-20th century! Carwithen entered the Royal Academy of Music in her late teens. A few years later, the premiere of her first orchestral work, ODTAA (inspired by the novel), launched the young composer’s career. During the 1940s and 50s, Carwithen wrote the scores for over 30 films, in addition to being tasked with writing the score for the official film of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. In 1961, she became her former professor and current romantic partner William Alwyn’s amanuensis. The two married in 1975. Following Alwyn’s death, Carwithen began composing again until her final years.


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