Arts Blog

Women We Love to Play On Air

At All Classical Portland, featuring women composers, conductors, and musicians as part of our regular programming is standard practice. We love to shine a spotlight on these historically overlooked figures in classical music and inspire our listeners with their skills and talents. This March, in celebration of Women’s History Month, we’d like to highlight a few women whose music All Classical plays on air all year long.

Louise Farrenc

Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)

As noted by Jessica Duchen in BBC Music Magazine, French composer and educator Louise Farrenc was “a major musical personality hiding in plain sight.” Farrenc established herself as a renowned concert pianist by her teens and went on to serve as Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory for over 30 years. She was the only woman to hold a permanent, high-ranking position at the institution in the 19th century. Never one to be devalued for her skills and leadership, Farrenc fought for equal pay to that of her male colleagues at the conservatory… and won.

As a composer, she wrote primarily for her instrument, the piano. Her music is known for its technical difficulty and “down-to-earth” musical personality while avoiding overt sentimentality or unnecessary flashiness.   

Elfrida Andrée

Elfrida Andrée (1841 – 1929)

Swedish organist, composer, and conductor Elfrida Andrée achieved an impressive number of “firsts” during her career. She was the first Swedish woman to pass the nation’s professional organist exam while lobbying against laws preventing women from becoming organists at churches and cathedrals. Andrée was the first Swedish woman to not only compose chamber music and symphonic music but also to conduct a symphony orchestra.

Her catalog of works includes pieces for orchestra, stage, choir, voice and piano, small ensemble, and perhaps most notably, organ. While interest in her organ music continued beyond her death, a renewed enthusiasm in her entire musical output has developed in recent decades, especially in Scandinavia.

Mélanie (Mel) Bonis

Mélanie (Mel) Bonis (1858-1937)

Mélanie Bonis was a prolific French composer, publishing over 300 works for piano, chamber ensemble, choir, organ, and orchestra throughout her lifetime. She received formal music instruction from César Frank at the Paris Conservatory, where she made a name for herself as an emerging composer of note. Fun fact – Bonis studied at the Paris Conservatory around the same time as Claude Debussy.

During her time at the conservatory, Bonis realized that she would have more success as a published composer if she disguised her sex, thereby assigning the gender-neutral pseudonym “Mel Bonis” to her works. While Bonis made a name for herself during her lifetime, the memoir written by her children a few decades after her death helped maintain her notoriety among classical music listeners.

Bonis’s Femmes de légende, a collection of piano pieces referencing “legendary” women history, mythology, and literature, was recently recorded by All Classical Portland’s Artist in Residence, María García. The recording can be found on AMPLIFY, All Classical’s inaugural album from the Recording Inclusivity Initiative (RII).

Nora Holt

Nora Holt (1885-1974)

Nora Holt was an American composer, singer, pianist, and critic who studied with Nadia Boulanger and maintained friendships with prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Carl Van Vechten and Langston Hughes. Through various points in her life, she would focus on composing or performing at any given time. However, journalism seemed to be her most constant creative focus. In fact, Holt became the first woman music critic in the United States. She was known for championing music by African American composers and new, emerging performers.

As a composer, Holt wrote about 200 works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, and piano. Unfortunately, only one or two pieces are known to have survived. Before embarking on a trip abroad, Holt had placed her compositions in storage, which were subsequently stolen along with many other possessions.

Ruth Gipps
Photo of Ruth Gipps courtesy of the British Music Collection

Ruth Gipps (1921-1999)

English musician and composer Ruth Gipps was a child prodigy who published her first musical works at just eight years old. A master of the piano and oboe, Gipps went on to study at the Royal College of Music under notable musicians such as Ralph Vaughan Williams. Sadly, she suffered a hand injury in her early 30s, ending her performing career. From that point on, Gipps focused on composition and conducting.

Interestingly, her role as a conductor was where Gipps emerged most prominently as a trailblazer. Due to discrimination against her sex while seeking conducting positions, Gipps founded her own orchestras – the London Repertoire Orchestra and the Chanticleer Orchestra.

Jennifer Higdon
Photo of Jennifer Higdon by J.D. Scott courtesy of the composer’s website

Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962)

Jennifer Higdon is an acclaimed American composer and flutist who came to composition relatively late in her musical journey; however, her late start has done nothing to thwart her achieving a position as one of America’s most frequently performed composers of contemporary classical music.

Higdon’s works encompass a wide variety of genres, from large-scale pieces for orchestra and stage to songs for voice and piano. In 2010, she received the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto. Additionally, Higdon’s music has been widely recorded, resulting in three Grammys so far for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

All Classical host Andrea Murray recently took us behind-the-scenes of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s recent West Coast premiere of Jennifer Higdon‘s Cold Mountain Suite. Listen in the All Classical Portland Audio Archive until March 17, 2023.  

Valerie Coleman
Photo of Valerie Coleman by Matthew Murphy courtesy of the composer’s website

Valerie Coleman

Contemporary American composer and flutist Valerie Coleman has been identified as one of the “Top 35 Women Composers” by The Washington Post as well as Performance Today’s 2020 “Classical Woman of the Year.” Her works, especially her pieces for woodwinds, are quickly becoming standard repertoire among performing ensembles nationwide. As a performer, Coleman has dazzled audiences at such distinguished institutions as Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, and Bravo! Vail.

As part of her commitment to arts education, in 2011, Coleman created the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival, a New York-based mentorship program welcoming young leaders from over 100 institutions worldwide. Coleman currently serves on the Mannes School of Music faculty for flute and composition.

Helen Habershon
Photo of Helen Habershon courtesy of the composer’s website

Helen Habershon

British musician Helen Habershon may be equally well-known for her work as a clarinetist as she is for composition. Though she pursued both performing and composition growing up, by her early 20s, Habershon established herself as an international clarinetist. Her turn to composition resulted from a serious injury that left her unable to play the clarinet for several months.

Habershon credits “our beautiful planet” as the source of inspiration for much of her music and has sought ways of blending the natural world with her beloved musical one, including collaborating with polar explorer Jim McNeill to give talks on the overlap of music and nature.


If you’d like to keep learning about women in classical music, check out these past posts from All Classical Portland’s Arts Blog:


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