When you think of musical composers, many of the first names to come to mind are usually men. Despite high-profile roles as composers being male-dominated roles in history, there are plenty of incredible female composers who overcame critics and obstacles with their sheer amount of talent and body of work. In this article, we’ll go over 23 of the best female composers to ever write music.
1. Hildegard of Bingen
Also known as Saint Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen was an extremely talented woman who served as a Benedictine Abbess and worked as a composer, writer, artist, and philosopher. Her work would go on to see her recognized as the originator of natural history in Germany and immortalized as a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church.
Hildegard of Bingen was also a fabulous composer with the most surviving chants today out of any composer from the Middle Ages and writing the most comprehensive collection of sacred monophony we have today. Unlike some famous composers who would come later in history, she was noted for writing both the music and words for her music.
2. Barbara Strozzi
Many composers of the Baroque period received patronage from wealthy benefactors or from the church, which is why many composers have a large percentage of their work dedicated to sacred music for use in church services.
Barbara Strozzi differs in this, as she never had consistent patronage and rarely wrote for the church. Her eight volumes of music placed her as the composer of the period with the most secular music to be printed. She’s said to have been the most prolific composer, man or woman, in Venice in the middle of the 17th century.
3. Francesca Caccini
Daughter of Giulio Caccini, one of the founders of the opera and one of the most famous composers of the Baroque period, Francesca Caccini was adopted into music at a young age. Her employer for much of the beginning of her career was the Medici family, working alongside other court composers. She’s responsible for the music to go with at least 16 stage works and released another collection of at least 36 solo songs and duets.
4. Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre
Born into a rich family of musicians and instrument craftsmen, Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre had an unusual upbringing where her father taught not only his sons but also his daughters to play instruments. She was a child prodigy who caught the eye of Louis XIV, who she eventually served as a court musician. Her career as a composer saw her publish the first opera by a French woman, a collection of works, a ballet, and a set of trio sonatas that was one of the first examples of French sonata.
5. Louise Farrenc
Louise Farrenc was a French composer, virtuoso pianist, and music teacher in the 19th century. Her composing career encompassed three full-length symphonies and a wide variety of other works including collections of choral, chamber, and piano music. Much of her work would be lost until interest in female composers revived much of her music in the late 20th century, with 49 compositions surviving today.
6. Isabella Leonarda
One of the most productive composers of all time, Isabella Leonarda spent her entire life (from the age of 16) within the Collegio di Sant’Orsola convent. While she was not a noted performer or famous musician during her time, producing over 200 compositions places her among the most prolific composers of the Baroque period.
7. Duchess Anna Amalia
A German Princess, Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel was one of the most influential patrons in Germany during the late 1700s. Outside of her work developing her court as the cultural center of Germany, she was a notable composer with three operas, three orchestral compositions, numerous sonatas for harpsichord, and several other works attributed to her.
8. Marianna Martines
A Vienna-based composer, singer, and pianist, Marianna Martines rubbed elbows with the likes of Mozart and Haydn. She performed often in royal courts from a young age, and many of her compositions were for solo voice and piano. It’s likely that she composed and then was the first performer of much of the works we have from her.
9. Fanny Mendelssohn
While Fanny Mendelssohn wasn’t often seen as a performer, her work as a composer was illustrious. With over 125 piano pieces, over 250 song vocals, and several other pieces of cantata and piano groups, her work forms a staggering catalog. Most of her work went unpublished during her life, but after a revival of interest, most of it is now immortalized in the Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn Museum in Germany.
10. Clara Schumann
Clara Schumann was one of the best composers of the Romantic period and went on to have a stunning 61-year concert career. She was integral in taking the importance out of virtuoso works in piano concerts and composed piano pieces for solo and concertos, as well as choral music, chamber music, and other songs.
11. Teresa Carreño
Perhaps the most prolific pianist in Latin American history, María Teresa Gertrudis de Jesús Carreño García was a Venezuelan pianist and composer that found success at a young age. By nine, she had debuted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and London Philharmonic. Her catalog of composed pieces is staggering, and many of them would go on to be recorded and performed to this day.
12. Ethel Smyth
Ethel Smyth was an English composer and major influence on the Women’s Suffrage movement. While she was one of the best composers of her time, she produced complex and delicate work that was criticized mostly because of her gender. Despite overcoming major obstacles, she was the first composer to ever be granted damehood.
13. Maria Anna Mozart
The older sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Maria Anna Mozart was also a gifted musician and composer. Mozart himself was inspired to study music because of his older sister, having watched her being taught by their father. Her work as a composer has been lost, but we do have evidence of her work being praised by her brother in letters, and she was undoubtedly among the best harpsichord players of the time.
14. Cécile Chaminade
Cécile Louise Stéphanie Chaminade was the first female composer to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 1913. Her work was rooted in both traditionalist and Romantic music, composing numerous piano works, orchestral suites, songs, and even an opera.
15. Ruth Crawford Seeger
An American composer and figurehead of the ultramodern group, Ruth Crawford Seeger was a master of folk music. She was a pioneer of counterpoint in the US and a master of American serial techniques. Seeger was among the first to extend those serial techniques outside of just the pitch of the work, incorporating the techniques into other elements of her pieces.
16. Roxanna Panufnik
Born in London in 1968, Panufnik would go on to study music at the Royal College of Music. She’s a notable modern composer, writing pieces for a wide number of industries, including music for film and television, as well as more classical works for orchestras, opera, ballet, and theater. Today, her works are among the most commonly performed musical pieces in classical concerts.
17. Amy Beach
Amy Beach was a prolific American composer who primarily focused on large-scale art music projects. She was among the first American composers to succeed without training in Europe. Gaelic Symphony would become the first symphony composed and published by an American woman. Her work would see her included in an exclusive group called the Boston Six, of which she was not only the youngest but also the only woman.
18. Pauline Viardot
A star performer and notable singer, Pauline Viardot (also known as Pauline Garcia) began her musical career young. Most of her compositions were not meant to be published, she meant to use them as private pieces to use to develop the vocal talents of her students. She wrote at least five salon operas that are among the most vocally challenging works we have and are only meant for advanced singers.
19. Germaine Tailleferre
Not to be confused with the Boston Six, Les Six (an illustrious group of European composers) only female member was Germaine Tailleferre. Most of her most popular works were composed in the 1920s, including the famed works First Piano Concerto, the Harp Concertino, and the ballets Le Marchand d’oiseaux. She composed throughout her life and became a music teacher in Paris for some time up until her death in 1983.
20. Adele Aus der Ohe
A famed concert pianist and composer, Adele Aus der Ohe had one of the largest repertoires in history. From a young age, she could play Brahm’s concertos and Beethoven’s works flawlessly. Her compositional works included piano pieces and duets for violin and piano. She published much of her work through G. Schirmer Inc., including her most celebrated compositions in Suite No. 2 in E major, Op. 8.
21. Margaret Ruthven Lang
Alongside Amy Beach, Margaret Ruthven Lang was one of the first two female American composers to have work performed by American symphony orchestras. Her Dramatic Overture was first performed in 1893, a year after Beach’s Grand Mass in E Flat. Lang’s career as a composer encompassed over 200 songs and numerous orchestra works, though much of her orchestral work is lost because she was very critical and destroyed many of them herself.
22. Lili Boulanger
Marie Juliette “Lili” Boulanger was a French composer and the first female to win the Prix de Rome composition prize. Her work is a comprehensive collection of choirs, poems, and cantatas that have been transcribed for a variety of instruments including violin, piano, and flute.
23. Kaija Saariaho
Born in 1952, Kaija Saariaho was ranked as the world’s greatest living composer in a 2019 poll in the BBC’s Music Magazine. Her work combines classical themes with electronic instruments and live music. She’s received numerous awards and is one of the most decorated modern composers of music, regardless of gender.
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