Thursday, 17 July 2014

Female Symphonists

While Wikipedia currently lists more than 900 entries in the category Women classical composers, a diligent search reveals that comparatively few of these have written a symphony - less than one in five, according to my very unscientific sampling. And while considering them as a group might make exactly as much sense as clumping together all male symphonists, to wit no sense at all, still it might advocate just a little for positive discrimination. Here then are seven of the best.

Louise Farrenc
Louise Farrenc (1804 - 1875, France)

In 19th century France, opera was king. The public turned away from anything else, indeed from any unfamiliar or new name. Symphonically speaking, they tended to shun anything that was not Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schumann, or otherwise German and Great.

Furthermore, the resources necessary to mount a symphonic performance were beyond almost anyone's means, as lamented by Camille Saint-Saëns and others. If the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire didn't chose your work for performance, there were no jobbing orchestras for hire; you had to pay for and assemble your own band personally.

It was against this backdrop that Louise Farrenc sought to buck the trend for exclusively male composers, not to mention symphonists. And with a great measure of success; admired by Berlioz and Schumann, this teacher and scholar composed three superb symphonies.

Farrenc's other accomplishments included the co-founding, with her husband Aristide, of the publishing house Éditions Farrenc in Paris, which remained one of France’s leading music publishers for nearly 40 years. She spent 30 years as Professor of the Piano at the Paris Conservatory, where her excellent instruction led to many of her students graduating with Premier Prix.

On two occasions, in 1861 and then again in 1869, she received the Prix Chartier of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Selected works for full orchestra:

Emilie Mayer
Emilie Mayer (1812 - 1883, Germany)

The encouragement of a mentor proved invaluable to this 19th century romantic composer. The conductor, baritone, and fellow symphonist Carl Loewe, known in his day as "the Schubert of North Germany", once said of Mayer: "Such a God-given talent as hers had not been bestowed upon any other person he knew." Such accolade gave her much inspiration and motivation throughout the rest of her very prolific composing career.

Mayer wrote a documented total of eight symphonies during the decade 1847-1857, in addition to numerous chamber works for strings and/or piano... not to mention an opera (Die Fischerin - The Fisherwoman), and a piano concerto! Her works garnered much critical and popular acclaim, and she would travel Europe in the 1850s to attend public performances of her works.

Selected works for full orchestra:

Amy Beach
Amy Beach (1867 - 1944, America)

Amy Beach was a child prodigy who could sing and harmonise accurately by age two. At five, she was composing waltzes. At six she began piano lessons, and by age seven, was giving public recitals of Beethoven, Chopin, Handel, and her own work. As a composer, Amy was almost entirely self-taught, with the exception of a year spent at age fourteen, learning harmony and counterpoint from Junius W. Hill. She made her professional debut in Boston in 1883, and soon after became a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Beach's early writing is mainly Romantic, often compared to Brahms or Rachmaninoff. Later she would move away from tonality and into whole tone scales, using more exotic harmonies and techniques.

The Boston Pops paid tribute to Beach in 2000, when her name was added to the granite wall on Boston's famous Hatch Shell - the only woman ever to have received this honour.

Beach wrote many songs for solo voice with piano accompaniment, together with many more of the sacred and secular choral kinds. Her works also include much piano and chamber music, a mass, and like Emilie Mayer above, a piano concerto and an opera (Cabildo). Today she is probably best remembered for her singular symphonic composition, the celebrated ''Gaelic'' Symphony, written in response to Dvorak's criticism of American composers.

Selected works for full orchestra:

Ruth Gipps
Ruth Gipps (1921 - 1999, England)

Another child prodigy, Ruth Gipps performed her first composition at age 8 in a music festival, when the work was bought by a publishing house. Soon afterwards she began her performance career in earnest by winning a concerto competition with the Hastings Municipal Orchestra.

In 1936 she entered the Royal College of Music to study theory, composition, piano, and eventually oboe. An accomplished all-round oboe and piano soloist, she was also a prolific composer. A hand injury at age 33 ended her performance career; she decided to focus on conducting and composition.

Her music often shows the influence of her teacher Vaughan Williams. She rejected serialism, twelve-tone music, and other such trends in the avant-garde, considering her five symphonies as her greatest works.

She founded the London Repertoire Orchestra in 1955 as an opportunity for young professional musicians to become exposed to a wide range of music, and the Chanticleer Orchestra in 1961, a professional ensemble which included a work by a living composer in each of its programs, often a premiere performance. Later she would take faculty posts at Trinity College, London (1959 to 1966) and the Royal College of Music (1967 to 1977), and then the Kingston Polytechnic.

Selected works for full orchestra:

Gloria Coates
Gloria Coates (b. 1938, Wisconsin USA)

American by birth and education, Gloria Coates has lived in Munich, Germany since 1969. Having already written some half-dozen extended, multi-movement orchestral works, she decided while writing the seventh ("Dedicated to those who brought down the Wall in PEACE") in 1990, to revisit them all and relabel them as symphonies.

In so doing, she set herself on course some fourteen years and eight more symphonies later, to become known as the most prolific female symphonist of all time.

To a certain extent this distinction is arbitrary. As Kyle Gann writes in his 1999 New York Times article A Symphonist Stakes Her Claim, "Symphony", after all, is a word open to wide interpretation. It does not, for Ms. Coates, refer to a work in several movements, the outer ones allegro and the second one adagio. He also reports Ms Coates as saying, "It has to do with the intensity of what I'm trying to say and the fact that it took 48 different instrumental lines to say it, and that the structures I was using had evolved over many years. I couldn't call it a little name."

Selected works for full orchestra:

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
Photo ©
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939, Florida USA)

After graduating from Florida State University in 1960, Ellen Taffee Zwilich moved from to New York in order to play with the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski.

She then joined the Juilliard School, where upon her 1975 graduation, as the first woman to achieve their Doctorate of Musical Arts in Composition, she gained some prominence by having her Symposium for Orchestra programmed, with the Juilliard Symphony Orchestra, by Pierre Boulez.

In 1983, with her first symphony, Zwilich became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for music.

Selected works for full orchestra:

Libby Larsen
Photo © Ann Marsden
Libby Larsen (b. 1950, Delaware USA)

A graduate of the University of Minnesota, Libby Larsen was in 1983 appointed one of the Minnesota Orchestra's two composers-in-residence, making her the first woman to serve as a resident composer with a major orchestra.

Her works exhibit a great mixture of influences, from the Gregorian Chant sung by the St. Joseph of Carondelet nuns at Christ the King School as a young child, through her mother's boogie-woogie records, her father's Dixieland band (was an amateur clarinetist), and the many different styles of repertoire introduced to her by Sister Colette, her first piano teacher, to the eclectic direct influences of her college teachers.

Asked about her teachers and influences, she has said "To tell the truth, my teachers have come to me from unexpected places in my musical life. They have been poets, architects, painters and philosophers. The other way I really learn is by reading scores voraciously, from Chuck Berry to Witold Lutoslawski."

Her awards include a Grammy, a Clarion, two Honorary Doctorates, and a George Peabody Medal, among many others.

Selected works for full orchestra:

All information and pictures courtesy of Wikipedia, unless otherwise noted.


  1. Hello, thank you very much for your interest in women composers. There is this beautiful painting of Farrenc, it was discovered only about 10 years ago. She was from a family of painters, it makes sense that there should be a painting. Also you have a typo in your coverage of Emilie Mayer (1950s instead of 1850s). Here is our blog, Thank you

  2. Many thanks Liane, I've fixed that error.

  3. julia perry 12, mary bainbridge vyner 12, johanna senfter 9, created 33 20th century symphonies collectively
    whilst merzie khalitova has recently reached her 6th sym

  4. and liana alexandra 9, sabraa lindgren 9, alla pavlova 8