Did you know that classical music has never been solely composed by white men? As Feminist Book Club’s resident classical music nerd, I feel it is my duty to remind readers every so often that women and BIPOC composers have been writing great classical music for a long, long time. It just gets, well, kind of ignored for some reason (oh wait, that’s the patriarchy!).
While it is inherently silly to make a list of music that is only connected because its composers are all women, I offer the following listening suggestions as a launching pad to hopefully introduce a composer (or more) to you that you haven’t heard of before. If you hear something you like, I urge you to explore more of that composer’s life and music so that her artistic contributions aren’t lost to history.
I believe that when we engage with art, we engage with the artist herself. So, check in with yourself, see what mood you’re in (or would like to be in), and get communing with these great and powerful musical matriarchs.
If You’re Feeling a Lil’ Wistful
What: Nobu Kōda’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in d minor, I. Moderato
Who: Nobu Kōda (1870-1946) was a Japanese composer, violinist and music educator. She studied music in Japan, the United States, and Europe, and she became the first Japanese composer to write a violin sonata. She was the teacher of Shinichi Suzuki, who became famous for the Suzuki method of teaching music. Kōda’s peers called her “a tyrant” and “unfeminine” for being, well, a highly educated composer. Though she was a talented performer (and a member of Japan’s first string quartet), she limited her performances to private events since it was not considered appropriate for women to perform in public.
Why: Kōda’s Violin Sonata in d minor is poignant listening for a dreary day. It’s music to listen to when you just want to sit in a cozy place and doodle out your feelings. The piano and the violin each sing a beautiful, wistful melody that they pass between one another. If you’ve had a little too much espresso or are wallowing with a pint of ice cream, well, I dare you not to cry.
If You’re Feelin’ Bold and Beautiful
What: Helen Hagan’s Piano Concerto in C Minor
Who: Helen Hagan (1891-1964) was an American pianist, composer and music educator. She was the first Black woman to graduate from the Yale School of Music. After further music studies in Paris, Hagan returned to the United States where she had a career as a concert pianist. She was also one of the first Black pianists to perform a solo piano recital in New York City (at Aeolian Hall). Although Hagan wrote other songs, piano music, string quartets, and more, her Piano Concerto is the only piece of hers that survives (that we know of!).
Why: Hagan’s Piano Concerto is bold and unafraid, as you will hear in its powerful opening chords. Hagan wrote this piece when she was a 20-year-old student at Yale, and it’s pretty clear from the music that she intended to conquer the world after graduation. The surviving 1912 manuscript was transcribed into a performable version for two pianos in 2014 (Samantha Ege’s below recording is this version). In 2022, composer Soomin Kim re-orchestrated the work and it was performed by Samantha Ege with the Yale Philharmonia in the same hall where Hagan performed her original version in 1912, at what must have been an incredibly powerful event. All that to say: the piano keys are on fire here, which makes for the perfect soundtrack to being your badass, valiant self.
If You’re Feelin’ Lovely and Elegant
What: Marianne von Martinez’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in A Major
Who: Marianne von Martinez (1744-1812) was an Austrian composer, pianist and singer. As a little girl, she just so happened to live in the same building as the composer Franz Joseph Haydn, who gave her keyboard lessons. After young Marianne was found by Haydn to be a talented composer, she continued her musical studies with other teachers. She also received a robust general education that was abnormal for women of her social class at that time. A highly respected composer, Martinez composed masses, motets, and litanies for choir. In 1773, she became the first woman to gain admission to the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna. Throughout her adulthood, she hosted musical soirees and frequently performed piano duets with her friend Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Why: Nothing says lovely and elegant like early classical style, and Marianne von Martinez is the early classical maestra. This bright piano sonata requires a lightness of touch and musical repartee that would give anyone a little unapologetic pep in their step.
If You’re Feelin’ Independent
What: Amy Beach’s ‘Gaelic’ Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32
Who: Amy Beach (1867-1944) was an American pianist and composer from New England. A child prodigy with synesthesia (which meant she saw colors as she heard music), young Amy made her concert debut at the age of seven. In 1896, she became the first woman to have a major symphony performed in America (this one!). Because it was not considered proper for women to pursue performance or composition, Beach was primarily self-taught as a composer. She wrote many piano works, chamber music, and more, and was known as the “dean of American women composers.”
Why: Not only did Amy Beach face down the naysayers of her time who insisted women couldn’t write symphonies (which were considered masculine and wholly out of female reach), she also disagreed with many composers who felt that American classical music needed to have its own “American” style—which basically meant white composers using musical styles from Black and Native American cultures. (Yikes!) Beach’s contribution to this debate was to write the “Gaelic” symphony, using her own Irish heritage as inspiration for a decidedly “American” symphony that felt true to her own identity. This symphony’s premiere was a hit, too—so much so that people separated Amy Beach from her gender altogether! One critic praised the work: “there is nothing feminine about the writing; all her work is strong and brilliant.” And another famous composer declared that Amy Beach was now “one of the boys.” (Yikes, again!)
If You’re Feelin’ Like a Mermaid
What: Lili Boulanger’s Les Sirènes (The Mermaids)
Who: Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) was a French composer who was the first female winner of the Prix de Rome composition prize. She was also the younger sister of Nadia Boulanger, one of the most influential composition teachers of the twentieth century. In Lili Boulanger’s short life, she was a passionate and prolific composer of both songs and instrumental works. She died at the age of 24 after years of chronic illness, which often resulted in struggles with loneliness and depression.
Why: Boulanger composed Les Sirènes when she was just 18 years old, and it was premiered at a private party of her mother’s. The piece is written for piano, soprano and choir. The piano part shimmers like ocean waves in the sun, and the soprano line is sure to get you singing out all of your poetic mermaid thoughts à la Ariel. A lot of Boulanger’s music uses text about sorrow, hopelessness and immortality; she knew she was destined to leave this world too soon. As the final lines of the text read (in English): “We seek tender victors. / We are the immortal sisters / offered up to the desires of your earthly hearts.”
If You’re Feelin’ Inclined to Smash the Patriarchy
What: Víteszlava Kaprálová’s Piano Concerto in D minor
Who: Víteszlava Kaprálová (1915-1940) was a Czech composer and conductor. In the 1930s she conducted performances of her own composition (Military Sinfonietta) by the Czech Philharmonic and the BBC Orchestra. In her short life (another one gone too soon, Kaprálová was only 25 when she passed away), she was a prolific and highly regarded composer of songs, piano music, orchestral works and more.
Why: Kaprálová’s Piano Concerto in D minor is brooding, gorgeous and dramatic. Kaprálová herself conducted the premiere of her ambitious composition in the 1930s when she was 20 years old, and honestly I can’t think of anything more empowering for a 20-year-old woman to do in any time period. This virtuosic music takes no prisoners, and it’s sure to motivate any patriarchy-smashing you’ve got planned for today.
If You’re Feeling Minimalistic (and a Lil’ Experimental)
What: Pauline Oliveros’s The Wanderer
Who: Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016) was an American composer and accordionist. She was a key figure in the worlds of experimental and electronic music. In the 1960s, she was a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which was a place where experimental artists could work together in an unstructured space. Oliveros pursued new ways of listening to music, developing the theory of sonic awareness. In her words: “Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening.”
Why: The Wanderer is a whole album (because why not?) featuring a solo accordion with an orchestra of accordions and percussion. Oliveros described the second part of the album, “Horse Sings From Cloud,” as a sonic meditation. The musical score instructs the performer to hold a tone until they have no desire to change it, and then change it. So, if you’re looking to get into some kind of zone, this will probably do it.
If You’re Feeling a Lil’ Spiritual but in a Brooding Way
What: Margaret Bonds’s Troubled Water
Who: Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) was an American composer, pianist, and teacher. She was also a pupil of and eventually a roommate of fellow Black American composer Florence Price. Bonds wrote her first composition (“Marquette Street Blues”) at the age of five. She went on to study music at Northwestern University before moving to New York City to attend the Juilliard School of Music. She was a close friend of the poet Langston Hughes and they frequently collaborated, with Bonds setting his words to her music. In New York City, she formed the Margaret Bonds Chamber Music Society, which was a group of Black musicians who played and advocated for music by Black classical composers.
Why: Margaret Bonds’s piano piece “Troubled Water” is based on the well-known spiritual “Wade in the Water.” Bonds originally composed it as a piano piece with audience participation, with the audience expected to sing the spiritual halfway through the composition. The piece uses a call-and-response pattern that demonstrates Bonds’s blending of traditional African American musical idioms with her training in western classical music. If your spiritual water is feeling troubled today, Margaret Bonds is here to meet you wherever your soul is at.
If You’re Feelin’ Warm Auntie Vibes
What: Chiquinha Gonzaga’s Heloísa
Who: Chiquinha Gonzaga (1847-1935) was a Brazilian composer and pianist. She was also the first female conductor of Brazil. After marrying and having three children with her husband, Gonzaga insisted on making music even though her husband disapproved. When he told her she had to choose between him or her music, she left him. She also left her children, resulting in her being shunned by her entire extended family. Nevertheless, Gonzaga went on to compose over 200 works and lived a busy life as a composer and prominent activist. She fought for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery.
Why: Chiquinha Gonzaga wrote many piano works. She often used elements of Brazilian popular styles even though this was looked down upon by aristocratic society. “Heloísa” is a short piece she wrote for her niece in 1897 (when Gonzaga was 50). It’s a simple and playful waltz. If you’ve got any niblings around, it may inspire you to send them all your fun-loving vibes.
If You’re Feelin’ Like a Fiery Virtuosa
What: Teresa Carreño’s Ballade, Op. 15
Who: Teresa Carreño (1853-1917) was a Venezuelan pianist, composer, singer and conductor. When she was eight, her family emigrated to New York City and she made her musical debut at Irving Hall. This was followed by a series of piano concerts throughout the United States, including a performance for Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1863. Carreño became an internationally renowned concert pianist who composed around 75 works for piano, voice, chamber music and more, including several merengues.
Why: Carreño was a virtuosic pianist, and her compositions for the piano reflect her technical prowess. Her Ballade is at times beautiful and emotional, at other times fierce and determined as it leads to its dramatic ending. It’s the perfect piece to listen to when you need to feel on top of your game.