Challenge yourself to conjure a list of classical music composers and you likely come up with a list that will impress even yourself. Crossing a spectrum of centuries, the list would include classical masters like: Bach (1685-17500), Mozart (1756-1791), Beethoven (1770- 1827), Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Chopin (1810-1849), Vivaldi ((1678-1741), Stravinsky (1882-1971), Debussy (1862-1918) and Hayden (1732 – 1809). Each of these people have defined and changed generations of their own while inspiring those of the future. Modern society holds the works of each of these composers as the underpinnings to the warp and weft of our cultural foundation. Yet, while women have contributed significantly to the history of music in all regards and with many firsts in their fields of expertise, not an single name on our list of classical composers are women. Why? Perhaps due to cultural values or societal norms most have remained in the shadows of their male peers. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of female composers throughout the centuries of recorded history. It is my hope to bring light to some of them and their achievements.
Hildegard von Bingen , a Catholic nun living during the twelfth century, is credited with being the first female composer in history, while Francesca Caccini (1587-1641) is recognized as the most influential female composer living before the 1800’s. While most of her work was destroyed, her most celebrated piece, la Liberazione di Ruggiero is recognized as the first opera composed by a women. In this post, I have chosen to feature a more modern heroine, Nadia Boulanger.
Born to a father who was a French composer and a Russian princess of a mother, Nadia lived a long, musical life. Over her 92 years of life (September 16, 1887 – Oct. 22, 1979) , she was a composer, teacher, and the first woman to conduct major European and American symphonies. Having achieved many significant achievements early in her training and career she gave up her own musical aspirations to become a teacher for many years. Later she combined her two passions becoming teacher to some of the most prolific and successful contemporary composers including: Quincy Jones, Aaron Copeland, Elliott Carter, Phillip Glass and Virgil Thompson while befriending many others, such as Igor Stravinsky and George Gershwin.
Having lived and taught in France, England and New York, as she returned to teaching and composing, she turned her hand to conducting, and becoming the first female conductor in England and America, she lead the BBC Symphony, the Philadelphia Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic Symphony, and the Halle`, additionally premiering works by Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copeland. Miss Boulanger worked as an esteemed master in her field until her death in Paris at the age of 92. She is buried beside her sister Lili at the Montmartre Cemetery.