From Sappho of Mytilene to Kaija Saariaho and Clara Schumann, several women have managed to break through the macho codes of the classical music world and become composers. Though the landscape has been largely dominated by men, the work of their female counterparts, whether pioneers or contemporaries, is just as fascinating. Here we put just eleven undervalued female figures of composition in the spotlight.

While women composers can be found as far back as the days of ancient Greece, and probably before, it took until the twentieth century for these creators to really receive recognition. Women were allowed to learn music, play it and sing it but if they presumed to start composing it, their forwardness would be swiftly rebuked and so the talent and genius of many women was stifled. In a society governed by men, cultural works are produced by men. Maria Anna Mozart (1751-1829), affectionately nicknamed Nannerl by her brother, was not only a pianist whose talents were well-known, but also a composer who won Wolfgang’s admiration. When the latter played her pieces to their father, Leopold Mozart angrily ordered his daughter to stop writing music as a woman could never be a composer. At the same time, he forbade her to study the violin and forced her to give piano lessons to finance her brother’s tours in Italy. Nannerl had no choice but to obey her father, and knuckled under, before sinking into a deep depression.

Such examples were sadly common in the nineteenth century, such as that of Fanny Mendelssohn, adored by a brother who nevertheless took a dim view of his sister becoming a composer. As for Clara Schumann, she continued to give concerts after her marriage because they provided the only income for the family home. However, her husband rankled at being relegated to the status of “the pianist’s husband” when he accompanied her on tour. Despite being a talented composer, Clara stopped writing in order to promote Robert’s music long after he had died.

Similarly, when Alma Schindler, a very gifted composer, married Gustav Mahler in 1902, she was forced by her husband to abandon all her artistic endeavours to take up the role of the genius’s loving and protective wife. History is beginning to do justice to all those women whose creative drives were stopped dead by the prejudices of earlier eras. Many records today bear witness to their talent and promise that was nipped in the bud by an unequal society. This chronological panorama highlights some of these great figures who deserve to be rediscovered.

Sappho of Mytilene

Ancient Greek poet and musician, Sappho of Mytilene lived in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE and left a deep imprint in the history of Greece. Her poems, often describing her attraction to young girls, made her a spokesperson for female homosexuality. There is little historical information about her and her poetic work has come to us in the form of fragments and quotations from ancient authors who alluded to her over several centuries. Sappho remains primarily known for her erotic poems, but more political writing has recently been found. Nothing remains of her music, which, according to Plutarch, was of great importance. Sappho is said to have invented one of the three main modes of ancient Greek music. The great singer of Greek origin Angelica Ionatos dedicated two very beautiful albums to her colleague from far antiquity.

Hildegarde von Bingen

Proclaimed “Doctor of the Church” by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, Hildegarde von Bingen possessed a hugely expansive mind. Born in Germany in 1098, she was a Benedictine nun, a literary woman and a composer. Her medical knowledge and her gift of clairvoyance made her one of the most famous healers of her time. She left behind many writings in a very broad range of fields. As a musician, Hildegarde von Bingen left more than 70 liturgical songs, hymns and sequences. She is also the author of the sacred musical drama Ordo virtutum (Order of the Virtues) which dramatises the anguish of a human soul caught between sanctity and the profanity. As musical notation was very threadbare at the time, the music of Hildegard von Bingen lends itself to all manner of interpretations. Many musicians have been attracted to this extravagant figure who continues to inspire discovery and admiration.

Barbara Strozzi

Like Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi was raised in Florence by a large family of humanists and artists as the adopted daughter of Giulio Strozzi, a prominent poet in Venetian intellectual circles and a collaborator of Monteverdi. He not only took great care over his daughter’s education but also introduced her to the most active and intense musical and artistic circles. He wrote the verses for his daughter’s First Book of Madrigals, which she published in 1644. A virtuoso singer, Barbara was a pupil of Francesco Cavalli. In addition to this first publication, she is credited with three collections of cantatas, ariettas and duets, the last of which has been lost. Her success piqued the interest of patrons such as the Dukes of Mantua and Gonzaga. Strozzi’s music is of great dramatic intensity; she cries, she laughs, adding perfect emphasis to the words in an almost operatic way.

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre

“The marvel of our Century”, is how the court of Louis XIV spoke of Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. A child prodigy, the young girl was determined to establish herself as a composer and enjoyed immense respect, on a par with her male counterparts. Child prodigies certainly entertained refined circles, but they were ruthlessly pushed aside once they reached adulthood, and systematically forgotten. Élisabeth Jacques de La Guerre had the good luck to escape this sad condition by being able to compose music that was both virtuoso and innovative. Not confined to pieces for harpsichord, the king of instruments during Louis XIV’s reign, she also devoted herself to dramatic music and she remains one of the first composers of sonatas and cantatas in France. As her biographer Catherine Cessac writes, “Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre’s music, while extending the tradition of the seventeenth century, was part of a movement of renewal of forms and writing, opening the doors to future generations”.

Caroline Boissier-Butini

Born in Geneva in 1786, Caroline Boissier-Butini was more fortunate than Mozart’s poor sister. Discovered in 2002 in the rich archives of the Library of Geneva, her opus includes forty works for piano (sonatas, fantasias and potpourris) and 7 concertos including La Suisse, which was composed for piano, flute and strings in 1818 and was recently recorded. Born into a typical middle-class Geneva family with a broad cultural background, Caroline Boissier-Butini was able to develop her talents while remaining devoted to her family. As she herself would admit, music occupied a third of her life. It is remarkable that this composer’s talent could blossom and flourish in a Geneva still marked by the terrible figure of Jean Calvin, meaning music was still rather ill-regarded at the beginning of the 19th century. An excellent pianist, she played in Paris before Kalkbrenner and Cramer, but never managed to get her compositions published by Ignace Pleyel. Her fame, which never crossed the borders of Switzerland, is now enjoying a revival. Now fresh light is being shone on the composer’s life and works, which she appeared to have written for her own use, in a style that mixes virtuosity and dramatic expression in the manner of Beethoven.

Maria Szymanowska

Sometimes described as a predecessor of Chopin, Poland’s Maria Szymanowska was one of the first professional virtuoso pianists to tour all over Europe, before settling in St. Petersburg where she died of cholera in 1831 at the age of 41. Chopin was very interested in her playing style. According to him, she was able “to imitate Paganini’s violin or the singing of Giuditta Pasta. He did not, however, say anything about her music, which nevertheless bears the seeds of Chopin’s style: an expressive piano that reflects Romantic moods. Maria Szymanowska left behind many pieces for the piano, including mazurkas, nocturnes and preludes.

Marie Jaëll

A world-renowned Alsatian pianist, Marie Jaëll was long part of a duo with her husband, pianist Alfred Jaëll. Together they gave numerous concerts throughout Europe and Russia, covering Brahms, Liszt, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn in their programmes. She was 27 when her husband died at the age of 50, when due to her great talent for composing, she was admitted to the sanctum sanctorum, as an “active member” of the very male-dominated Society of Composers of Music in Paris with the support of Saint-Saëns and Fauré. Marie Jaëll was also very interested in the study of piano technique and published a method closely based on the physiology of the hands, with the help of leading Parisian medical professors. Her repertoire was very broad and went well beyond the keyboard alone. She wrote chamber music pieces (string quartets, piano quartets), an opera (Runéa), lieder (in German) and concertante works, including an impressive Cello Concerto recorded by Xavier Phillips with Hervé Niquet conducting.

Fanny Mendelssohn

Born in Hamburg in 1805, Fanny Mendelssohn belonged to a prestigious family of Jewish origin who converted to Protestantism to protect themselves from rampant anti-Semitism in Germany. Like her younger brother Felix, she enjoyed an excellent education and showed an astonishing talent for music from an early age. Like him, she studied under the best teachers, and like him, she began to compose at the age of 14. But it was naturally Felix who was supported by their father; it was Felix who would be able to travel throughout Europe; and it was he who would become a composer in his own right. If music became a profession for him, it could only be a “pleasure” for her... But Fanny would not stop composing during her short life though her music would only be presented in the intimate setting of the family salon, where the Mendelssohns often received guests. Her husband was much more open-minded and encouraged her to publish her compositions. This meant overriding her brother’s objections and publishing her work under another name. In 1846, Fanny defied her brother by deciding to publish piano pieces, lieder and vocal works. But she was unable to enjoy her early success because she suffered a stroke the following year and died at the age of 41, soon to be followed by her brother, who was inconsolable with grief. Fanny Mendelssohn left behind a substantial body of work containing more than 400 pieces for piano and organ, chamber music, and lieder. After her death, her husband continued to promote his wife’s music and tried to redress the injustice within her family, but her work has not yet been fully published or performed.

Louise Farrenc

Frenchwoman Louise Farrenc wrote three symphonies and other symphonic works, as well as a great deal of chamber music and piano music. Born in 1803, shewas soon noticed for her exceptional gifts, becoming a student of Clementi and Reicha in Paris and also taking courses (not yet called “masterclasses”) with Moscheles and Hummel. Loved and supported by the greatest performers of her time, Louise Farrenc left behind a strong body of work that remains largely unknown today. Her Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 are stunning and deserve to be included in the standard repertoire of orchestral music as essential milestones of the French Romantic style. You can listen to them here, performed by the Solistes Européens and conducted by Christoph König.

Clara Schumann

History has been less neglectful of Clara Schumann, who has received attention for her exceptional career as a pianist, and then as a promoter of her husband’s works for almost forty years after his death. Her name is now a part of the golden legend of German Romanticism. The young prodigy began to give concerts at the age of 9 at the famous Gewandhaus in Leipzig. She started composing very early, publishing her first works at the age of 10. She was 14 when she wrote her Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 7, of which several recordings exist. Increasingly neglecting composition for lack of time and encouragement, she devoted herself more and more to the family home and the works of Robert Schumann, becoming one of his main performers.


Fortunately, the situation of women composers improved from the 20th century onwards, when a “woman composer” could gain acceptance in society without condescension and derision. In France, Augusta Holmès, “l’outrancière” (”the Outrageous”), then Cécile Chaminade and Mel Bonis were composers of the Belle Époque, soon followed by Germaine Tailleferre, whose membership to the group Les Six bolstered her reputation. One of the great figures of that time was undoubtedly Lili Boulanger, who passed away at the age of 24 due to intestinal tuberculosis, but who in her day represented one of the greatest hopes of French music. It seems that the early discovery of her terrible illness accentuated her propensity for the mysticism tinged with drama that underlies all of her work, much of which is unfinished or lost.

In the twenty-first century, women composers are more numerous. In France, Betsy Jolas, Edith Canat de Chizy, Isabelle Aboulker, Michèle Reverdy, Graciane Finzi, Isabelle Fraisse (who has written 5 string quartets) and Suzanne Giraud are all a part of the musical landscape. Austrian Olga Neuwirth is also one of the world’s most respected composers. In addition to her fruitful collaboration with Elfriede Jelinek (Nobel Prize for Literature 2004), Olga Neuwirth works with the Salzburg Festival. Also the author of two operas which were first performed in New York, in Paris in 2017 she inaugurated a 3D sound installation to mark the Pompidou Centre’s 30th birthday, in collaboration with Ircam.

Kaija Saariaho

Let us end this quick historical overview with a look at one of the most powerful figures in music today, whose every new release is keenly anticipated. Born in Helsinki in 1952, Kaija Saariaho, who passed away on the 2nd of June 2023, created a completely original universe influenced by the “spectral” movement and the electronic resources of Ircam, in a poetic style, with tremendously inventive textures and soundscapes. Saariaho’s music perfectly combines a delicacy of language and clarity of timbre with various forms such as ballet, opera and concertante works. The emphasis is on the cello, which remains her favourite instrument and the one which best expresses her secret confidences. Some of her works have already become “classics” and are performed by the greatest conductors and performers around the world.

As you can see, there is no conclusion to be drawn from this article, which merely denounces the short-sightedness and injustices of past centuries without attempting to address the question of whether music has a gender. The important thing is the strength of the message and the convictions of the person who wants to express and communicate it.