Women in Music | Modern Women | Modern Era | Classical

During the twentieth century, increasing numbers of women worked as composers, and there is little that links them together other than the varying degrees of resistance that they encountered as they forged their careers. But while there are the disheartening stories of women such as Alma Mahler (1879–1964), agreeing to the demand of her husband Gustav Mahler that she give up her own composition when they married (although when he later heard songs she had written as a young woman he made amends by having them published), there continued to be plenty of women who ignored the strictures of family or society and developed successful and lasting careers.

In the earlier twentieth century, there was still a general belief that women were not capable of creating the complex structures of large-scale music and that they should concentrate on genres that mirrored society’s understanding of the feminine – something graceful, pretty and undemanding. Needless to say, the women composers of this period created a wide variety of music, from the simple to the intricate, the unashamedly melodic to the courageously avant-garde. The music of the generation of women composers whose careers began in 1930s Britain, for example, includes the finely judged serialism of Elisabeth Lutyens (1906–83), the impassioned contrapuntal arguments of Elizabeth Maconchy (1907–94), the broad orchestral canvases of Grace Williams (1906–77) and the innovative sounds of Priaulx Rainier (1903–86). Of the preceding generation, the violist Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979) produced some striking songs and chamber works, including her well-known Viola Sonata (1919), before abandoning composition in her fifties.

Other talented musicians and composers of the era included Lili Boulanger, who became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, and her sister Nadia, who became a teacher, numbering the female Polish composer and violinist Bacewicz among her pupils. Another teacher and composer was the Soviet Galina Ustvolskaya (1919–2006), herself one of Shostakovich’s pupils at the Leningrad Conservatory.

Women in Music | Women Conductors | Modern Era | Classical


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