Not worth a mention? The wealth of women composers

Fashionably rather late for Women’s History Month, the Anderson Room cases are now exhibiting works by some of the female composers represented in the University Library’s collections.

Working in roughly chronological order from the cases in the Anderson Room foyer to the cases inside the reading room, we start with a facsimile of music by Hildegard of Bingen. Leaping a few centuries, we then have facsimiles of pieces by Barbara Strozzi and Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. It was cheering that, as we reached the nineteenth century, there were many more works by female composers in the collection to choose from, and more reassuring still to see the number of composers grow quite significantly as we got to the 20th century. By the time we reached the present day we were faced with having to leave out very many composers that we would have liked to include in the exhibition!

Read on for a taster of the exhibition…


Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

Born Clara Wieck, she was described by Grieg as “one of the most soulful and famous pianists of the day”. Clara was a child prodigy, performing her first solo concert at the age of 11, and went on to a long career as a concert pianist. Clara also composed, though this was hampered somewhat by her marriage to Robert Schumann, who once wrote that “to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing.”



Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)

A composer and suffragette, Ethel Smyth studied initially at the Leipzig Conservatory and later privately with Heinrich von Herzogenberg, through whom she met Brahms and Clara Schumann. Smyth was made a dame in 1922 in recognition of her musical and literary works, making her the first composer to receive a damehood.



Alice Mary Smith (1839-1884)

The daughter of a London lace merchant, Alice Mary Smith showed an early talent for music and studied composition with William Sterndale Bennett, publishing her first piece in 1857. A review of a performance of her first symphony in 1863 remarked that it was “striking proof of the sound studies and high attainments of the female votaries of the art in this country.” She was elected Female Professional Associate of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1867, and became an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music in 1884.

Have a look at pieces by these and other composers in the exhibition cases if you are passing by the Anderson Room!



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2 Responses to Not worth a mention? The wealth of women composers

  1. SVM says:

    A few questions (in descending order of relevance to the exhibition):

    1. Could you furnish a complete list of the composers featured (or, if you would rather avoid a ‘spoiler’, do so when the exhibition closes)? I would be very interested to know whom you did end up including, but, alas, may not have a chance to visit the exhibition in person (my trips to the UL are rather sporadic, but highly locupletative).

    2. For the Schumann publications, is the composer’s name given as “Clara Schumann” or “Clara Wieck-Schumann”? My personal copy of the latest Henle Urtext anthology of selected pianoforte music by the composer uses the latter, yet every other publication I have seen (including the Barbican Library’s copy of an earlier edition/impression of the same anthology with the same publisher’s number — Henle does not change publisher’s number between different editions of the same works) uses the former. I am wondering whether there is any historical precedent for the double-barrelled version, or whether it is a more modern phenomenon? Having said that, the usual practice nowadays for married female composers is not to change surname at all.

    3. Have any of the composers in the exhibition written under a pseudonym designed to disguise their sex/gender (such a practice was and still is very common in literature)?

    4. How have you approached female composers who object to being pigeonholed by sex/gender?

    5. [I realise this is probably out of scope for the exhibition] I recall reading in Bernard Shore’s /The Orchestra Speaks/ that Smyth was active as a conductor of Henry Wood’s orchestra. Were any of the other composers featured in the exhibition active in such a capacity, and, if so, did such activity encompass a broad repertoire or was it limited to the composer’s own works?


    • mj263 says:

      1. As well as the composers mentioned in Kate’s blog post, we also included Rebecca Clarke, Lili Boulanger, Sally Beamish and Judith Weir. We’ve got a limited number of cases and far more women and items to include than room! Because of this there will be more posts over the next few months celebrating other women composers, who we would have liked to include in the exhibition if only we’d had the space. There’ll also be a post explaining the mysterious exhibition title “Not worth a mention”. All will be revealed shortly, so keep an eye out on Musicb3.

      2. For the particular work we displayed, the name “Clara Schumann” was used. I think this is the commonest usage among publishers. Having said which, the Library of Congress’ Authority record gives 7 different varieties of her name, including 2 versions of Wieck (Vik). In common with you I assumed that Wieck-Schumann was a modern usage, but it actually dates back to a book about the Wieck family dating from 1902.

      3. As far as I know, no, none of them wrote under a male pseudonym. Although oddly enough… some people believed that Rebecca Clarke was actually a pseudonym for Max Bruch, believing that her music was too good to be written by a woman. Clarke also struggled with the concept of a woman as a composer. Many other composers though, most notably Barbara Strozzi and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, were well-known as performers as well as composers, and often came from musical families, where it would be considered odd not to be a musician, irrespective of gender.

      4. We haven’t, although some of the reasoning behind this will become clearer in later blog posts. And there will be reference to at least one character, who I’m sure would have hated to be pigeonholed as “just” a woman composer.

      5. Most of the women that were chosen for the exhibition were known not just as composers but in much wider musical spheres – Hildegard of Bingen was an abbess and theologian, and wrote about science and medicine as well as music. Rebecca Clarke, in common with Clara Schumann, was a talented performer, at one point supporting herself through her viola playing. Lili Boulanger died tragically young, aged just 24. Who knows where her career may have led? Her sister Nadia was also a composer, as well as a conductor and, perhaps most importantly, a teacher of music. Her pupils form a Who’s Who of twentieth century music from musicians as diverse as Aaron Copland to Quincy Jones, John Eliot Gardiner and Daniel Barenboim. She was the conductor at the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks”. Barbara Strozzi was a celebrated singer, while Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre was a harpsichordist. Sally Beamish, like Rebecca Clarke, is a viola player, and Judith Weir has a long career in music teaching as well as composition.

      Coming up in a forthcoming post is another female conductor, some forgotten composers, and a talented composer, who gave up her career – gender stereotyping is not just a male prerogative. The point of this exhibition though is to celebrate the works of these wonderful musicians, not because they’re women, but because they wrote good music, and some of them have been neglected for far too long.

      Many thanks for your comments, and questions. They were very helpful in planning future posts around the exhibition,


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