Before Spotify, YouTube, MTV, radio, or even before there was recorded music – we had the women who went against the stream, defying the odds, to lay down the groundwork for all women musicians to come after. Here we’ll take a look at the early women musicians, mostly the composers – some remembered, others made popular after their time, and others still under the radar.
Kassia of Constantinople
Kassia of Constantinople is the earliest woman relevant to a modern-day discussion about music. Kassia lived in the 800s when she was a poet as well as one of the first composers of Medevil era music – labeled as “the first composer of the Occident”, or Western world. Her significance is that she was one of the first musicians who scholars are able to study the written works of.
Hildegard of Bingen
12th-century nun and composer, Hildegard of Bingen were relatively unknown until recently. Today she’s considered one of the best composers of the Middle Ages and her music is thought to have had changed the course of music forever. Hildegard is important today to feminist scholars and new-age spiritualists who take to her writings about nature, medicine, and healing.
It may have been in Francesca Caccini’s blood to be musically inclined. Born daughter to the iconic Renaissance composer, Giulio Caccini, Francesa was a renowned poet, singer, and most notably, creator of the first-ever opera by a woman, “La Liberzionedi Ruggiero”.
17th-century composer Barbara Strozzi is considered to be the greatest composer of her day – man or woman. What’s remarkable is that she had printed the most music out of any composer of her era. Even more fascinating is that she was able to accomplish this without seeking the help of the church or nobility.
Isabella was a life long monastic. At the young age of 16, she made the decision to enter a convent, remaining there for the rest of her life. She was especially known for her insane music productivity and as a respected teacher to other nuns
Louise Farrenc was groomed to become great. From a young age, she received piano lessons from masters like Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Ignaz Moscheles. An icon, Louise Farrenc was vocal about being paid less than her male counterparts. Her “Nonet for Winds and Strings” was a demand for equality, which proved to be effective.
Known for the monster amount of work she put out – over 460 pieces – Fanny Mendelssohn published books on piano pieces and songs. She was the sister of the famed composer Felix Mendelssohn, who, by his own admission, stated that Fanny well surpassed him in composing pieces.
During the 1800s in Germany, a woman and her piano went up against the stream and the naysayers. In German society, as well as much of the Western world at the time, the pressure weighed heavily on women to stay away from composing music. This was considered to be a man’s job.
Clara was a stellar pianist with lasting impact. She influenced other artists of her day and continues to do so well after her death.
Ethel Smyth was not just a composer, but quite possibly the first self-styled activist/feminist musician. Smyth wrote the “March of the Women”, an anthem for suffragettes. Beyond supplying the soundtrack for revolution, Ethel was politically active as a campaigner and as a protester, even having served 2 months in prison for breaking a window where she gathered other activists in protest songs.
The 1800s were chalked full of women pianists and composers, too many to list. But what they did for women in music was huge. These 19th-century pioneers paved the way for the blues, jazz, and gospel musicians of the 1900s and made it possible for the stars of today to see their success.