Composer Bio

Clara Schumann

Composer, Performer, Mother and Wife

Clara Schumann, née Wieck, was a complicated woman. She was a composer, a world-renowned concert pianist, a mother of 8, and a wife to the troubled composer Robert Schumann. She was born in Leipzig in 1819 to a talented musical family and received intensive training in music, languages, composing, and piano from a very early age from her father.

Perhaps because of her father’s incredibly strict and even cruel ways, she debuted at the Leipzig Gewandhaus when she was just 11 years old. Clara’s performing career continued under the stern and controlling eye of her father throughout Germany and abroad, with her first performance in Paris at the ripe age of 12.

Her father controlled every aspect of her life. He even wrote many of her diary entries. When her younger half-brother died before a performance, her father forced her to travel to Dresden the next day to perform. She became an expert at performing through illness, violence, pain, and despair. There is no question that her father’s intense and authoritarian teaching style paved the way for her to balance motherhood, performing, and taking care of Robert.

In 1828, when she was merely 8 years old, Robert Schumann entered her life as a live-in student of her father’s. By the time she was 13, they were in love. Although he became a proponent of her composing, her was also her harshest critic. He never truly believed that she was a “full artistic genius” or that she could succeed as an composer on her own. Instead, Robert insisted that Clara dedicate herself, both emotionally and musically, to him. She followed this idea completely – even going so far as to legally challenge her father for the right to marry Robert in 1840.

After her marriage, it became difficult for her to find the time to compose – or even to practice. Robert’s composition was the most important thing to him. Clara was of course responsible for raising their eight children, keeping house, and cooking. She also took on the burden of financially supporting the family. He was not happy when she went on extended tours to keep the family in the black, but it was unavoidable. Robert believed that “the creative artist had higher status than the performer” (Sounds and Sweet airs, p 225).

Despite everything, Clara continued to be a pillar of support to Robert and his music, even to the detriment of her own piano playing and composing. After his death, she dedicated herself to the interpretation of others’ music and to preserving his legacy, only composing one piece herself.

Clara found it difficult even at the best of times to compose, so perhaps it is no surprise that she did not publish much music. However, as she grew older and the societal view of women’s role in music in Germany became more close-minded, she too came to believe that women should not create music, writing that “a woman must not wish to compose – there never was one able to do it”. In my opinion, this belief that became pervasive in the 19th century was an incredibly destructive one; we have lost so much music because it was never allowed to become an idea, let alone be published. We should celebrate what little music exists today from these women – and I believe Clara Schumann’s music is worth celebrating.

Some of my favorite music of hers is from her 6 Lieder, Op. 13. Here is my recording of Liebeszauber (Love’s Magic), excerpted from our first livestream mini-concert. You can find the whole concert over in the Livestream section of the blog.


Op. 13, Clara Schumann

Lisa Newill-Smith, soprano

David Wishart, pianist

Sources I used for this blog post include Anna Beer’s Sounds and Sweet Airs, and the article on Clara Schumann in Oxford Music Online. Much of her sheet music is available on IMSLP – please go and sing and play as much of it as you can!


Ruth Schonthal

Happy International Women’s Day! To celebrate, I’m going to feature a composer near to heart, Ruth Schonthal. Last month, my duo partner and I performed a concert that featured her stunning Totengesänge (Death Songs) as the finale. You can find the recording from our performance on 26 February below. 

After our concert, nearly everyone we spoke to was stunned that not only had they never heard this masterpiece, they’d never heard of Schonthal herself. 

Ruth was born Ruth Esther Hadassah Schönthal to a Jewish family in 1924 in Hamburg, Germany. From a young age, it was clear she had talent. By the time she was 5, Ruth had started composing for the piano and soon became the youngest student of her time at Berlin’s prestigious Stern Conservatory

The rise of the Nazis and Hitler cut her time at the conservatory and in Germany short. After being expelled along with all the other Jewish students in 1935, she returned to Hamburg for a few years. By 1938, her parents recognized the danger of the Nazis and were able to leave the country for the relative safety of Sweden.

Despite the horrors of World World II, Ruth continued her musical studies in Stockholm at the Royal Academy of Music until 1941. By then, Europe had become too dangerous for Jews, and the family fled once again, this time to Mexico.

Now 17, Ruth adjusted to life in Mexico City by continuing her studies. She worked with 2 composition teachers, Manuel Ponce, and Rodolfo Halffter. While Halffter focused on modern composers like Schoenberg, Ravel, and Debussy, Ponce featured folk tunes from his native Mexico.

5 years after arriving in Mexico, Schonthal played the world premiere of her Concierto Romantico for Piano and Orchestra. The piece impressed famous composer Paul Hindemith so much that he immediately offered Ruth the chance to study with him at Yale.

Schonthal took the opportunity and moved to the US to study with Hindemith and graduated in 1948 at age 24. 

In 1950, she married Paul Seckel, and they moved to New York City together. Over the years, the couple had 3 children together. 

Despite her innovative approach to music, Ruth had to pay the bills somehow. She began writing pop music and jingles for radio advertisements to keep the lights on. 

However, she continued to write non-commercial music and to perform as a concert pianist. Her musical style is nearly as varied as her background. While much of her music follows a thread of romanticism, you can hear the influence of Schoenberg, Hindemith, Ponce, Weil, and traditional music from Judaism, Mexico, Germany, and the US. 

She wrote many works, including pieces for piano solo, voice and piano, 3 operas, and concertos. Her pieces play with the sound of the instruments and sometimes include improvisation, which she was known for in her own performances. 

Many of her works have a religious or political slant.  Her 1994 chamber work, The Wall Before and After, is about reunifying Berlin. In Bells of Sarajevo for clarinet and prepared piano (1997), she provides commentary on the tragedy in Yugoslavia, and her 3rd string quartet from 1997, Holocaust in Memoriam, deals with the Shoah.

Her works extend to electric guitar and 3 operas, including Jocasta (1997), a feminist retelling of Oedipus. 

Ruth Schonthal died in 2006 in New York. Before her death, she returned several times to Germany, where she was recognized for her incredible compositions.

Totengesänge is a masterpiece that shows the many different faces of death, portrayed through the words and the varied styles of music. You’ll hear the longing for the death bells in the piano, the scathing of a lover scorned in the sprechstimme, the fear of a mother guarding a sick baby, and the ecstasy of a young dying virgin. Below you can find the lyrics in German and English (written by Schonthal herself) and the recording.

Totengesänge (Death Songs) by Ruth Schonthal (1963)

1. Totenglocken (Death Bells)

Nun ist das große Leid
und die große Freude
Nun sehne ich mich nach dem Tod.
Nun, in meinem Traumen
hör ich Totenglocken läuten.

Now that the great suffering
and the great joys
have passed.
I long for Death.
In my dream,
I hear Death Bells ring.

2. Die ewige Liebe (The Eternal Love)

Die ewige Liebe
von der man mir sprach,
die gibt es nicht!
Das allerliebenste Paar
geht schweigsam durch’s Leben
bis all die Leidenschaft
und Wärme,
und Sehnsucht,
und Ehrfurcht
zur Gewohnheit wird.
Verkalkende Hände
halten einander mit trockenem Griff,
leiden einander in resignierter Trauer
und zivilisierter Toleranz
bis nur der Tod sie erlöst –
bis nur der Tod sie scheidet!

The Eternal Love
of which one speaks,
does not exist!
The most loving couple
goes silently through life
until all passion
and warmth
and yearning
and respect
becomes habit.
Calcifying hands
hold one another with a dry grip,
suffer one another in resigned sorrow
and civilized tolerance
until only Death redeems them –
until Death does them part!

3. Wiegenlied an ein krankes Kind (Cradle Song for a Sick Child)

Eya popeya,
Süße Äuglein,
die mich anstrahlten,
zärtliche Arme, die mich umarmten,
fiebernde Wangen,
die wie Feuer glühen,
Pulse, die rasen,
Atem, der röchelt!

Sei ruhig, mein süßes Kind!
Eya popeya.
Schließe die Süßen Äuglein zur Ruhe zu,

Wenn dich der Tod,
aus meinem Armen reissen würde,
würde ich schreien wie ein Tier!
Mit müden Augen werde ich über dich wachen
die ganze lange Nacht.
Im dunklen Zimmer sitz ich und warte
zähle die Stunden
bis die Sonne
mit ihrem Strahlen
dich zärtlich erwecket.

Eya popeya
Sweet little eyes,
which shine into mine,
tender arms, which embraced me,
feverish cheeks
that glow like fire
Pulses that race
Breath that wheezes!

Be quiet, my beloved child!
Eya popeya.
Close the sweet eyes in peace quickly!

If Death were to yank you away from my arms, I would scream like an animal!
With tired eyes, I will sit vigil over you all night long.
In the darkened room, I sit and wait
counting the hours
until the sun
with her rays,
tenderly awakens you.

4. Tod einer Jungfrau (Death of a Virgin)

Ich liege hier im dunklen Zimmer
und wartet auf ihn.
Er kommt zu mir –
er kommt ganz nah an mich heran.
Er schaut in meine Augen,
Er sieht mich liebend an.

Ich fühl seinen kalten Atmen auf meinen heißen Schläfen.
Es quellt meine Lust.

Es streicheln seine Hände
zärtlich meine Brust.
Schon senkt sich die Schwere seines Körpers
auf den meinen.

Ich schreie auf! Ich fühl den seinen! O Ekstase!
In den Armen des Todes
will ich von der Liebe lernen!

I am lying here in a dark room
waiting for him.
He is coming toward me-
he is coming very close to me
He looks in my eyes
he looks at me lovingly.

I feel his cold breath upon my burning temples,
My lust surges.

His hands tenderly caress my breasts,
Already the heaviness of his body sinks upon mine.

I cry out! I feel him! O ecstasy!
In the arms of Death I will learn of love!

5. Totentanz (Dance of Death)

Der Tod fordert mich auf zum Tanze.
Mir graust.
Er kommt ganz nah an mich heran.
Er lächelt
und ergreift seine Violine
und fängt zu spielen an.

Oh Weh, was ist das für ein Getöse,
was für eine jämmerliche krazterei?
Es brausen meinen Ohren!
Es bricht mein Herz entzwei!
Es dreht sich mich alles im Kreise,
immer toller wird seine Weise.
Warum kann er, mit diese fürchterliche Musik
nich aufhören?
Wie mir die Ohren lösen!
Es bricht mein Herz entzwei!

Death summons me to a dance
I shudder.
He comes quite close to me.
He laughs
and grabs his violin
and starts playing.

Ah, what kind of miserable,
what kind of pitiful scratching?
My ears are roaring!
My heart is breaking into pieces!
Everything is turning in circles
His melodies are getting constantly more fretful.
Why can’t this horrible music stop?
How it rages in my ears!
My heart is breaking in two!

6. Totenreigen (Round Dance of Death)

Leise, in immer näherem Kreise,
Dreh’n wir uns dem Tode
zögend entgegen.
Näher, immer ihm näher,
bis wir in seinen Armen versinken.

Softly, in always closer circles,
we turn towards Death.
Closer, and always closer to Him,
until we sink into His arms.

7. Hurenlied (Song of a Whore)

Der Tod nahm mich beim Schopfe,
er warf mich ins kühle Grab.
Da lieg ich nun und weine,
und büße meine Sünden ab.

Doch hätt’ ich nich gesündigt,
wär ich genau so Tot.
Im Leben muss man nehmen
die Lust sowohl als auch die Not.

Im Leben muss man arbeiten,
oft auch sündigt für das täglich Brot.

Death grabbed me by the hair,
and threw me in the cold grave.
There I am lying, now crying,
doing penance for my sins.

But, had I not sinned,
I would be just as dead.
In life, one has to take lust as well as misery.

In life, one has to work,
often sinning for the daily bread.

8. Die Spanierin (The Spanish Woman)

Der Sand und die Sonne,
der in gold-gekleidete Mann
erregt die Lust und die Wonne
in der Brust von der Spanischen Frau.

Doch wenn des Stieres scharfe Hörner
den Torero tötlich verwunden,
seine Schenkel ganz tief durchdringen,
Geht es wie ein Singen, wie ein klingen,
durch den geniessenden Leib
von dem Spanischen Weib.

The sand and the sun,
the man, all clad in gold,
excites the lust
in the breast of the Spanish woman.

But when the sharp horns of the bull
inflict a deadly wound upon the toreador,
penetrating his thighs,
Something like a singing, like a sounding,
flows through the gratified body
of the Spanish woman.

Performed by 

Lisa Newill-Smith, soprano

David Wishart, piano

with Theater Vorpommern in Stralsund 26 Feburary, 2023

The score is from Furore Verlag. The text and translation comes from the score.

This blog thanks Wikipedia and the New York Times for information about the composer.

Thanks to Katja Pfeifer for moderating our concert, Theater Vorpommern for having us, and Furore Verlag for publishing the score. 

Composer Bio

Undine Smith Moore

Born in 1904 in small-town Virginia, Undine Smith Moore made her mark as a talented composer, pianist, and exceptional teacher. She earned her title, “the Dean of Black Women Composers,” by continuously giving her all to her students at Virginia State College and through her songs, piano pieces, and spirituals, which many are rediscovering today.

Moore’s family focused heavily on music, so it was no surprise that she quickly took up the piano. At church and home, the entire family celebrated with singing and playing. After moving to Petersburg, VA, in 1908 with her family, Undine started taking lessons with Lillian Allen Darden. She trained diligently, learning the ins and outs of becoming a top-notch classical pianist.

Following her love of music, Moore attended the historically black college, Fisk University, for her undergraduate in piano studies. In 1924, Julliard, a world-renowned conservatory, recognized Moore’s talent by offering her a full scholarship. However, she chose to accept an offer to become the supervisor of music in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The following year, she joined the music faculty of Virginia State College while also commuting to Columbia University for her Master’s.

During her long tenure at Virginia State, Moore became the backbone of the department. Through her efforts in co-founding and directing the Black Music Center at Virginia State, thousands of young Black musicians could experience the music of top Black composers and performers. They could learn from leading Black lecturers in a variety of musical fields, including blues and jazz. At the time, few college curriculums included music by Black composers, and Moore pushed to change that.

Although Moore didn’t consider herself a composer, she wrote and arranged over 100 pieces, primarily for voice and piano. When asked about composing, she said, “One of the most evil effects of racism in my time was the limits it placed upon the aspirations of blacks, so that though I have been ‘making up’ and creating music all my life, in my childhood or even in college I would not have thought of calling myself a composer or aspiring to be one.” It wasn’t until she retired from teaching that she truly began to think of herself as a composer rather than a teacher.

Moore also frequently spoke about the issues concerning women in classical music, particularly in composition and conducting. She believed that because both conductors and composers serve as authority figures in the musical world, it was no surprise that women found it difficult to break into these fields. Additionally, Moore often expressed that because women had to care for the “minutia of daily life,” like taking care of children and the house, they had less mental space to find the freedom needed for composition. This theme is a recurring one, with social norms forcing women to take more mental energy to run the household, care for children, and feed their families. From Clara Schumann to Amy Beach, women composers across history have found it challenging to balance the needs of the family and their need to compose.

Through Moore’s work, thousands of young students learned about Black and female composers and performers that would otherwise have disappeared into history. She also gave us a wide range of fantastic pieces, including art songs, arrangements of spirituals, and a cantata featuring her own libretto, Scenes from the life of a Martyr, which honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Throughout her life, Moore received many awards and recognitions, including an honorary doctorate from Virginia State and Indiana University and the Humanitarian Award from Fisk University. In 1977, Virginia named her its music laureate, and in 1985 the state awarded her the Virginia Governor’s Award in the Arts. She passed away from a stroke on February 6, 1989.

While preparing for a competition, I came across Moore’s arrangement of Come Down Angels. It’s a beautiful arrangement, and I hope you enjoy our rendition of it.

To learn more about Undine Smith Moore, check out From Spirituals to Symphonies: African American Women Composers and their Music by Helen Walker-Hill. There’s also The Gershwin Initiative and Music by Black Composers.

You can find her music in some anthologies, including Hildegard Publishing Company’s Art Songs & Spirituals by African-American Women Composers.

Topic Thursday

We’re Back!

The past few months have been crazy busy, since we adopted an adorable puppy and things have started opening back up! But now that little Eevee has settled into things, I’m back to blogging.

Photo Credit: Peter van Heesen

In the next few weeks and months, I’ll be releasing some blogs about Undine Smith Moore, Florence Price, Luise Greger, and several living composers whose works I’ve recently recorded. Stay tuned for some great information and a few tips about where you can hear music by women being performed, and how to choose the best repertoire for your recital or concert.

As always, let me know if you want to request a particular Topic Thursday or are curious about a specific composer!

Stay safe and healthy everyone, and I hope that you are all getting to enjoy this glorious summer weather 🙂

Photo Credit: Peter van Heesen

Composer Bio Topic Thursday

Tis the Season

The holiday season means different things to different people, but most of us associate the holidays with certain pieces of music. Whether that’s the Hallelujah chorus, Hänsel und Gretel, La Bohème, or Christmas carols, it’s been difficult this year to celebrate with music.

I decided to start looking around for some Christmas music by women. During Hannukah last week, I was fortunate to perform Ella Milch Sheriff’s Shacharit in a livestreamed concert, which made me think there must be some Christian holiday music by women out there too.

Furore Verlag has several fantastic compilations of Christmas carols, which feature music by Amy Beach, Luise Greger, and Emilie Zumsteeg, among others. I thought about picking one of these pieces and performing it for you all when I remembered that there’s a well-known carol loved by British choristers called “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.”

Elizabeth Poston

Born in 1905 in Hertfordshire, Elizabeth Poston was a composer, pianist, and supposed British agent during WWII. She attended the Royal Academy of Music, starting in 1924, and received several prestigious composition awards while there. Like Elizabeth Maconchy, another composer two years her younger, Poston studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams and developed a strong professional relationship with Peter Warlock, both of these established composers encouraging her compositional career.

In 1930, Poston went abroad to collect folksongs and study art architecture. When she returned in 1939, Poston started working with the BBC, composing over 40 scores for radio and TV. During the war years, many speculate that she sent coded messages embedded in gramophone discs to underground groups in Europe, taking orders directly from Churchill.

After taking some time off to recuperate from her efforts during the war, Poston returned to the BBC and remained there for decades. Her pieces included collaborations with many famous authors, including CS Lewis, and she created the BBC’s Third Programme, which broadcast plays, operas, and concerts in their entirety, without interruptions.

By the 1960s, Poston had turned her attention toward song collections, focusing on collecting and curating six compilations, including the famous Penguin Book of Christmas Carols. Together with Vaughan Williams, she also edited The English Hymnal, creating the widely used Cambridge Hymnal that many choirs know and love today. She also gave a five-part talk about Warlock’s life and music for the BBC.

In the early 1970s, Poston was forced to take a step back after an aneurysm. After recovering, she continued to work on her song collections and compositions. She suffered a stroke and passed away in 1987 while working on a collection of Christmas carols. Her legacy remained, with over 40 scores for radio and tv, many pieces for voice, both solo and choral, and an impressive number of academic writings and song collections.

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

One of Poston’s most well-known arrangements is the beautiful 6-part acapella version of the Christmas carol “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” I wanted to perform some Christmas music, and unfortunately, it’s difficult to get a choir together in these strange times.

Instead, we figured we would record it for some festive fun! Here’s our first-ever attempt at a multi-track recording, featuring yours truly on Soprano 1, Soprano 2, Alto 1, and Alto 2, and Dave singing tenor and bass. We hope you enjoy and have a safe, healthy, and happy holiday.

Composer Bio Topic Thursday

Ella Milch-Sheriff

Today I had the privilege of speaking with composer Ella Milch-Sheriff in the first-ever Women Who Composed interview. She’s experienced huge success as a composer, with works premiered by theaters in Germany (including Staatstheater Fürth) and Israel throughout the years. She’s just finished composing a piece for soprano and orchestra that will premiere next year and is already getting started on her next.

Next week, on 17 December 2020, I’ll be performing her Shacharit, a work for soprano and baritone soloist, choir, and orchestra, with the Synagogue Ensemble Berlin. We’ll be live streaming from the beautiful Nikolaikirche in Potsdam. Watch my Instagram for more information on how to see the concert online! 

Watch my interview with her below to learn about her composing process, what it’s like watching your pieces be performed, and how she’s dealt with 2020. 

Topic Thursday

“Feminine” Instruments

For centuries, women were restricted not only from publicly performing but also from playing specific instruments. These restrictions, like many for women throughout history, created a barrier that deliberately kept women at home.

Although many upper-class women were expected to know how to make music, they were only allowed to perform in private (or perhaps at a carefully organized house concert). They were expressly prohibited from joining the orchestras of the day. Although opera performances utilized female singers, they were usually viewed as low-brow and often faced accusations of impropriety. 

So, what instruments were women allowed to play? Here’s a list of “permitted” instruments and some of the reasons others were discouraged. Of course, this is not an all-encompassing list, and there are always exceptions to the rule. These traditions mostly deal with the Western European classical music world.

1. Harpsichord

Harpsichords, and eventually pianos, were great. Most well-to-do families had one in their parlor, and their daughters were expected to entertain guests with a cute, appropriate ditty. However, a professional career as a virtuoso pianist was not easily accessible to women. Clara Schumann is a clear exception, but she faced backlash even from her own husband as she supported the family with her piano tours. 

Learning to play a keyboard instrument was essential for young women of standing for centuries. An ability to play well was crucial to securing a husband. Pianos were also acceptable because you could play them delicately, with no inappropriate facial expressions, and the actual music production was not visible.

Composing for the public was discouraged, but some women kept at it despite this. 

Fanny Hensel composed many pieces for the piano and held renowned concerts at her home in Berlin. She would perform her own works or have friends play with her. However, she shied away from giving public performances, partially because her brother, Felix Mendelssohn, believed she should keep her music in the home.

2. Lute/Guitar

Another acceptable option was the lute and later, the guitar. These were considered feminine and, again, were suitable for parlor music. It was also easy to play the lute to accompany your singing, making it perfect for a house concert. 

Many of Francesca Caccini’s pieces were written for lute and voice, with a simple accompaniment under florid singing. 

3. Singing

A clear, in-tune singing voice was a sign of a well-bred lady. Of course, she should never show this ability in public, only in the company of family or acquaintances. Mariana Martines pushed this idea further than many women in Vienna by having well-publicized home concerts that featured her performing her own music. 

Other composers who used singing as an entry to compose include Caccini, Strozzi, and Boetzelaer. Strozzi, in particular, faced a lot of discrimination due to her status as a singer.

That’s it.

Yeap. That’s pretty much it. In Anna Beer’s book, Sounds and Sweet Airs, she talks about how the choice of instrument was gendered. Women were not allowed to play the violin because, although the instrument itself was considered “female,” the player uses a “phallic” bow to play the violin (or the woman). Therefore, it was entirely unacceptable for a woman to play a woman. How scandalous would that be? On the other hand, Menuhin (a famous 19th-century violinist who considered playing the violin the same as a master making love) believed a cello could be acceptable because it sits between a woman’s legs and somehow reduced her narcissism. 

As we know today, these restrictions are utterly ridiculous. Instruments do not have a gender, and people of all backgrounds, regardless of their gender, sexuality, race, or class, can be incredible musicians on whatever instrument they choose when given the opportunity. 

This way of thinking has also created a dramatic barrier for women in the classical orchestral industry. Until the 20th century, women were entirely excluded from professional orchestras. The Vienna Philharmonic didn’t allow women until 1997. In 2018, out of 20 orchestras examined, 69% of players were men, with some instruments played only by men (like the Tuba). 

Although this is changing, I believe this barrier is partially due to the long-term belief that women should only play specific instruments or risk losing their femininity. Hopefully, this gap will close as we move further into the 21st century. 

Topic Thursday

The Woman Behind Chopsticks

Today’s Topic Thursday is about one of the most well-known piano pieces of all time. No, I’m not talking about Claire de lune or Moonlight Sonata. I’m talking about Chopsticks.

If you ever had a music class in school, you probably tried this easy ditty out, and if you had a piano at home, you likely drove your parents mad by playing it over and over.

But… did you know Chopsticks was written by a woman? Although it was published under a male pseudonym, Euphemia Allen, a Glaswegian, wrote “The Chop Waltz” as a 16-year-old.

Euphemia Allen

Euphemia Amelia Nightingale Allen was born in 1861 in Glasgow to a musical family. Her father was a highly regarded dance instructor, and her brother, Mozart Allen, went on to become a music publisher.

In 1877, Euphemia composed “The Chop Waltz” at the tender age of 16. She published two versions to allow for solo playing or a duet. It earned the title chopsticks because she instructed players to hit the keys with a chopping motion.

Euphemia went on to become a piano teacher and a music publisher but never published another piece of her own.


Chopsticks is probably one of the most widely known piano pieces. I had no idea who it was by, let alone that a woman wrote it, until a few weeks ago. It’s been featured in other composers’ works, movies, TV shows, and pop music. From Sesame Street to Bugs Bunny, Chopsticks is everywhere.

Next time you hear someone say, “but if women wrote good music, it’d be well-known,” send them a recording of Chopsticks.

Topic Thursday

Resources for Learning About Black Women Composers

Women of color have long been excluded from the classical music world. Much of the current literature focuses on white women. However, there is a wealth of music out there written by women of color across the world. 

As I’m starting to do more research on this subject, I’ve found a few websites and books that I’m really excited to delve into. Since my last Topic Thursday, which included resources for finding sheet music, was pretty popular, I thought people might appreciate a round-up of resources for learning more about black women composers. 

There are tons of incredible pieces out there, and I’ve only skimmed the surface so far. Through these resources, I’ve found many more recordings that I can’t wait to listen to. 

African Diaspora Music Project

This fantastic project, led by Dr. Louise Toppin and Videmus, has compiled a massive list of black composers. They’ve got biographies and a search function to help you find songs appropriate to your voice and concert repertoire. 

Dr. Louise Toppin is a soprano and professor specializing in contemporary music and has also spent years promoting the performance and research of music by black composers. Her organization Videmus is dedicated to performing under-represented composers, including composers of color and female composers. 

Music by Black Composers

Music By Black Composers

Music by Black Composers has a massive directory of all known historic black composers and a separate one for living composers. They’ve also published several anthologies (at the moment, for violin, but more works are coming) and a blog that often features biographies of historic black composers.

Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Women’s Philharmonic Initiative

Although not entirely focused on black composers, the Women’s Philharmonic Initiative is a fantastic organization. They provide grants to orchestras in the US that would like to perform music by women. Past grant winners include the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (2015), San Jose Chamber Orchestra (2012), and the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, 2020 grants are on hold.

If you’re an orchestral ensemble looking to perform music by black women composers, check out their list here. They also have parts available on request, which makes life a lot easier.

African American Composer Initiative (AACI)

Founded in 2009 in San Francisco, the AACI performs a wide variety of music by black composers, including Florence Price and Duke Ellington. They’ve got tons of recordings and performances on their website and a list of composers with links to sheet music.

Chamber Music America

This organization exists to promote chamber music of all types, including classical and jazz, across the United States. They have a Composers Equity Project, which has a massive list of composers of color, women, and gender non-conforming composers with links to their websites. 

Most of these seem to be living composers, so if you’re looking for composers from previous eras, you might want to check out another site. 

Black Women’s Music Database

This database is dedicated to researching music by black women across genres. They’ve got a huge PDF, which is a fantastic resource whether you’re interested in classical music, jazz, blues, theater, or opera – seriously, they have all the art bases covered.

Hildegard Publishing

Often, a significant barrier to programming music by under-represented composers is finding sheet music. Hildegard Publishing has several anthologies focusing on black women composers, including Art Songs and Spirituals by African-American Composers and Black Women Composers: A Century of Piano Music

Enjoy Exploring

This music deserves to be performed just as much as the standard existing canon, and all of these organizations are doing fantastic work getting it out there. Whether you’re a musician looking for new rep, a teacher wanting to include more diverse composers in your materials, or just want to listen to some seriously underappreciated music, you should check out these websites.

For those wanting to listen, here are a few Spotify playlists:

Black Women Classical

The Vocal Music of Black American Women Classical Composers

Awesome Music by Black Female Composers

Topic Thursday

Finding Scores: How to Get Your Hands On Music By Women

One of the most challenging things I found when I started learning about music by women was finding sheet music. I’m one of those people who prefer listening along with the score – especially if I’m considering singing the piece. Unfortunately, it can be hard to get your hands on a lot of these scores, especially if they’re from the Baroque or Classical period.

I’ve made a list of the places I go to check for music, but I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface. Please leave comments/message me on Instagram if you have other avenues! I’m always looking for new composers to get to know.

Chaminade, IMSLP


This one might be obvious, but there are loads of women composers on IMSLP. You can find most of Cécil Chaminade’s and Amy Beach’s songs there, plus lots of Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn. 

This should definitely be your first stop when looking for scores. Also, each composer’s Wikipedia site usually has a list of pieces composed linked to IMSLP. For a lot of these more popular and well-known composers, the editions are actually quite nice. However, some of the uploads are borderline illegible, including bad scans of original scores. There are also some composers with minimal pieces available, partially due to lost originals.

Hildegard Publishing

If you hear a recording and fall in love with the piece, sometimes (if you’re me), you spend hours looking for the sheet music. Although Hildegard Publishing doesn’t have everything, they have a LOT. Every piece they publish was composed by a woman. 

My favorite thing about Hildegard is their anthologies. Unlike music in the canon, where we’re more familiar with the composers, many people interested in learning pieces composed by women don’t know where to start. An anthology is perfect because it usually includes works from early Baroque through the Romantic era in multiple languages. 

Their newest anthology, a collaboration with A Modern Reveal, is 24 Italian Songs & Arias by Women Composers. It’s ideal for someone interested in learning new pieces or a young singer. All singers are familiar, perhaps too familiar, with the traditional 24 Italian Songs & Arias. However, every single piece in the original is by a man. This anthology features works by Strozzi, Caccini, Colbran, and Viardot – all fantastic composers.

Furore Verlag

Like Hildegard, Furore Verlag is another publishing company that only produces scores by women composers. This company is invaluable, particularly for orchestras, choirs, and opera companies looking to include more diverse composers in their upcoming seasons.

Furore Verlag has hundreds of composers and offers vocal scores and full scores. They also provide a small biography about each composer in both English and German, and each work has a difficulty rating. Especially if you’re looking for pieces for your youth choir or orchestra, Furor Verlag is a fantastic resource.

They also have multiple Anthologies (I know I keep going on about them, but really – they’re a great way to discover composers).  

Archiv Frau und Musik

This is another fantastic resource based in Frankfurt, Germany. They do amazing research into music by women, have an online category, and have a huge list of online and real-life resources.

Song Helix

Search for any composer you want to learn about their songs, where you can find their music, and get some information about them. Song Helix has an incredible variety of composers, and you can narrow your search to only include black women composers, Jewish composers, or LGBT (among other options). You can also search by topic instead, which is great for people planning recitals.

Martines, La Tempesta, Original Score


If you’re in deep, like me, you’ll notice that some pieces just haven’t been published yet. About a year ago now, I decided to submit an application for an early music competition consisting entirely of music by women. In my search to find appropriate sheet music, I came across a book series entitled Women Composers: Music Through the Ages. It’s a multi-book series that features composers and includes excerpts of their sheet music. 

In Germany, at least one book in the series was nearly 1200EUR on Amazon, and as a freelance singer, I couldn’t really spring for that. Luckily, the Humboldt Library had the whole series in Berlin. If you want to learn more about unknown composers, this is the series for you, and if you’re lucky, a library near you will have it.

Libraries also have some original scores. The National Austrian Library has digitalized most of Mariana Martines’ original scores and has other composers as well. If you’re interested in a particular composer, Wikipedia often lists where their original scores are kept. Although in COVID times, a library visit may be difficult, it’s worth checking online and calling them to see if they have a copy of the score. 

Have Fun!

Although it can be frustrating to want a specific score and not be able to source it, be open to the process. I’ve discovered pieces that I love while searching for something else. If you want recommendations or are having trouble finding a specific piece, shoot me a message, and I’ll do what I can. 

If you have other resources you’d like to recommend, please let me know. 

If you enjoy my blog, head over to the homepage, and click “Follow.” You’ll get an update whenever I post a new article. Stay tuned for our next livestream concert announcement, which is in the works! 

Topic Thursday

The Shadow of the Courtesan

Today’s Topic Thursday is all about how their contemporaries perceived women who composed and made music. Although the specifics varied between eras and countries, one of the unfortunate mainstays was the sexualization of female musicians. In Anna Beer’s Sound and Sweet Airs, she refers to this phenomenon as the “shadow of the courtesan” and shows time and again how it affected women who composed. 

Today I’ll look at why this stereotype followed all women in music to an extent, why it developed, and how it influenced women’s lives.

Royalty-free nun photos free download | Pxfuel

When Did This Start? 

Anna Beer argues that the shadow of the courtesan goes all the way back to the Book of Samuel, which states that “listening to a women’s voice is sexual enticement.” Even today, women are not allowed to sing in Orthodox synagogues, partially due to this line. 

The Catholic Church stayed on the same track. Nuns were only permitted to sing certain types of music and never in front of men. Even in areas where Lutherism or other Protestant religions replaced the Catholic Church, the story remained the same. Women’s compositions and performances have always been viewed in terms of their sex. Many composers received reviews complimenting their pieces, saying they almost sounded like a man wrote them. 

Reputation Mattered

For much of western history, the reputation of a woman – and the intactness of her virginity – were decisive factors in her ability to function in society. With the increase of distinct noble families and national structures in the Middle Ages and beyond, virginity and purity became a large factor in women’s marriageability status. Marriage was a key instrument in connecting families and making alliances in Europe. To expand their power, influence, or rise in rank, families used tactical marriages. A “spoiled” daughter was of no use to them. 

Aside from the often intrusive examinations and extensive bedding ceremonies, which included a next-morning check for bloody sheets, women could also lose purity through reputation alone. Through the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, powerful men in nobility and the Church structured society so that it favored them and used the threat of ostracisation to restrict women’s movements. Women couldn’t be alone with a man (what if people talk!), couldn’t use their creativity (what if they enticed a man sexually?!), and above all, couldn’t perform in front of men. In Shakespeare’s time, all the women’s parts onstage were played by men because of this societal restriction. 

Women in music in the 1600 and 1700s suffered from these strict societal rules. Some women could participate in music by only performing in private concerts for female royalty. Many princesses and queens, including Princess Anne, in whose court Josina van Boetzelaer worked, asked their ladies-in-waiting to perform for them. (Netflix and chill wasn’t an option for entertainment yet). 

Other women braved the reputation hit and performed in the open royal court for both men and women. However, there were limited options for them. Many performed as young children and were taken under the protective wing of a lady of the court, like Jaquet de la Guerre or Francesca Caccini, and they were rarely, if ever, offered the position of court composer. A notable exception to this rule was, in fact, Caccini, who became the highest-paid member of the Medici Court under Maria Magdalena.

Choices for Women

For much of western history, and in some cases, until women received the right to vote, the choice for women has been the convent or marriage. Some talented musicians chose the Church, joining particular convents renowned (and often denigrated) for their music writing and singing. If a woman wanted to pursue music outside the Church, she would either have to hope that her husband allowed it or remain unmarried. 

Unfortunately, many of these unmarried singers were pressured into relationships with their benefactors, like Barbara Strozzi. Others chose this route as the best option that allowed them some semblance of independence outside the rigid social structure. In some areas, there was more leeway for courtesans. If a woman gained a noble’s attention, she could become influential, like Madame de Montespan in France. As the mistress of Louis XIV, she had enormous influence over the court. She often influenced his decision when choosing musicians for the court and composers for his official events. 

In the 1800s, the acceptance of courtesans had waned in polite society. Composers like Mariana Martines and Clara Wieck-Schumann had to navigate a new world where music-making was delineated by gender lines. Men wrote symphonies and operas, while women remained in the home concert sphere, writing songs and small chamber pieces.

Even in the 1900s, Amy Beach struggled against society. She wasn’t permitted to study abroad, and her husband forbade her from performing in public more than twice a year (for charity, of course!). It wasn’t until her husband’s death that she could travel to Europe. 


Even today, the shadow of the courtesan lingers. Perhaps our reputations aren’t affected by our interactions with men, but singers continue to experience harassment, even on the biggest stages in opera. #MeToo hit the opera world hard. If we haven’t experienced this type of harassment ourselves, we have a friend who has

Why am I talking about singers? Because most women who composed throughout history were singers first. The idea of a composer, and not a performer, is a relatively new one (although that’s a whole other post). 

The Impact

I could write a whole book on this. In fact, Anna Beer has. The shadow of the courtesan has informed women’s decisions throughout history. How many talented women didn’t pursue music because their husbands forbade it? Or wrote fantastic pieces only for small groups of friends without publishing them? 

And how many composers have been forgotten because they were merely courtesans?

Unfortunately, we can’t know the answer, but many talented researchers are searching for more composers from every era. The great thing is that we do have many composers who broke the mold and shared their talent with the world. I think we owe it to them to perform it. 

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