12 Pieces of Classical Music by Women

For Women's History Month 2017, a list of pieces that could get you started listening to music written by women; personally curated by the NET classical music staff.

Lora Black's picks:

1. The Boatswain's Mate: Overture by dame Ethyl Smyth

  • I chose this piece by Ethyl Smyth because she took part in the Suffragette movement in Britain, and because the sound of this work is upbeat and joyous. From the opening gentle chords to the brass charge, it encourages one to 'get involved.'

2.  Of a Sad Evening by Lili Boulanger

  • Both Lili and her older sister Nadia were musical. Lili was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome prize for composition. Unfortunately, she died very young, and this was to be one of her last works. This piece expresses melancholy. There is a lighter companion piece to this titled Of a Spring Morning. Both pieces have a somewhat Debussy-like sound.

Ethel Smyth

3. Celestial Suite: Nocturne by Toni Beauleiu

  • If pieces of classical music were items on a restaurant menu, this piece would be a dessert. Perhaps it would be strawberry shortcake with real whipped cream, or a dark chocolate mousse! It’s light, endearing and spiritually uplifting. Toni Beaulieu was a child prodigy and wrote her first composition at age 14.  By the time she was 18 she had earned a PhD in violin and a Master of Music in piano.  Probably best remembered as the composer of Jungle Rhumba, which was the highlight from the MGM musical Neptune's Daughter, starring Esther Williams and Red Skelton.  During her lifetime she wrote over 200 titles, with her work ranging from Latin American to classical, and from jazz to music for children.

 

Louise Farrenc

Sofia Gubaidulina, photo by Dmitri Smirnov

Robert Goldberg’s picks:

4.  Piano Quintet No. 2 in E Major, Op. 31 by Louise Farrenc

  • She is a wonderful composer, and I’ve always loved this piece -- especially the theme of the first movement, which is strikingly similar to the All Things Considered theme.

5.  Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra by Nadia Boulanger

  • Nadia just can’t be left out. She taught Aaron Copland, John Eliot Gardiner, Elliot Carter, Virgil Thomson, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Glass and Astor Piazzolla, to name a few. Also, she was the first woman to conduct the BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia orchestras, among others. She could have made more of a career as a composer in her own right, but didn’t believe she was very good. How much of that had to do with gender messaging? The Fantasy (1912) is rich and romantic, closer to Chopin than the impressionists, which is interesting considering she was at the forefront of ‘new music’.

6.  Sounds of the Forest for flute and piano by Sofia Gubaidulina   

  • Gubaidulina is an important and very interesting composer (still alive; born in 1931). She’s very much a modernist and got into the same kind of trouble as many of her male Soviet compatriots. But while their music is often angry and defiant, hers is a more spiritual and mystical rebuke. 

 

Genevieve Randall’s picks:

7.  Concertino for flute in D Major, Op. 107 by Cecile Chaminade

  • This piece makes me so happy! It takes advantage of all the things a flute is good at, silky-smooth fast running lines, and long lyrical lines of melody. I am a flutist, so perhaps I’m biased by my personal experience learning the piece in high school, but if I want to hear music that makes me feel triumphant, this is the piece. She wrote it in 1902 after a commission from the Paris Conservatoire, originally scored for flute and piano, not long after writing it she orchestrated it for a flutist friend to play.

8.  La Folia Variations by Michi Wiancko

  • It’s just so cool. I like how, after numerous composers taking their crack at using the simple La Folia melody—the roots of which go back to the 16th century—Wiancko has given this her own spin. She pays homage to Corelli and Geminiani, but at about 2 minutes in, gives us some really fun rhythmic play, at 6 minutes a folk sound and by 8 minutes in has brought this hundreds-year-old melody into the 20th and 21st Century.

9.  Sonatine for Violin and Piano in a minor by Pauline Viardot-Garcia

  • This is a delightful piece. The first movement is lovely, the second a light, joyful scherzo and the third is full of energy and bravura. I wanted to recommend one piece by Viardot because she is such an interesting person to me. She had so many connections and such successes in her career, that it’s surprising that we don’t hear more about her today.

Cécile Chaminade

Michi Wiancko

 

Clara Schumann

Evelyn Glennie, photo by Philipp Rathmer

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

John Mills’ picks:

10.  Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 20 by Clara Schumann

  • Although she is primarily known for being married to Robert and as a pianist at the caliber of Liszt, her compositions certainly don’t warrant being lost to time.  This piece was composed as a gift for Robert’s 43rd birthday.  The tune, Happy Farmer, is simple in its own right but serves as a great vehicle for Clara to show her skill as a composer.  In this straightforward theme and variations, she seems to nod in the direction of many different composers.  One of the variations alludes to the nocturnes of Chopin and two more toward the bolder piano compositions of Brahms.  There also seems to be at least an understanding (if not in style, in atmosphere for sure) of the smaller piano works of Mendelssohn.

11. A Little Prayer by Evelyn Glennie

  • Going through school as a percussionist (and a singer), I certainly appreciate innovation in the percussion world.  It’s fascinating to see what different artists from around the world can do with texture, rhythm, speed, melody, and timbre.  One musical aspect that is often lost is lyricism.  In this recording, she shows off not only her skills as a percussionist but also reminds us that the marimba can be a lyrical instrument.  With Glennie’s even mallet rolls and seamless transitions, we forget for a moment that we are listening to one of the great percussion instruments with roots in Africa.

 12.  Lied in E-flat Major by Fanny Mendelssohn

  • For much of her life, Fanny Mendelssohn was known for her being related to two famous men – Her brother, Felix, and her husband Wilhelm Hensel, a painter.  Both men were very supportive of Fanny’s compositional activities, though it wasn’t until 1846, the year before her death, that she first published one of her compositions under her own name.  This lied, or “song,” from that same year clearly hints at the famous “Songs Without Words” published by her brother.  This piece displays a mature approach to composition with restraint and certain vocal sensitivity to line.