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Musical Women In The Shadows

Influential women in the classical music world!

musical women

Classical Music Women, who have been hiding in the shadows of their counterparts finally are revealed. Personally, I believe they are influential figures in the classical music world. Don’t you? Well, let us have a look:

“Shakespeare’s Sister”


Those of you who have read Virginia Woolf and more specifically the story “A room of one’s to own” will know all about Judith Shakespeare. As for the others – she is completely fictional. Shakespeare’s sister is a fictional character in this story. She is equally talented as her famous brother, but with fewer opportunities than him, to show her great talent. She simply wouldn’t have access to the same education, parental and social support and the basic permission to develop her ambitions.

Judith is just a fictional character. However, throughout history there have appeared many female figures, which simply have stayed hidden in the shadow,of their male counterparts for various reasons.

St. Hildegard von Bigen

Starting with the early 12th century, we find a Greek abbess – St. Hildegard von Bingen. St. Hildegard was well known at the time, with her accomplishments not only in the music sphere, but also in poetry and medicine. She has written on subjects as “recorded visions, medical and scientific treatises, hagiography and letters.  Also, lyrical and dramatic poetry, which has survived with… music.” She invented her own alphabet and her medical texts are respected for their natural remedies qualities. In a time when women hardly ever left their home, Hildegard von Bingen went on four preaching tours- to spread not only theological word, but also to ask for a reform in the church.

Of course, at the time church music was the only music, so she has written mostly liturgical music pieces, but even they are incredibly gorgeous. One of her best-known works is the Ordo Virtutum, a morality play which is the only one from the medieval period where both the text and the music survive.

An interesting fact it that even though Hildegard is rumored to have had a queer side, because of her close and maybe romantic relationship with a fellow nun-Richardis von Strade, she has still been nominated and eventually canonized as a saint a few decades after her death.


While on the queer topic – we all know there were troubadours in the Middle Ages, but did you know there were women troubadours too? They were called troubairitz and were also traveling composers and musicians, and also wrote mostly love songs. The interesting part though, comes when we learn that a great number of these songs were addressed to other women. Yes, the composers kept the narrator’s voice as supposedly male, but there are some who do not hide. An example is “Na Maria” by Bieris de Romans, in which BOTH the singer and the object of affection are suggested to be women. An expression of “lesbian desires” or a religious devotion to Virgin Mary, I will leave to you to decide and tell me later.

Women have always written music, but have been abruptly interrupted by society’s norms, their parent’s beliefs, their “coming of age” for marriage, or simply the lack of education and support, both financial and moral, to continue doing what they do. In the past, there were rules. And lots of them. For example, a man could write music pieces with whatever scale – operas, symphonies, etc. – but women couldn’t write pieces that would require them to rent a hall to play in. They had to limit themselves in the size of a living-room – thus the chamber music appeared. The problem is that men, who became popular for writing chamber music, were allowed to play it in big halls too, while women were not. This limitation was imposed precisely so that women would not take attention and careers away from men.

Barbara Strozzi


Fortunately, that was not the case for 17th century Italian classical music woman- Barbara Strozzi. She was lucky to be introduced to the Italian elite by her adoptive father Giulio Strozzi, who encouraged her musical talent. Barbara was educated and trained as a singer and had the honor to perform and work with Italian composer Francesco Cavalli, one of the first writers of opera pieces. She was a pioneer in vocal music composing, madrigals and motets. Thanks to her father, she managed to publish eight collections of her vocal works, seven of which survive to this day.


Maria Anna Mozart and Fanny Mendelssohn

Maria Anna Mozart http://alchetron.com/
Maria Anna Mozart

When we talk about women in the shadows of their famous relatives, we have to mention the real-life examples of Shakespeare’s Sister – Maria Anna Mozart and Fanny Mendelssohn. Is it really necessary to say whose sisters they were? They both shared their brothers’ talents and early training, but at some point the restrictions were placed on them too. Young Mozart’s lessons were inspired by the ones his father Leopold gave his sister Anna Maria. Wolfgang admired his sister, her brilliance at the keyboard and looked up to her. None of Anna Maria’s compositions has survived, but experts say, she could have been as famous as her brother, if not even more, had she not reached the “marriageable age” when she was forced to stop her development, while her brother continued with his career.

Fanny Mendelssohn en.wikipedia.org
Fanny Mendelssohn

Fanny’s story is a bit more encouraging. Both she and her brother Felix were promising. However, while Felix was able to perform in public, she had to confine to her private salons. Felix often took his sister’s pieces and pushed them under his name, thinking that it would gain them the recognition they deserved. Her father wasn’t very supportive of her though. He didn’t think this lifestyle suited a woman of her class. Her husband, Wilhelm Hensel, a painter, was always behind her back. Hence, that’s why her salons always were very influential – that was where she presented her original works.


Clara Schumann

Robert & Clara Schumann ams-net.org
Robert & Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann, also known as “Robert Schumann’s wife”, was yet another woman prodigy, living in the shadow of her husband. Her career was fairly illustrious, mostly thanks to her ambitious father, who taught her to play the piano form an early age. She had no famous brother to compete with,hence, her father supported her. Even after her marriage to Robert, she did not let the fire die in her. Robert Schumann himself was not very eager to tour around, but she was and she did. Nevertheless, even though he complained and asked for a more traditional wife. Her performing around Europe helped them when Robert’s mental and physical health started deteriorating.

Life was hard in the Middle Ages. It was even harder if you did not stick to the traditions and status quo. The women above have only laid the pavement for modern day classical music composing women to work on. However, they certainly deserve their recognition. These days you only need talent to become wide known, regardless of gender, age or race. So it is way easier than living in the past and wanting to create… or is it?