The lost works

Great female composers produced music in spite of significant cultural barriers

Barbara Strozzi (Wikimedia)

Despite working in cultures that for centuries systematically denied almost all women access to advanced education in composition, professional positions, and even the right to publish their own music, many women continued to compose, and achieve greatness in the classical era. Early 17th century Florentine composer Francesca Caccini, for instance, is the first known female writer of an opera, La Liberazione di Ruggiero. Her opera so inspired the King of Poland that he created his own opera house, and invited Caccini to compose the first works for it. Barbara Strozzi of Venice might not be well known now, but she had more secular music in print in the mid-1600s than any other composer.

The works of many great female composers, unfortunately, are lost. Clara Schumann, the wife of famed composer Robert Schumann, was one of the great pianists of the 19th century. After her husband’s death she worked tirelessly to promote his work, creating for a canon that would ultimately exclude her. Fanny Hensel, sister of famed composer Felix Mendelssohn, would write one of the great string quartets of the 19th century, along with over 400 other works. But the vast majority of her work went unpublished, due to her family’s belief that her duties as a woman should take precedence. The rest of her music is in an archive under the control of Dr. Rudolf Elvers, who refuses to publish further works, because, he says, “She was nothing. She was just a wife.”

Read the full story at Smithsonian Magazine.

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