The historical record of women making music extends back as far as the earliest histories and artifacts of musical performance. For example, artwork from Ancient Greece and Rome suggest that women’s choruses were featured in rituals and festivals. And throughout Chinese imperial history the courts, civil and military officials and wealthy households employed women to sing, dance, and play musical instruments. Medieval convents, which offered women opportunity for musical literacy, were the birthplaces of many renowned singers and of some of the earliest female composers we know by name.
How have women impacted the history of music? Below are seven women who impacted music history who might have gone unheard.
Kassia (b. 810)
A Byzantine-Greek composer and hymnographer, Kassia received a sophisticated education, including the study of classical Greek literature (the influence of which may be seen in her liturgical and secular poetry, epigrams, and moral sayings). She became the abbess of a monastery and during the reigns of Theophilus (829–42) and his son Michael (842–67) wrote a number of liturgical compositions to contemporary texts, some of which may be settings of her own poems.
Hildegard of Bingen (b. 1098)
Hildegard of Bingen was a Benedictine abbess, visionary, writer and composer. Highly decorative, the text and music of Hildegard’s songs are intimately related and inseparable, as parallel syntaxes mirroring (and at times contradicting) one another, while unfolding within an idiosyncratic system of modes. On another level, the songs are meditations upon visionary texts that in turn represent poetically condensed exegesis of complex theological issues, expressed at greater length in the prose trilogy of visions. Like all the writings received “in visio” by the presence of the Living Light, ultimately the music’s purpose lies in fostering ruminatio (“chewing over”), a method of penetrating the deeper spiritual meaning behind both words and music. As such, the songs are a special Hildegardian facet of contemplative medieval practice.
Queen Elizabeth I (b. 1533)
In Queen Elizabeth I’s court, music played a significant part in all royal state occasions, and the queen, who had a devotion to church music, often gave detailed instructions to her courtiers as to the nature of the music she wished to have. Music was heard at the beginning and end of Elizabeth’s life: it is said that “Te Deum was sung incontinently upon her birth,” and Jacques Bonnet in his Histoire de la musique et de son effets (1715) cited the memoirs of the Abbé Victorio Siri (1677–9) to the effect that when she was dying she called for her musicians to play around her bed; “so that, she said, she might die as gaily as she had lived, and that the horrors of death might be lessened; she heard the music tranquilly until her last breath.”
Lili‘uokalani, Queen of Hawaii (b.1838)
Lili‘uokalani, Queen of Hawaii, sang, played the piano, organ and various plucked string instruments, and was a choir director at Kawaiaha‘o Church. Her first published work, in 1867, was the hymnlike He mele lāhui Hawai‘i, used until 1876 as the Hawaiian national anthem. Her Nani nā pua Ko‘olau (“The Flower of Ko‘olau”) was one of the first Hawaiian songs to have been published on the American mainland (1869).
Florence Price (b. 1887)
Florence Price was the first black American woman to have an orchestral work performed by a major American orchestra. She incorporated spirituals and characteristic dance music within classical forms, and at times deviated from traditional structures in deference to influences that are implicitly African-American, for example call-and-response techniques and Juba dance rhythms.
Louise Talma (b.1906)
An American composer, Louise Talma had a strong religious faith that is reflected in her many settings of Biblical texts. She was the first woman to be elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and her opera, The Alcestiad, was the first by an American woman to be performed in a major European opera house (1962, Frankfurt).
Ella Fitzgerald (b. 1917)
After having run away from an orphanage, Ella Fitzgerald was homeless when in November 1934 she won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theatre. Fitzgerald had a gift for mimicry that allowed her to imitate other well-known singers (from Louis Armstrong to Aretha Franklin) as well as jazz instruments. For decades Fitzgerald was considered the quintessential female jazz singer.
Featured image credit: The Daughters of Catulle Mendès, Huguette (1871–1964), Claudine (1876–1937), and Helyonne (1879–1955) by Auguste Renoir. Public domain via Metropolitan Museum of Art.