Five female composers

Female composers are terribly underrepresented. This probably has to do with a general hostility towards C20th and contemporary music, but hyper-conservative programming of pre-1900 works doesn’t help the situation. Sure, some ‘notable’ female composers are rubbish: Szymanowska is insipid salon wallpaper (I feel the same about most post-classical, stile brillante stuff) – but Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler and Mel Bonis, to name just three, really deserve listening. Here, in no particular order, are five other female composers I’ve been enjoying recently.

1. Kaija Saariaho  (b.1952)

I can’t believe I only discovered Saariaho this month. A really great composer. Her approach to timbre clearly comes out of spectralism, with frequent slow-paced explorations of the implication of a single pitch (compare, for example, the magisterial Grisey). Yet, she is also far more versatile, capable of some wonderful miniatures (like the Sept Papillons for ‘cello), and seems happy to include certain diatonic or classically melodic elements where they fit. Absolutely modern, yet thoroughly listenable (“I don’t want to write music through negations”), this is just how I like contemporary music to sound.

2. Grażyna Bacewicz (1909–1969)

Bacewicz’s early works are clearly heavily influenced by Szymanowski, and she continued to manifest a romantic, expressive sensibility. What really astonishes me, though, is the formal perfection of her work, which shows a more classical sense of balance and an organic understanding of form. I’ve been repeat-listening the first piano quintet. The slow movement is especially good. A sustained, written-out trill on the piano between the leading tone and tonic, later passed to the violins, serves as a kind of pedal around which the pathos just grows and grows, the dissonant function of the trill notes changing with the harmonies of the hymn-like melody:

3. Lera Auerbach (b.1973)

Lera Auerbach writes allusive, polystylistic music that strongly resembles Schnittke. Her piano and violin preludes are short, often very dark miniatures. Still, there’s a humour lurking in the background in her appropriations of tradition and thwarting of our expectations. In one prelude she reworks a violin figuration on the keyboard, a trick from Schumann’s Symphonic Variations. At the same time, the repeated notes, harmonic pattern and left-hand bass all clearly recall Chopin’s op.25/12 etude. I’m not sure I’m totally convinced by the piece but I find it intriguing:


My favourite piano prelude is the one in E minor. Ironic Alberti bass and reminiscences of Satie’s Gnossiennes float between major and minor, then give way to chaos. The music “escapes”, as it were, through an E major scale, but sinks straight back again into the minor. I also think bar 24 is an allusion to Mozart’s over-elaborate decoration in K332. Come to think of it, the way the piece plays with Alberti bass and major/minor juxtapositions, it must be intended as a reworking of the Mozart. Anyway, here it is:


Auerbach also plays a mean Liszt sonata:

4. Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983)

The only woman in Les Six, and right up there with Poulenc and Honegger. I find her harp writing especially charming.

5. Francesca Caccini (1587–1641)
Some lovely C17th songs.

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This entry was posted in female composers, Francesca Caccini, Germaine Tailleferre, Grażyna Bacewicz, Kaija Saariaho, Lera Auerbach, music. Bookmark the permalink.

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