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Women In Music: Female Composers Rewriting History


When we trace the line of contemporary music, the relation between some composers’ whim is part of a natural speech. History is shared and featured by men. We must do the exercise of following that path.

Our throwback goes to the end of the 19th century when the sought to free the sound from tonalism could already be heard throughout a scrambled chord on Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. If we continue towards the turn of the century, the overturned lines of Verklärte Nacht were composed by Schönberg. Even the silence was from John Cage. The fact is that, at some moment in history, sound went beyond music. The fact is also that this history segregated female composers to a parallel narrative.

When we think about Brazilian classical composers, some names resonate in our minds: Carlos Gomes, Heitor Villa Lobos, Mourão Peixe and, finally, Chiquinha Gonzaga. During the 20th and the 21srt century, the highlights were Gilberto Mendes, Almeida Prado, Egberto Gismonti and, most recently, André Mehmari. All of them are greeted both nationally and internationally. 

“Women shared space in music at different levels. Women who claimed themselves in this space did exist. However, history deleted them. Occidental society drew women to take care of a home and children. Music was not seen as something that could be socially seized”, explains the musicologist Camila Bomfim, also a history teacher at Escola de Música do Estado de São Paulo (Emesp – Tom Jobim). “From the first years of the 20th century, composers were introduced to be part of history, and here in Brazil, we have some exponents. Jocy de Oliveira, Marisa Rezende, Vânia Dantas Leite and Denise Garcia. Before this, there were rare situations when women would be highlighted and still, there are no spaces equally occupied by women and men”.

Jocy de Oliveira was a soloist pianist who used to be ahead of big orchestras conducted by important maestros, like Igor Stravinsky – considered to be one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century. Vânia Dantas Leites, who passed away in 2018, has founded the Electroacoustic Music Studio at Villa-Lobos’ Institut. In 1977, Vânia was arrested by the militaries when she did a performance that included “How to Make the Revolution”, a text by the Norwegian writer, Henrik Ibsen. The text was considered subversive by the dictatorship censors. Denise Garcia, interviewed for this report, works with contemporary music and electroacoustic. One of her works was debuted during the Bosnian war when the first attack on children in schools happened.

Using both electrical elements and alternative instrumental execution to create sounds, female Brazilian contemporary composers vibrate their machines to consolidate themselves as exponents. During the performances and orchestras’ executions conducted by men, women resist.


The Girl Who Became Rain, by Valéria Bonafé, requires a sharp audition. Our hearing and body suddenly get involved by dissonance. The composition is about the emptiness that comes with death. In 2018, the piece was executed by Orthesp, the Theatro São Pedro’s Orchestra – an important music group in São Paulo.

Valéria Bonafé passed through a long process of reflection before settling herself as a composer. She enrolled at university in 2002 as a piano undergraduate student at the University of São Paulo (USP). Four years later, she transferred herself to the composition course, after the influence of a thought-provoking teacher, Willy Corrêa de Oliveira. That marked her initiation in the field of contemporary music from the 20th century, unknown to her until that moment.

The experience with contemporary music bloomed in her motivation to pursue music as a composer. Nowadays, she has already taught at Emesp Tom Jobim and shares her time between motherhood, studies and the feminist group Sonora: music and feminisms, a collaborative network that highlights women who work with sound. 

Bonafé affirms that “There are actions that need to be done. They demand for support and time. We meet every Monday for four hours for a reason – we are changing the circumstances that surround us, as well as ourselves. Where are women in music?”, asked Bonafé. “I would have more difficulty to answer that some years ago”.


“Did you know that I am the only woman who teaches composition at a public university?”, asked Denise Garcia. This claim carried pride, but also preoccupation. Garcia is one of the most important figures in Brazilian contemporary music scene. The composer and teacher at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) opposed her parents’ wish when she defined her professional path. “Maybe, because I was the youngest daughter of two boys, I’ve turned out to be a strong woman. Female composers who struggle are strong”, said Garcia. “When I chose this job, I didn’t spare time to measure whether it would be hard or not for a woman”.

It was only when she went to Germany, in 1979, that she saw herself as a composer. “People would ask me what was I studying and they would value the fact that my area was composition. There were recitals every night, so every piece I’ve created was played”, said Garcia with a smile. “I teach composition for many years and spare time with the few girls who enter university. Many of them give up in the middle of the way”, she explained.

The depreciation starts with the results from the admission processes in São Paulo. The presence of women in graduation is unreasonable, despite an increase of the female frequency in universities in general, as it is shown by National Institute for Educational Studies and Research “Anísio Teixeira” (Inep). According to Inep, women represent 57,2% of students registered as undergraduates. In music, the situation is different.

In “Composition or Regency”, a course at São Paulo State University (Unesp), the annual average represented by women who enroll in the course is 24,28%. Out of those, only 15,42% finish the course. At Unicamp, the situation is similar: from 2008 to 2017, only 12 women were registered in the composition course, while the number of men, in the same period, is 49. Therefore, the ratio is 1 woman to 4 men.


In the musical area, female and male vocations are drawn differently. The fact that female figures are never protagonists is not surprising. The composer and virtuous pianist, Clara Schumann, for instance, is attached to the memory of Robert Schumann, her husband, despite the fact of being the mother of eight children and working hard in concerts to sustain the whole family. “Every activity that’s led by a woman and, at the same time, that’s not part of common sense – like a composer, conductor or director of a research center – will be seen as something strange, because society tries to fit this leadership into a model of daughter, mother or wife”, clarifies the musicologist, Camila Bomfim.

The mentality that’s brought up doesn’t paint women as figures encouraged to compose. It’s something that escapes from the female imaginary, once a major part of musical masterpieces is signed by men. However, if we look for women who are resisting these limiting circumstances, Michelle Agnes is a name that should pop into our minds.

When she was fourteen years old, she studied with Koellreutter, an influential composer in Brazil. That was the moment when she started to be interested in inventiveness. “I don’t see composition as something individualist, I see it as something that is also related to humanity in such a brutalized world”, says Agnes. “As part of a minority group, my role goes beyond me. I feel the weight of the responsibility not to give up”.

Today, the composer, who was Denise Garcia’s student at Unicamp, seeks out for new projects and participates in artistic residences in many countries. She has already been to Harvard and now develops a project at Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (Ircam), in France. “When I studied at Unicamp, I had a famous harmony teacher who used to say that a girl would never be good enough to learn harmony”, remembers Michelle Agnes. “There are discouraging situations. You have to be confident of your potential, so you won’t get drawn by things that put yourself down”.


Lílian Campesato, a performer and integrant of Sonora, emphasizes that motherhood is not discussed enoughly in our society. “I had to stop working and researching when I was pregnant. Children are not welcome in our society”, she says.

Campesato also believes that the equal division of chores between men and women, with the birth of a child, is a fair solution when it comes to time administration. According to her, motherhood-license leads women to quit their professional lives. Thus, she asks: “What is the relation of work to women? We know there aren’t children’s daycare for everyone. It is a very oppressive place. Today, we are evaluated by our productivity”.


The paths to equality between men and women within the scope of music creation involves a reconfiguration of symbols, as argues Camila Bomfim. The musicologist explains that, at school, she pursuits to deconstruct the idealization that surrounds male composers by “Putting away the idea of geniality, so life turns into possibility. This brings up equality, something that may cause aversion to many people’s minds since we tend to compete for social space”. The musicologist also alerts to the significance of symbols reconstruction: “There will only be a strengthening of this professional idea of ​​women as soon as there is representation. Society is configured within this agreement, between what this society reflects, what it already is and wants to be”. 

Initiatives aimed at the reconfiguration of symbols are longed by female artists and researchers. Denise Garcia is one of them. “I lead an affirmative action about gender issue at Music Integration, Diffusion and Documentation Centre, at Unicamp. We are receiving female composers’ archives and performing it. Now, we prioritized a female composer to our first publication of an orchestral score – Dinorá de Carvalho. And it was accepted”.

Under the perspective of avoiding competitiveness, Michelle Agnes assumes the importance of collaboration in her work. “The composer has a leading role that doesn’t need to be played in a despotic way, based in humiliation”, explains Agnes. “It’s somebody whose responsibility is to create the starting point”, she continues. Agnes developed a very intimate bond with her work, surrounding herself with positive circumstances, which allowed her to act.

Valéria Bonafé and Lílian Campesato, among other female artists, created Sonora. “The constitution of a community is our greatest achievement”, observes Campesato. “It may be small, but we did it. It is resistant. We see each other every week. It is a network in which we discuss and review our actions”. The answer to the question “Where are the female songwriters?” no longer tolerates parallel stories.


Seham Furlan

Casper Libero '20

I'm a Brazilian journalism student who loves art and culture. Lately, I've been researching about cultural expressions and their importance in our communication processes.
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Camilla Millan

Casper Libero '20

Camilla is a student at Cásper Líbero University, loves poetry, dogs and pizza! She wants to be a writer in the future and to make a change in the world through her texts.
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