Classical Women: The Females Behind the Score

It’s no secret that men have received much of the musical recognition throughout music’s existence. In celebrating Women’s History Month, I want to recognize three incredible female composers who should receive more credit for their contribution to the musical world. Though we live in the age of modern, ‘sing-songy’ pop music, I will be shining a light on women who are staples to the classical genre, the original line of music.

Kassiani (Kassia): 9th Century A.D.

Kassia was an abbess in the Ninth Century, born in Constantinople around the year 810 A. D.  She is the earliest woman whose music has survived to the contemporary world. A celebrity in her time, she is revered for her encounter with Emperor Theophilus. Scholars say that the emperor fancied Kassia and valued her as a potential bride.

One day Theophilus said to Kassia, ‘Through a woman came forth the baser things’ (in reference to the biblical tale of Eve eating the forbidden fruit).

To this, she replied, ‘And through a woman came forth the better things’ (referring to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ). Though young, Kassia knew how to throw the sass back to a man!

Later becoming a nun, Kassia devoted her life to religion and creating beautiful works. Throughout her life, she wrote many pieces of poetry, religious hymns, and songs. Kassia’s musical compositions are hauntingly beautiful, with movements that tear at the innermost emotions of listeners. An incredible artist, her creations are still alive today and scholars refer back to her work often to learn more about the Byzantine world and her fight against persecution for defending her values of Orthodox Faith. Click here to listen to a sample.

Hildegard of Bingen: 12th Century A.D.

Hildegard of Bingen (Hildegard von Bingen; German) was a woman of many talents. Her repertoire of work is quite grandiose. Throughout her life, she received visions, which she attributed to God trying to communicate to her. Hildegard documented these sights in three volumes of Visionary Theology. Most notably she is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. Combining her theological ideas with natural explorations of the Earth’s resources, her visions and scientific works are valued still in the modern world.

On top of being an incredible Abbess, founding her own monasteries for her fellow nuns, Hildegard's musical creations are profound and unmistakably unique and individualistic. Her music is monophonic, which means that only one melodic line exists in the pieces. The style of Hildegard's pieces is much more focused on the power and capabilities of the voice, pushing boundaries and exploring melodies that soar and glide angelically. Scholars note that, in her pieces, Hildegard makes a rather close association between the female body and music. Her pieces flow and curve sweetly like the anatomy of a woman. Beautiful! Here’s an example of her works.

Florence Beatrice Price: 20th Century

 

Florence Price, born in Little Rock, Arkansas, was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a composer. Living through a time of racial discrimination and violent hate crimes, and being a single mother divorced from an abusive marriage, Price found solitude and passion in her music. In 1932 she submitted a selection of her compositions to the Wanamaker Foundation Awards and won first prize with her Symphony in E minor. It was premiered on June 15th, 1933, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, making her the first African-American Female to have their piece played publicly by an orchestra.

Florence went on to create many other genius pieces, having many more played by the WFA and the Chicago Women’s Symphony. As a religious woman, her style was inspired by African-American Church melodies which she then expanded into adding an African stylistic spin in rhythms and sound rather than just words. With Bluesey undertones, her music represented the life of a person of color living in an urban setting during this era. Her music was overshadowed by the incoming new sounds of music, but recently in 2009, an entire collection of her scores and compositions was found in an old abandoned house in St. Anne, Illinois. The condition of the house could have completely destroyed any last trace of her work, one journalist said, “That run-down house is a symbol of how a country can forget it’s cultural history”. Today I, as well as many other big name musical groups and scholars, hope to revive women’s musical works that have been lost to the flow of society. Click here to listen to Florence Beatrice Prices Award-winning and history-making Symphony in E Minor.