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Striking Rocks

Celebrating the power of female creativity

Swarthmore in the mid-1960s was still two decades out from its first women’s studies program, and as a cellist in the orchestra, I never encountered music by a woman. But my time there gave inspiration for a chamber music workshop I organized last fall at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., where 120 musicians came together to play music by 21 great female composers.

I arrived at Swarthmore in 1962, excited to study Greek. The classics department was a lively one, with energetic students and a brilliant chair, Helen North, one of just six tenured female professors.

In the spring of 1965 we produced Euripides’s play The Bacchae, in Greek, in the Scott Amphitheater. I was in the chorus, collectively the title character. The bacchae, or bacchants, were women who had followed the god Dionysus to Thebes, joined by Theban women who abandoned their household duties to revel with them in the hills. As we sang and danced outdoors, liberated (for the moment) from papers and seminars, we brought the bacchants to life with our bodies.

Euripides says they struck rocks with their sticks, or thyrsi, and honey, milk, and wine owed forth. With this indelible image of female creativity in mind, I set out into life, thyrsus in hand, planning to strike as many rocks as I could. 

Today I am a cellist and organizer with Chamber Musicians of Northern California, which holds weekend workshops where amateur musicians gather to play. We’ve drawn our music mostly from the illustrious male canon; with the exception of an occasional piece by Clara Schumann or Madeleine Dring, we haven’t featured the work of many women.

I had become aware of the huge number of mostly overlooked female composers—the Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers lists 875. Recalling the bacchants—and remembering, from the play’s shattering conclusion, what happens when women’s creativity is excluded or dishonored—I resolved that our next workshop would celebrate as many of these artists as it could.

We did months of research, and it was fascinating. A surprise was not that there is so much music, or that it is so good, but that many women were once so famous. The English composer Ethel Smyth, for example, is an exact contemporary of Edward Elgar, and they were equally renowned in their day. Now Elgar is well-known, and Smyth is a footnote. Nancy Dalberg was acclaimed as the first Danish woman to write a symphony; heard much Dalberg lately?

The fact is, women have been composing amazing music forever. But to live, it must be played. So last October we gathered at Mills to play music by Ethel Smyth, Ann Callaway, Louise Farrenc, Dora Pejačević, Libby Larsen, Emma Lou Diemer, Teresa Carreño, Fanny Mendelssohn, Caroline Shaw, Nancy Dalberg, Marie Dare, Imogen Holst, Elizabeth Maconchy, Harriett Bolz, Claude Arrieu, Gwyneth Walker, Grażyna Bacewicz, Valerie Coleman, Ellen Taa e Zwilich, and of course Clara Schumann and Madeleine Dring—bacchants, every one!

As I learned in Scott Amphitheater, we honor female composers most when we recreate their music with our bodies. When we place them at the center of our musical lives, they reward us with their power, beauty, and art. Through the whole marvelous weekend, I felt them all around us, holding their thyrsi—honey and wine flowing from every note.

Women Composers Playlist

These 21 wonderful composers, whose works we played at a Chamber Musicians of Northern California workshop at Mills College in October 2015, are the merest sampling of the thousands of women whose compositions should be a vital part of our canon. The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers lists 875. Start your listening here, and keep going!


Claude Arrieu (French, 1903–1990)

Claude Arrieu was the pen name of prolific composer Marie Louise Simon. She wrote scores in a wide array of genres, including concerti, orchestral works, works for chamber orchestra, music for theatre, film and radio and smaller chamber ensembles. This is her Wind Quintet in C, played by the Bellavente Wind Quintet.


Grażyna Bacewicz (Polish, 1909–1959) 

Grażyna Bacewicz was a virtuoso violinist and composer who was concertmaster of the Warsaw Radio Symphony, where she played many of her compositions. She wrote seven violin concertos, a viola concerto, two cello concertos and two piano concertos, seven string quartets and four symphonies, as well as ballets, film scores, songs and much more. These are her complete string quartets.


Harriett Bolz (American, 1909–1995)

Harriett Bolz was an important regional composer who composed music for piano, chorus, solo instruments, and instrumental ensembles from duos to full orchestra. Clara Lyle Boone of Arsis Press describes Bolz's music as "gentle, delicate and highly accessible," and "thoroughly contemporary." Her Lyric Sonata was rescued by concertmaster Terrie Baune after the Women’s Philharmonic disbanded. Her son has told us that the piece survives only because Terrie saved it. For a recording you may have to travel to Stanford University:


Ann Callaway (American, b. 1949)

Ann Callaway has written chamber music as well as larger pieces including a concerto for bass clarinet and a tone poem, Amethyst. This is of Memory Palace performed at the Hillside Club in Berkeley in 2010. 


Teresa Carreño (Venezuelan, 1853–1917)

Teresa Carreño had an amazing career as a singer, pianist, composer and conductor, in North and South America and in Europe. The Teresa Carreño Cultural Complex in Caracas is named after her, as is a crater on Venus. She composed at least 40 works for piano, two for voice and two pieces of chamber music. She wrote a hit song, "Tendeur," and recorded 18 pieces for the reproducing piano Welte-Mignon, one of which you can listen to here. 


Valerie Coleman (American, b. 1970)

Valerie Coleman is a composer, flutist, and a distinct voice in a new generation of African-American artists who combine African-American heritage and urban culture to contemporary music. Hear her Afro-Cuban Concerto here. 


Nancy Dalberg (Danish, 1881–1949)

Nancy Dalberg was discouraged from taking up a career in music, but did so anyway, studied with Carl Nielsen, and became the first Danish woman to write a symphony. She wrote three string quartets. Her name is also spelled Dahlberg, sometimes both ways on the same piece of music.  This is her haunting song "Sensommer (Late Summer)." 


Marie Dare (Scottish, 1902–1976)

Marie Dare was a virtuoso cellist and double bass player. Her compositions are attractive and idiomatic, and include solo and choral vocal works, both secular and liturgical; piano pieces; and a quantity of orchestral and chamber music. We would be very happy to find a photograph of her. This link is to her Serenade for Cello and Piano.


Emma Lou Diemer (American, b. 1927)

​Emma Lou Diemer has a compositional style that varies from tonal to atonal, from traditional to experimental. She has written works for non-professional and professional performers, originally under the "Gebrauchsmusik" philosophy. Her sextet was the most challenging work we played. The link is to her piano trio.


Madeleine Dring (English, 1923–1977)

Madeleine Dring was a composer and actress married to an oboist. Her style has been called “light and unpretentious.” Many of her compositions were for the stage, where she often sang and played the piano. This trio, with the Farrenc nonnette and the Clara Schumann piano trio, is the most familiar piece we played. The picture is from the cover of a book written about her in 2000, which also includes drawings from her notebooks. Here is the famous trio.


Louise Farrenc (French, 1804–1875)

Louise Farrenc was the only female professor at the Conservatory in the 19th century, but for the first ten years of her tenure her salary was always less than that of her male counterparts. Following the successful premiere of her Nonette in 1858, with the young Joseph Joachim performing, she demanded and finally received equal pay. Way to go, Louise Farrenc. 


Imogen Holst (English, 1907–1984)

Imogen Holst was the daughter of Gustav and the musical assistant of Benjamin Britten. She was also a composer, arranger, conductor, teacher and festival administrator. Her output of compositions, arrangements and edited music is extensive but has received only limited critical attention, perhaps because so much of her energy was devoted to the talents of others, including her famous father. Here is the prelude to her quintet. 


Libby Larsen (American, b. 1950)

Libby Larsen is a frequently programmed American composer. Along with composer Stephen Paulus, she is a co-founder of the Minnesota Composers Forum, now the American Composers’ Forum. Her music is noted for its "energy, optimism, rhythmic diversity, colorful orchestration, liberated tonality without harsh dissonance, and pervading lyricism.” Here is her wonderful Four on the Floor. 


Elizabeth Maconchy (English-Irish, 1907–1994)

Elizabeth Maconchy has been called “Our finest lost composer.” She wrote 13 string quartets which are regarded as the peak of her musical achievement. She also wrote prolifically for orchestra and solo instruments.  Here is her third quartet. 


Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (German, 1805–1847)

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, the sister of Felix Mendelssohn, was a pianist and composer. She and Felix both had great talent, but Fanny was limited by prevailing attitudes of the time toward women. Her father wrote to her in 1820 "Music will perhaps become his [i.e. Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament." Here is her lovely, accessible quartet.


Dora Pejačević (Croatian, 1885–1923)

Dora Pejačević, a member of the nobility, is considered a major Croatian composer. She left behind a considerable catalogue of 58 opera including106 compositions, mostly in late Romantic style, ranging from songs, piano works, chamber music, and several compositions for large orchestra.  Here is her piano quartet. 


Clara Schumann (German, 1819–1896)

Clara Schumann was associated with two geniuses, her husband Robert Schumann and her lifelong friend Johannes Brahms, and was herself a genius of a high order. The premiere pianist of her generation, her piano trio and piano concerto are a window through which we can imagine her as “one of the most soulful pianists of the day.” 


Caroline Shaw (American, b. 1982)

Caroline Shaw is a New York City-based violinist, singer, and composer. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 for her piece “Partita for 8 Voices.” The jury citation praised the composition as "a highly polished and inventive a cappella work uniquely embracing speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects." 


Ethel Smyth (English, 1858–1944)


Ethel Smyth was a prolific, famous composer who later became a leader in the movement for women’s suffrage. She is also an entertaining memoirist whose writings on Brahms, among many others, are highly illuminating. (Here's a link to this first volume of her memoirs.) We love Ethel Smyth and think she should be much more famous—hence she is the only composer of whom we played three works. Here are her quartet and her quintet.


Gwyneth Walker (American, b. 1949)

Gwyneth Walker has written over 300 compositions for orchestra, chamber ensembles, chorus, solo voice, and individual instruments. Her work, while appealing to modern sensibilities, is traditional and accessible in the unadorned style of American composers such as Aaron Copeland and Charles Ives. This is her piano trio “A Vision of Hills.”


Ellen Taafe Zwilich (American, b. 1939)

Ellen Taafe Zwilich is the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Her early works are marked by atonal exploration, but by the late 1980s she had shifted to a post-modernist Neoromantic style. She has been called "one of America’s most frequently played and genuinely popular living composers."  Her Septet combines two chamber music combinations, a piano trio and a string quartet.