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two hundred and fifty years
of music by women
An article originally written for Harpsichord & Fortepiano Magazine

When I began playing the piano professionally I didn’t even know that there was any music by women; only after some fifteen years of performing did I stumble across something. Reading a book about French music, I saw mention of a neo-classical Concerto by Germaine Tailleferre and got curious. Such a work, for small orchestra might fit my interests, running the Ambache Chamber Orchestra. It turned out to be utterly delightful, and I realised there must be more. It set me on a journey of exploration; I found a substantial and interesting collection of works. This article is one of the fruits of that journey. The repertoire I’m listing below comes from nearly a quarter of a century of research, performance and recording; I will describe it from solo keyboard works, via chamber music, through to concertos.

Among the things that surprised me was that women have been composing throughout history. Some are mentioned in books; some have disappeared from view after their deaths. These people are not just occasional sparks; they were a continuous presence through history. Their individuality is also remarkable. They were not merely writing in a formulaic way; while using the language of their period, they spoke with their own accent. There is often an intensity of musical expression, most notably from Fanny Mendelssohn.

The cliché about music by women composers is that they wrote sweet little piano pieces, suitable for playing at home. While such bon-bons certainly exist, there is a great wealth of more substantial works for solo keyboard which challenge this attitude, not to mention chamber music and concertos. I have been delighted by the discovery of so many pieces, and audiences have also expressed their pleasure in the ‘new’ (old) works. I was pleased to find out that when a woman loved music and wanted to compose, she just got on and did so.
portrait by Anton von Maron
These days Les Pièces de Clavessin by Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre need no introduction. Perhaps less in the public domain are several Sonatas by Classical composers. Of these, the person I most admire and envy is Marianne Martinez (1744-1812), as she was a pupil of Haydn and she played four-hand duets with Mozart. When Charles Burney heard her, he said she had “a very brilliant finger”. This is needed in her lively G major Sonata (1769). Her music is energetic, fresh, open and elegant.

Similarly pleasing and stylish is the C major Sonata by Maria Hester Park (1760-1813). The three movements are respectively bold, poignant and sunny. (I think I found this work in the British Library.) Emilie Julie Candeille (1767-1834) also wrote some fine keyboard works, some of which have those (optional) accompanying violin parts. (These are probably in the Bibliotèque Nationale in Paris.) Although blind, Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824) was blessed in that both Mozart and Haydn wrote concertos for her. Her own music is both lyrical and dramatic. Her two Fantasias (c1807 and 1811) are rewarding in both these arenas. There are other Sonatas by Maria Barthelemon (1749-1799), Jane Guest (1765-1814) and Sophia Dussek (1775-1847) with which I am not personally acquainted.

drawing of Fanny by her husband Wilhelm Hensel, 1847
In the early Romantic era, I think the best keyboard works are ‘Das Jahr’ (1841) by Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-47). This is a kind of musical diary of her Italian tour of 1839-40, with each piece describing an experience from each month. If the question of originality in women’s music comes up, I think this work knocks it on the head - who else has written a Cycle which features the twelve months in this way? They also illustrate what a tremendous pianist she was, as well as a great composer. I know I’m biased, but I find her music more exciting than Felix’s.

Then there are the ‘Air Russe Varié’, Op 17 (1836) by Louise Farrenc (1804-75), which Robert Schumann reviewed appreciatively in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik as “so sure in outline, so logical in development ..... that one must fall under their charm, especially as a subtle aroma of romanticism hovers over them”. Of course his wife Clara (1819-96) also wrote a wonderful range of romantic piano pieces, including Polonaises, Etudes, Caprices, Valses, Variations, Romances, and Preludes and Fugues.

Next come the works for piano and one other instrument. Perhaps the image of domestic music making hovers in the background. However, when the music is published, it achieves a more public profile. The violin appears as the most frequent duo partner. The authorship of the popular Sicilienne by von Paradis seems to have been disputed because people can’t quite believe a woman could have written such a beautiful piece! Maria Hester Park also wrote two Violin Sonatas, Op 13 (c1801), which are very fine duets. The Andante Espressivo from the D major Sonata is a particular favourite of mine; the violin part transfers very well to the oboe, which is my husband’s instrument.

Fanny Mendessohn’s Adagio in E (1823) is a real gem: a heartfelt, single movement, which again I much enjoy. The 1853 Drei Romanzen by Clara Schumann were written for her to play with her friend Joseph Joachim, and once made King George V of Hanover “completely ecstatic”. I think of Clara’s music as having a uniquely noble atmosphere, and these three pieces make very effective concert works. One more, lesser-known, work is the Sonatine in A minor for violin and piano (1874) by Pauline Viardot (1821-1910). Due to her special understanding of singing, this has beautiful melodic qualities.

Not surprisingly there are also many expressive cello works, starting with the Serenade by Maria Szymanovska (1789-1831), which ranges from an unassuming opening to later grand gestures. If you want a fine Classical Sonata, try Helene Liebmann (1796-1835). Her B flat Sonata (1806) has a proper duet conversation and includes a splendid set of variations on Mozart’s ‘La Ci Darem La Mano’ as the Finale. As before, I highly recommend Fanny Mendessohn’s Two Pieces for Cello and Piano (c1829), which have her somewhat heightened emotional atmosphere.

I have heard of plenty of duet pieces with flutes; but, as I mentioned, since my husband is an oboist, I’ve looked for but I haven’t found any Classical works specifically for this combination; so we have often adapted works for violin.

There are, of course, more Piano Trios. Helen Liebmann again comes up trumps with her Grand Trio, Op 11 in A major. It is Haydnesque in style, with a good, three sided conversation, and has plenty of charm and energy.

The Piano Trio in D minor, Op 11, by Fanny Mendelssohn was published by her family after her death. I think it’s her greatest instrumental work. It’s an enthralling piece, with a massive piano part. I don’t mean that the piano dominates, just that there’s a huge number of notes - her passion pours out in cascades of piano notes against sonorous string melodies. There are two beautiful, thoughtful inner movements, and the Finale is a wonderful combination of influences from Bach to gypsy music.

Many people consider Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio in G minor, Op 17 (1846) as among her finest big compositions. It combines lyrical qualities with contrapuntal sections; there is an entertaining ‘Scotch-snap’ Scherzo, and a Romantic slow movement.

wood engraving after a crayon portrait (1855) by J-B Laurens Louise Farrenc was a woman after my own heart, as it seems she loved playing chamber music with colleagues. As well as two ‘regular’ piano trios (in E flat, Op 33; and in D minor, Op 34, both 1850-55), she also wrote a Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano in E flat, Op 44 (1861). She has a lovely feel for the tone quality of the instruments, and the whole is melodious and mellow. Also, her unique harmonic language is evident here, with some intriguing and surprising chord changes.

Another unusual combination she wrote for is the Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano in E minor, Op 45 (1862). She manages to be both bold and subtle. This Trio illustrates her other most distinguishing feature: effective Scherzos, cutting across the female stereotype; here we have a fiery Scherzo, with engaging cross-rhythms.

In the piano quartet group, I must mention Anna Amalia’s Divertimento in B flat for Piano, Clarinet, Viola and Cello (c1780). This is the earliest chamber work including clarinet that I know of, and suggests that the court at Saxe-Weimar was a forward looking place, embracing new developments. The work has two movements; both are charming and engaging.

Grand is a title Liebmann is fond of and comes again in her attractive Grand Piano Quartet in A flat major, Op 13. Also in A flat is Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Quartet (1822). This is an amazing demonstration of her virtuosic and compositional skills as a seventeen year old. It took quite a lot of work to put together for performance, but was worth it.

More chamber music by Farrenc deserve a mention. Her two Piano Quintets (in A minor, Op 30, 1842, and in E, Op 31,1851, both with the same scoring as The Trout Quintet) are fine, substantial and tuneful works. However, I would specially like to draw your attention to her highly distinctive Sextet for Piano and Winds in C minor, Op 40 (1852). She must have been the first composer to write for this combination, and wrote this some 90 years before the better-known Poulenc Sextet. She writes well for each instrument, including sparkling piano writing and some bold flourishes for the horn. The sensuous serenade-like slow movement contrasts warmly with the dramatic outer movements.

Portrait by Anna Dorothea Lisiewska-Therbusch 6) CONCERTOS
Moving on to Keyboard Concertos, I was surprised at how many early ones I came across. Possibly the earliest I have played is the one in G minor (c1750) by Wilhelmina von Bayreuth (1709-58), and it is a buoyant and vigorous piece. It has an obbligato flute part, which might have been played either by her husband, or her brother, Frederick the Great (both pupils of Quantz). Another aristocratic Concerto is by Anna Amalia, in G major. It could be done with a single player to each part, and features some pretty wind solos.

There is a set of 6 Concertos for Keyboard and Strings, Op 3 (1773) by Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen (1745-1818), which I haven’t played; they were originally for violin, and then transcribed for keyboard. She studied in one of the Venice ospedale, and was taught by Tartini.

Julie Candeille in the title role
of her 'Catherine ou la belle fermiere' 1792, engraving by Prud'hon One of the first classical concertos by a woman that I came across is the Piano Concerto in D major, Op 2 (1787) by Julie Candeille. It has the brilliant character of a classical work in D, and suggests that she knew her Haydn. Whereas the spirit of Mozart is audible in Maria Hester Park’s Piano Concerto in E flat, Op 6 (c1795). The London Independent newspaper commented on its freshness and originality when we gave the modern UK première in 1992. Of the two concertos by Marianne Martinez, I’ve only played the A major (c1800), and loved its energy, and her unique combination of decorum and wit.

Nanette von Schaden (1763-1834) wrote a Piano Concerto in B flat around 1800. Although her husband was a great supporter of Beethoven, this is rather more Mozartian in character. Florid virtuosity characterises the opening movement, followed by a G minor slow movement of great pathos. There is a light set of Variations for the finale.

Portrait by Franz von Lenbach, 1878 Many people know of the Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 7 (1833) that Clara Schumann wrote as a teenager, which Robert helped to orchestrate. Less familiar is the Konzertsatz in F minor (1847), dedicated as a birthday present to Robert, and left incomplete. Recently, it has been successfully completed and orchestrated by Jozef de Beehouwer. It might have been planned as the substantial first movement of a second concerto, and is a highly expressive piece, in Clara’s sombre, noble manner.

People have often asked me what women’s music is like. Sometimes I think the question implies an assumption about feminine characteristics (as I indicated at the beginning of this article) - probably the music is a bit sentimental and light weight, and may be suitable for a salon concert. My experience has been that it is so much more than that, and what it’s like depends on the individual character of the person.

I am sad that few women have had the chance to learn from hearing their music being played by others (like Haydn and Mozart did), but even so, they created a huge range of works in many different moods, frequently in their own, authentic voice. Those that were lucky enough to be in musical families and get the relevant education, and who loved music in such a way as to defy social attitudes, achieved amazing and exceptional things, and inspire us all in their creativity.

For me the way to change attitudes has been to include these works in concerts and recordings. Slowly, as the music is heard, people’s prejudices fall away, and there is a bit more appreciation of what women have achieved. I’m in no doubt that there are plenty more works by women, yet to be discovered. They are so challenging and stimulating; I look forward to hearing about them as they come to light.

Meanwhile, practical information, such as length, scoring and publisher can be found on this website. The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers is endlessly useful, and the internet is a great source of information these days. As well as being surprised how many works by these composers are on youtube, the best source of scores and further ideas are the following publishers: Hildegard Publishing Company (, Furore Editions (, and ClarNan Editions (

Here is a brief résumé of some recordings. The von Bayreuth Concerto is on Campion Records CB 12005, with Viktor Lukas and the Lukas Consort. Jeremy Polmear and I have recorded the Maria Hester Park Andante Espressivo for Oboe Classics, in a collection called Musical Meze (see There are some Anna Amalia songs on CD, but I haven’t found anything by Julie Emilie Candeille. The Ars Femina Ensemble have recorded Non Tacete by Maria Barthelemon, and there is a Harp Showpieces Naxos CD recorded by Judy Lowman, including a (possibly adaptable) Sonata by Sophia Dussek. The von Paradis Sicilienne has several recordings, including Arthur Grumiaux’s Favourite Violin Encores on Philips, and Itzak Perlman’s Greatest Hits Vol 2 on EMI Classics. There are two disc called Mozartiana which include the Helene Liebmann Cello Sonata: Sebastian Comberti on Cello Classics, and David Geringas on EBS.

There are quite a few Louise Farrenc recordings. Starting with ours: there's a disc of the Flute Trio, the Sextet and the Nonet on, and her Clarinet Trio is on our Romantic Women Composers. The Nonet and Clarinet Trio are also on Divox CDX29205 by Dieter Klocker, Peter Horr and Werner Genuit. For her Piano Quintets, you have a choice between the Schubert Ensemble, ASV CDDCA1122, or the Linos Ensemble CPO999194. The Linos have also done her Sextet with Piano Trios on CPO777256-2. Iris Van Eck recorded her Cello Sonata on Eroica JDT3302 (; and the Violin Sonatas Opp 37 & 39 are on Integral Classic INT221161, played by Gaetane Prouvest with Laurent Cabasso. Her Op 17 Variations and other piano works are played by Konstanze Eickhorst on CPO9998792.

Not surprisingly there’s plenty of Fanny and Clara; frequently their Piano Trios have been put together. I think the Dartington Trio were the first to do this, on Hyperion CDS66331. Another regular pairing is Fanny and Felix Trios. The Australian Seraphim Trio have done that (Number 277600573315), and if you want period instruments, then try The Atlantis Trio on Musica Omnia. The Das Jahr recording that I know best is by Liana Serbescu on CPO999013-2. There are also versions by Sarah Rothenberg on Arabesque and Beatrice Rauchs on BIS885.

Jozef de Beenhouwer has recorded Clara’s Complete Piano Works on CPO999758. Her Piano Trio has also been recorded by the Beaux Arts Trio on Philips, and Francesco Nicolosi has put it with her Op 7 Concerto on Naxos. Jeremy Polmear and I have made an oboe/piano version of the Drei Romanzen on a disc with music by Robert CC2002 on With a slightly similar idea, William Purvis has made a horn recording on Bridge 9164. The Amati Ensemble have paired them with her Trio on Arcobaleno 9361. In original form, there’s Philippe Graffin’s recording on Onyx 4062, and single movements by Daniel Hope on Deutsche Gramophon, and Viktoria Mullova with Katia Labeque also on Onyx.

The Romances, plus the Trio and Concerto Op 7 are on Veronica Jochum’s disc with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra published by Tudor 788. I previously mentioned Francesco Nicolosi’s Trio recording coupled with the Concerto, with the Alma Mahler Sinfonietta on Naxos. And then there’s Lucy Parham’s disc with the BBC Concert Orchestra, including Robert’s Piano Concerto, that can be found on Amazon. Lastly, there’s our recording of the Konzersatz that I mentioned (, which also includes the Fanny Mendelssohn Trio, Louise Farrenc’s Clarinet Trio, and Marie Grandval’s Deux Pieces. I hope you enjoy playing and or listening to many of these works.

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