After being inspired by Sarah Freestone working on both LIVE Composers and LIVE at Halls and Trinity Labans Venus Blazing, I wanted to search further for more women who were integral to music and who have been brushed under the rug throughout history. Below are 6 amazing women composers and musicians.
She was born as Lena Douglas in Kansas City around 1885 and grew up to become an accomplished scholar. She was a published music critic and an artful music composer but showed herself to also be a free-thinking and “wild” socialite during the Harlem Renaissance. In 1918, Holt became the first African American woman to earn a Masters Degree from the Chicago Musical College. She worked as a music critic for the daily Black newspaper Chicago Defender and co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians.
Shirley Graham Du Bois
Shirley Graham was the first Black American woman to compose an opera for a major professional organization. According to the Black Music Research Journal, the Stadium Opera Company in Cleveland commissioned her to write a distinctly “Black opera” for its second summer season in 1932. Graham, then a student at Oberlin College, expanded a one-act play that she had written earlier into a three-act opera titled Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro. The opera received generous publicity and earned critical acclaim for its composer, yet it was never performed again and was soon forgotten. In 1936, Graham went on to become the director of the Chicago Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.
America's first successful woman composer, Amy Beach was an accomplished pianist who agreed, after her marriage, to limit her piano performances to one charity recital a year. After her husband died, she toured Europe as a pianist, playing her own compositions to great acclaim. Her music is mainly Romantic, although in her later works she experimented with more exotic harmonies and techniques. Her most famous works include the Mass in E-flat major and the Gaelic Symphony.
The first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer! She won the Wanamaker Prize in 1932 for her “Symphony in E Minor.” The symphony was performed on June 15 at the Century of Progress Fair by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A romantic piece with four movements, “Symphony in E Minor” paved the way for orchestras both nationally and internationally to present work from Price over the next two decades, with the pianist being called upon to perform as well. Price went on to create more than 300 compositions.
Montero is known for her ability to compose complex music spontaneously – or as some might say, improvise. Montero sometimes performs concerts in which audience members are invited to give her musical themes from which she instantly creates original piano works. In 2011, she composed a concerto, Ex Patria, to honour the 19,336 victims of homicide that year in her native Venezuela as a form of musical protest. She combined both composing with her activism.
Now in her 70s, Tania León isn’t slowing down any time soon. In 2010, the Afro-Cuban composer founder Composers, of which she is also the artistic director. Through residencies, partnerships, and a festival, the organization “empowers all living composers, celebrates the diversity of their voices and honours the significance of their contributions to the cultural fabric of society.”