5 female composers you need to listen to

Lana Bode 13 October 2021

American-British pianist Lana Bode introduces us to five contemporary female composers whose work you should explore

Charlotte Bray (b. 1982)

Charlotte Bray

The first piece I heard by Charlotte Bray was her song cycle Fire Burning in Snow. As the title suggests, imagery (particularly of nature) is a major influence for Charlotte. Her music evokes the sounds of nature—not in a literal sense of quoting birdsong, for example—but in capturing the essence of how it feels to experience nature. And through this sound world, she explores deep emotions such as grief and loss, and grapples with current events such as the war in Syria (in her cello concerto Falling in the Fire) and climate change (in her orchestral piece Where Icebergs Dance Away).

Charlotte is one of those rare composers whose music manages to be both cleverly crafted and incredibly atmospheric. These characteristics were a huge attraction to me when soprano Samantha Crawford and I began considering who to commission to write a new song cycle about women’s experiences in the workplace. An eminent mid-career composer and a working mother, Charlotte had an innate understanding of the complexities of women’s professional lives. And the intricacy of her music guaranteed the song cycle would be taken seriously.

“I believe it is vital for creatives to tell stories about the time in which we live,” Charlotte told Samantha and me. “The portrayal of current events whether it be politics, conflict, the natural world, or human rights, can help to inspire contemplation and potentially change. It feels like an omission when one looks back at the history of song and not find any reflections on women in the workplace.”

The resulting work Crossing Faultlines, with texts by Nicki Jackowska, begins with the soundscape of a mountain wilderness, eerie echoes filling the space between notes that stretch to the highest and lowest registers of the piano, as the woman faces the long road she will need to travel in order to realise her professional goals. In the final song, the sounds of a frozen vista with ice slowly groaning and cracking, depict the tiny cracks that gradually appear in the glass ceiling.

Michele Brourman (b. 1947)

The mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer introduced me to Michele Brourman’s music when we performed together at the 2018 Aldeburgh Festival. A singer-songwriter most at home in musical theatre and cabaret, I was gobsmacked by the power of Michele’s music and lyrics, and how comfortably her songs sat alongside classical compositions.

When I was mourning the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September 2020, I happened upon Michele’s powerful song My Daughters, with lyrics by Hillary Rollins. Legacy is often viewed as something of great concern to men, whose pursuit of a lasting legacy is woven deeply in the fabric of patriarchy. In My Daughters, it is the woman who examines her legacy. As she nears the end of life, she struggles to accept that her work is unfinished. Ultimately she finds peace as she looks to her literal and metaphorical daughters to “fight the fires of hell that I could never tame / and then ignite the righteous light of truth’s eternal flame.”

"Other favourites from Michele’s catalogue of songs include Love and Take Out, an embrace of female sexuality that is simultaneously brazen, cheeky and deliciously clever"

When writing this song, Michele departed from the customary chord charts and improvisatory approach of a singer-songwriter. “Every note in the piano is part of the composition,” she told me. “I had to practise it note for note because somehow or other this particular song required the piano to do exactly that thing.” The music is simple, leaving plenty of space for the power of the lyrics to communicate to the listener and illicit an emotional response.

Other favourites from Michele’s catalogue of songs include Love and Take Out, an embrace of female sexuality that is simultaneously brazen, cheeky and deliciously clever; Michele’s arrangement of Gordon Lightfoot’s Black Day in July, a vicious reproach of police brutality against people of colour; and London in the Rain, a beautiful nostalgia for the people and places that have marked us, and a song that particularly struck a chord with me during lockdown.

Libby Larsen (b. 1950)

One of the most prolific US composers of her generation, Libby Larsen has blazed the trail for women in the world of art song. Not only did she rapidly establish herself as a successful career composer in a male-dominated industry, but she has dedicated a large portion of her work to representing women, telling stories in their own words.

Her song cycles for voice and piano include settings of the last words of the wives of Henry VIII (Try Me Good King, 2000) and letters Calamity Jane wrote to her daughter (Songs from Letters, 1998). Libby also wrote large-scale vocal works which shone a spotlight on under-recognised women, including the orchestral song cycle Mary Cassatt (1994) and the dramatic cantata Eleanor Roosevelt (1996).

In yet other works, Libby selected texts by female poets to explore traditionally private aspects of female life, using a wide variety of compositional styles to suggest the infinite diversity of female experience. Idioms from jazz and blues underscore her song cycle Love After 1950, in which a Kathryn Daniels text begins “Beauty hurts!” and recites a long list of painful cosmetic procedures that make up a woman’s beauty routine. In the 1990 song When I Am an Old Woman, Libby departed from tonality to embrace the eccentricities of a woman who is tired of being well-behaved. Its text by Jenny Joseph begins, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me. / And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves… / And make up for the sobriety of my youth.”

In 2015, after decades of writing works which celebrate women from the centuries of human history, Libby embarked on the groundbreaking song cycle The Birth Project, in which some of the most personal and vulnerable of women’s experiences finally gained a place on the art song stage. She chose texts from five published birth stories to walk the listener through the experiences of discovering you are pregnant, having the first ultrasound, losing a pregnancy, being pregnant past the due date, and birthing a child.

Florence Price (1887-1953)

“I have two handicaps,” Florence Price wrote in 1943. “I am a woman and I have some Negro blood in my veins.” Despite the obstacles of systemic racism and sexism, Price managed to build an impressive career as a classical composer. In 1933, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered her Symphony No. 1 in E minor, making Price the first Black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major US orchestra. In 1939, the contralto Marian Anderson sang her arrangement of the spiritual My Soul’s Been Anchored in De Lord at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

Aside from these breakthroughs, however, Price’s music was largely neglected until the 2009 discovery of an archive of manuscripts in an Illinois attic sparked a resurgence of interest.

Her music is multi-faceted. Much of it displays a compositional style in keeping with the epic romanticism of her contemporaries, illustrating the highly-accomplished musicianship she developed through her training at the New England Conservatory of Music. One of her mentors at the conservatory suggested she use the idioms of her culture in her music, resulting not only in arrangements of spirituals, but in Price’s use of folk melodies, and jazz and blues harmonies throughout her classical writing.

"Price used folk melodies, and jazz and blues harmonies throughout her classical writing"

Price’s 1941 song The Heart of a Woman sets a poem by Georgia Douglas Johnson, comparing a woman to a bird, desperately trying to escape her cage. Her heart “goes forth” and then “falls back” as her hopes lead to heartbreak. With texts and music by two African-American women, living under Jim Crow laws, it is a deeply profound song. Price’s setting finds hope within the pessimistic poem, ascending to a dramatic finish that fiercely clings to the belief that women of colour will one day experience freedom and equality.

Judith Weir (b. 1954)

Judith Weir is a master storyteller, a composer who regularly writes songs, operas and choral works which tell a range of stories from the mythological to the modern. I first heard Judith’s music at the 2013 premiere of her string ensemble piece I give you the end of a golden string, which takes poetry by William Blake as its starting point, even though the performance itself is purely instrumental.

Judith is one of the most uniquely identifiable voices working in contemporary music today. Her music is rhythmically daring and unafraid of the discomfort of angular leaps or sharp articulation. Folk melodies feature often, and she frequently employs musical idioms from non-Western cultures.

Perhaps the brightest gem among all of Judith’s work for the human voice is the historical orchestral song cycle woman.life.song (2000), commissioned by the legendary soprano Jessye Norman with texts by Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Clarissa Pinkola-Estés.

Judith describes the work as “an extended song cycle about a woman’s life from youth to old age.” Not only is it the first known work of its scale in which women themselves tell the stories of their lives through words and music, but it is also a work that specifically explores the experiences of African-American women.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of coaching an ensemble of students at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in an intensive six-month retrospective of Judith’s song repertoire. I quickly fell in love with every single one of her songs, and emerged from the experience with three particular favourites which I consider absolutely essential listening.

"Her music is rhythmically daring and unafraid of the discomfort of angular leaps or sharp articulation"

King Harald’s Saga (1979) is a groundbreaking mini-opera for a single solo soprano, singing eight roles unaccompanied, with a plot based on the 1066 Norwegian invasion which culminated in the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Nuits d’Afrique (2015) is a beautifully shimmering chamber piece for flute, cello, piano and soprano with texts by three African poets (Fatou Ndiaye Sow, Véronique Tadjo and Marie-Léontine Tsibinda).

The Sweet Primroses (2015) for mezzo-soprano and viola is based on the fragments of a barely-remembered traditional folk song. It questions our relationship to heritage, poking uncomfortably at the limitations of human memory before finding new possibilities in recreating what has been forgotten. The resulting piece continues to play on the mind long after the final notes have faded away.

dream risk sing

Pianist Lana Bode and soprano Samantha Crawford present their new song recital programme “dream.risk.sing: elevating women’s voices” on October 20 as part of the 20th Oxford Lieder Festival. Tickets are available to watch their performance in person or live online here.

Music by all five composers featured in this article will be performed including the world premiere of Charlotte Bray’s Crossing Faultlines about women’s experiences in the workplace.

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