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Five Powerhouse Women in Classical Music You Should Know

Photo collage of Clara Schumann, Marin Alsop, Florence Price, Joanna Goldstein, and Avlana Eisenberg.
Schumann: Emil Rabending; Alsop: Anthony Wallace; Price: Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries; Goldstein: Tony Bennett; Eisenberg: Courtesy of the artist
Clockwise from top left: composer and pianist Clara Schumann; Ravinia Festival conductor Marin Alsop; composer and pianist Florence Price; pianist Joanna Goldstein; Boston Chamber Symphony conductor Avlana Eisenberg

In a study conducted by the Donne Foundation in 2021, out of 100 orchestras surveyed globally, 88% of concerts featured music exclusively composed by men. What’s more, out of the music programmed that was actually composed by women, only 1% of it was written by Black and Asian women. Women performers have only been included in established major orchestras professionally since 1913 (despite orchestras having existed for hundreds of years prior). Women conductors were almost unheard of until Antonia Brico conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in 1930, and, with the very notable exceptions of Nadia Boulanger and JoAnn Falleta, did not widely pierce the public consciousness again until Marin Alsop came to the fore decades later (more on her later).

Today, the classical music scene is more diverse than ever before, and women feature more and more prominently across all facets of classical music-making. Here are just five with especially compelling stories.

Florence Price

Florence Price was an African American composer, pianist, organist, and teacher, and was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887. A child prodigy, Price gave her first piano performance at age four, and had her first composition published at age 11. You read that right — published, not just composed. Graduating high school at 14 (as the valedictorian of her class, no less), Price attended New England Conservatory the following year in 1902, and graduated with honors in 1906. Price eventually moved to Chicago, where she composed, taught, and performed, for the rest of her life, often collaborating with other Black American icons like Langston Hughes and Marian Anderson.

Florence Price, looking forward with a neutral expression.
G. Nelidoff
Florence Price Papers, University of Arkansas Libraries

Her legacy was cemented in 1933 when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered her Symphony No. 1, making her the first African American woman to have her music performed by a major orchestra. Musically, Price differed from other composers of her day: rather than turning to popular music and the meteoric rise of jazz, she was most influenced by the orchestral music of Antonín Dvořák and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. It would be impossible to grasp the full picture of Price’s body of work without understanding her desire to reflect her culture and values in the music she created. Her music seamlessly and gloriously blends components of African American spirituals and church music into a classical framework that both complements and stands apart from the symphonic masters that came before her.

Price left behind a broad swath of music after passing in 1953, much of which has only been recorded for the first time in recent years. Here is the first movement of her Symphony No. 1, performed by the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble and conducted by Leslie B. Dunner:

Joanna Goldstein faces forward, head tilted slightly to her left, while leaning on her left hand.
Tony Bennett

Joanna Goldstein

Dr. Joanna Goldstein is a professional pianist and Professor Emeritus of Indiana University Southeast. A fiercely passionate advocate for women in classical music, Goldstein has produced two albums, both of which highlight women composers throughout history. Her first album, Nasty Women: Piano Music in the Age of Women's Suffrage, features solo piano repertoire composed by seven women who convened in 1925 at a music conference held in Washington, D.C., just 5 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment, as well as seven of their contemporaries.

Her second album, simply titled They Persisted (itself another reference to women in the recent political climate), narrows its focus to chamber music by Amy Beach, Ulric Cole, and Ethel Smyth. Goldstein is joined on this album by horn player Bruce Heim, violinist Steven Moeckel, and cellist Nicholas Finch. While names like Ethel Smyth, Florence Price, and Amy Beach may be more familiar to the average classical listener now, it is because of work like Goldstein’s that we recognize them. Thanks in part to her, we are now starting to see the broader scope of classical music made by women in the context of its time. One of my favorites from Nasty Women, this is Goldstein playing Florence Price’s Piano Fantasy No. 1:

Marin Alsop, at the conductor's podium, faces an ensemble with baton in right hand and gestures musically with a raised left hand.
Grant Leighton

Marin Alsop

Marin Alsop is one of the most high-profile women in classical music alive today, and one of the busiest conductors across the globe. Born in New York City, Alsop made her start as a violinist, following in the footsteps of her string-player parents. Initially accepted into Yale as a math major, Alsop transferred to Juilliard to study violin. Alsop had always had an interest in conducting, however, and continued to pursue it. Her fate was forever changed when she won the Koussevitzky Prize as a conducting fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, and met her hero and mentor Leonard Bernstein.

Many conducting and directorial positions followed: she became Principal Conductor of the Colorado Symphony, Director of the Eugene Symphony, Director of the Long Island Philharmonic . . . and the list goes on. Alsop is most widely known for being the first woman conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where she served as the Music Director from 2007 until 2021, making her the first woman conductor to lead a major American orchestra.

As great as her milestone achievements are, Marin Alsop is more than her many “firsts.” A staunch advocate of new music, she commissioned numerous works for the Baltimore Symphony, from the likes of Joan Tower, Philip Glass, Christopher Rouse, and many more. In 2002, she founded the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, explicitly designed to help promote and establish women conductors at the early stages of their careers. Since 2015, she has also taught at Peabody Conservatory, leading the graduate conducting program and mentoring a select number of students. For me, Alsop’s relentless propulsion of music-making across the entire population of the classical world is most inspiring of her myriad accolades.

Here she is conducting George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra:

Clara Wieck Schumann

Clara Wieck Schumann was a German pianist, composer, and teacher of the Romantic era. Famously married to fellow pianist-composer Robert Schumann, she is often overlooked in comparison, despite her sizable body of work, and a much more established career as one of the most celebrated pianists of her time.

Clara Schumann. Engraved portrait by Em. Raerentzen & Co., 1842 / Yale University Library
Yale University Library

Born in Leipzig in 1819, both her mother and father were pianists and piano teachers. Raised by her father since age five, Wieck had, to put it mildly, a complicated home life during her childhood. She was forced into a strict musical regime, taking daily hour-long lessons from her father across a variety of musical subjects, and mandatory two-hour practice sessions.

Like Price, Wieck was a child prodigy: at age nine, her official debut at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig catapulted her into a life-long career as a professional pianist. She performed widely throughout Europe, including in England, Scotland, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Belgium, and Holland, in between raising eight children and holding a teaching post in Frankfurt.

Despite an often-romanticized relationship with Robert, it had rocky beginnings. Robert met Clara while she was on tour, when she was only nine years old; he was nine years her senior. Robert later enrolled as a piano student with her father and, against her father’s wishes, the two were married seven years later – they had to sue him to do so.

From age 11, she maintained a steady output of compositions, which her husband later encouraged, but the volume of her work dwindled as her performance career and home life became increasingly more time-consuming. Tragically, most of her body of work was not heard in public performance in her lifetime, and it is widely due to renewed interest in recent years that her works have been heard at all.

One of my favorites of Wieck’s is her Piano Concerto in A minor, composed when she was only 16. Clearly representative of a mature musical mind, Wieck effortlessly embraces the conventions of her time, while retaining a distinct compositional voice that is entirely her own; a tall order for a composer at any stage of their career. Here is a recording of it; Holly Mathieson conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, with pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason.

Avlana Eisenberg, visible only from the shoulders up, faces forward with a neutral expression.
Claire Newman-Williams

Avlana Eisenberg

Avlana Eisenberg is a conductor, as well as a lawyer and professor of law at Florida State University (as if being a conductor wasn’t challenging and time-consuming enough). Born in San Francisco, and daughter of acclaimed violinist Zina Schiff, Eisenberg was, you guessed it, a child prodigy. Starting on violin, she debuted at age seven with her mother and the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra, playing Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. Eisenberg went on to study at Yale, took an interest in conducting, and founded and directed the Silliman Symphony. She then earned her law degree from Stanford University, as well as two conducting degrees from The Peabody Institute and the University of Michigan. A Fulbright Scholarship took her to Paris, where she assisted Paris National Opera director James Conlon.

As a conductor, she’s led ensembles across the globe, from the Aspen Music Festival, to the Salzburg Chamber Soloists, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (the latter two for commercial recordings). In addition to her numerous international engagements, Eisenberg spends considerable time in the Boston area, having previously taught law at Harvard University and Boston College, as well as her current role directing the Boston Chamber Symphony. She is also a tenured professor at the Florida State University College of Law, where she has taught since 2015.

Here she is conducting the Lament from William Grant Still’s American Suite, from her album Summerland, recorded in collaboration with her mother and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. CRB’s Alan McLellan spoke with Eisenberg and Still’s granddaughter Celeste Headlee regarding this album; listen to their conversation here.

William Peacock is a Lead Music Programmer for WCRB.