Celebrating Women Composers in the Classroom

Norton Music’s Assistant Editor, Julie Kocsis, put together a playlist based on Professor Rachel Lusden’s essay in The Norton Field Guide to Teaching Music Theory. In her essay, Lumsden calls for a more diverse and inclusive repertoire in the music classroom, and it’s our hope that this playlist helps you get started.

In her essay in The Norton Guide to Teaching Music Theory, Professor Rachel Lumsden of Florida State University tells a story about a student she had in one of her graduate seminars. While the student, an African American woman in a class full of mostly white males, wrote thoughtful, detailed response papers about the readings, she was often silent during class discussions. But when the class discussed a piece by African American composer Florence Price, this student eagerly engaged in the class discussion. The student later informed Lumsden that Price was the first African American composer she had analyzed for a class. Together, Lumsden and the student realized that she had been more engaged in the class discussion because she felt a stronger connection to the music and the composer due to their similar backgrounds and life experiences.

Lumsden later comments in her essay, “Including works by composers outside the mainstream canon may inspire future generations of students to recognize that music theory is a rich and vibrant field chock-full of tools and approaches that can be used to examine a spectrum of different musics written by a diversity of composers.”

Lumsden’s story shows that students clearly benefit from studying a more diverse repertoire because it allows them to encounter composers and music to which they have a strong connection. This is why, with every revision of a Norton music text, we review the repertoire selections and focus on adding more diverse selections. In fact, the new edition of Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony features many new selections by female composers, including women of color.

In an effort to help you teach a more representative, inclusive repertoire, we have created a playlist of selections by women composers. We encourage you to choose two of these selections and teach them this semester.

In this playlist, we highlight pieces composed by such interesting and accomplished women as Barbara Strozzi, Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, Maria Theresia von Paradis, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Amy Beach, Bessie Smith, Ruth Crawford Seeger, the aforementioned Florence Price, Alice Coltrane, Joan Tower, Jennifer Higdon, Kaija Saariaho, Yi Chen, Tania León, and Caroline Shaw.

Baroque-era Italian singer and composer Strozzi had eight volumes of her music published in her lifetime, including arias, motets, madrigals, and cantatas. Though Mendelssohn Hensel composed a number of works throughout her life, including over 125 piano pieces and 250 lieder, a vast majority of her music was not printed, as most women were discouraged from pursuing careers in music at the time. In the early twentieth century, Price became the first African American composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra. In 2013 singer, violinist, and composer Shaw became the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Recently, in January of 2020, the Attacca Quartet’s Orange album, which consisted of recordings of six of Shaw’s pieces for string quartet, won a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance. Additionally, of the six nominated composers for the Best Contemporary Classical Composition Grammy, three were women, including winner Jennifer Higdon for her “Harp Concerto.” Check out our playlist and find your favorite new pieces to teach this semester!