Innovative Chamber-Music Workshop Celebrates Female Composers

By Inge Kjemtrup

Female Composers Kaija Saariaho, Joan Tower, Sally Beamish and Augusta Read Thomas
Composers Kaija Saariaho (left), Joan Tower, Caroline Shaw, Sally Beamish, and Augusta Read Thomas

Last March, Jessy McCabe, a 17-year-old British music student preparing for an exam, suddenly realized that the syllabus included 63 male composers—and not a single female composer. Her outraged email to the exam board about this state of affairs produced the following tepid response: “Given that female composers were not prominent in the Western classical tradition (or others for that matter), there would be very few female composers that could be included.”

McCabe did not accept this explanation and quietly go back to her studies. Instead, she launched an online petition that, this past December, helped to persuade the exam board to add women—including Clara Schumann, Rachel Portman, Kate Bush, Anoushka Shankar, and Kaija Saariaho—to its next syllabus.

The notion that there is no worthwhile music composed by women is demonstrably ridiculous, but it seems to be secretly believed by not only McCabe’s exam board, but also by people who should know better, such as those in charge of concert programming in halls all over the world. Music by women composers, living or dead, is—embarrassingly—rarely heard in many major concert halls, despite the treasure trove of music from female composers, historical and contemporary, including Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Joan Tower, Ethel Smyth, Judith Weir, Saariaho, Sally Beamish, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

I thought, what if CMNC put on a chamber-music workshop, where we could assign as many as 28 pieces by women? I got very excited about the idea.

—Elizabeth Morrison

It’s a strange situation. Female soloists, chamber musicians, and orchestral players are not a novelty, yet female composers (and conductors) are. And if the trouble is rooted in knowing where to start when adding a work by a female composer (or two) to their repertory, musicians, programmers, and artistic directors should take note: By hesitating to act, they are missing an opportunity to expand the canon of composers, while bringing fresh music into concert and recital programming.

The way forward requires creativity, open mindedness, and a good amount of research. That’s exactly what I witnessed at an inspiring chamber-music workshop last October. “Celebrating Women Composers” was the name given by the Chamber Musicians of Northern California (CMNC) to a day devoted to music by women, in which everyone in the workshop, all 124 participants, exclusively played music written by women.

Appropriately enough, the CMNC workshop took place on the grounds of Mills College, the venerable women’s liberal arts college in Oakland, California. Making the Mills setting even more fitting is the fact that, for many decades, it has provided a nurturing environment for some of the 20th century’s most influential composers—the vast majority, including John Cage, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, and Darius Milhaud, men. (To be fair, it was a woman composer, Pauline Oliveros, who was the first director of what is now called the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills.)

The idea for the CMNC workshop came out of a Bay Area Rainbow Symphony concert in June 2015 attended by CMNC Chair Elizabeth Morrison and her friend and musical colleague Carol Mukhopadhyay. The concert featured only pieces by women: Partita for piano and orchestra by Vítězslava Kaprálová, Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and Ethel Smyth’s Serenade. It proved to be an inspirational evening. “I thought, this is great, but it’s only three pieces—what if CMNC put on a chamber-music workshop, where we could assign as many as 28 pieces by women?” recalls Morrison. “I got very excited about the idea.”

Morrison, a cellist, and Mukhopadhyay, a violinist, had jointly studied Ethel Smyth’s String Quartet in E minor as well as Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio. These pieces, along with the Fanny Mendelssohn String Quartet, are among the most commonly played chamber pieces by women composers at amateur workshops. Mukhopadhyay, an anthropologist whose work focuses on gender issues, had also been inspired by recordings and performances of pieces by Ruth Schonthal, Shulamit Ran, and Joan Tower, among others. But plenty of research would be required to find pieces for 120-plus players.

The first port of call was the CMNC’s library to determine if it contained many pieces by women. “It turned out we had over 40!” said Morrison. “Some had been played regularly (for example, the Clara Schumann and Madeleine Dring trios) and some had never been assigned. I saw that we had plenty of music right at hand.”

When they brought the idea of the women-composers workshop to the CMNC board, the response was positive. “Actually it was great,” said Morrison. “A few board members had reservations, but most were enthusiastic and many jumped right on it.” Morrison and Mukhopadhyay began to organize play-throughs of the repertory. In July, Morrison attended the Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop and talked with the associate director, violinist Terrie Baune, about the project.

“[Baune] helped me greatly by assigning me a piece by a woman every single day. It was so much fun! She told me that she hadn’t had to go to any heroic lengths to do it, either—they were all pieces she would have assigned anyway,” says Morrison. “Two I had played before [Louise Farrenc’s Nonet, Amy Beach’s Flute Quintet]. The others were new to me, and I got acquainted with Elfrida Andrée, Teresa Carreño, Grazyna Bacewicz, and Lili Boulanger.”

Once the CMNC workshop was announced, the next challenge was to match the available repertory to the players, aiming to accommodate as many players as possible. “I was a little more constrained than usual,” says Morrison.

“For example, I would normally have assigned at least one viola quintet, but we didn’t find one by a woman. We owned a lot of piano trios by women, so I assigned more of those than usual.” Some works, though highly appealing, did not make the cut. “There were many pieces we concluded that were too hard to assign. I bought pieces by Augusta Read Thomas, for instance, that were above our level.”

Morrison shared the library list of works with workshop applicants and asked for people to indicate the works they were especially interested in—and to suggest others they knew. “A few people had their own pieces they wanted to try, and which they donated to the library. (This included a string quartet by Caroline Shaw, Punctum.) We also purchased a few works that people wanted to play.”

One last consideration was what to do with the pre-formed groups that choose their own music. Morrison needn’t have worried.


“I was impressed that, of the six pre-formed groups, all but one chose music by women, including very imaginative choices like Afro-Cuban Concerto for wind quintet by [American composer] Valerie Coleman.” The exception was a late Beethoven quartet that a pre-formed group was working on.

Arriving at the Mills campus early one Saturday morning, I made my way to the Rothwell Center, where workshop participants were enjoying coffee and tea, studying the assignment list, and getting to know each other. After a short welcome and orientation from Morrison, players and coaches made their way to their individual rooms.

I sat in on two sessions, the first was String Quartet No. 4 by Grazyna Bacewicz. This Polish composer, who died in 1969, has been enjoying something of a revival lately, with her piece for four violins and another for four cellos gaining special attention.

Del Sol String Quartet cellist and conference coach Kathryn Bates told the ensemble that she was looking forward to a mutual discovery, as she didn’t know the piece. (You often hear a coach say he or she doesn’t know the piece, but this time I had little reason to doubt her veracity.) The group played the first movement, and Bates asked for impressions. The cellist pointed out the contrasting rhythms and clearly delineated sections, and noted how tightly organized it is. As an onlooker, I was entranced by the deep emotions of the quartet, and especially by a lovely nostalgic solo for the cello in a section marked “Melancolio.”

I found myself reflecting that, for a musician, there is one major difference between learning a piece by a man versus one by a woman: With female composers, when players encounter their chamber music for the first time, they are often unacquainted with the composer’s music in other genres—symphonies, concertos, etc.—whereas when they study an unfamiliar work by Beethoven or Brahms, they will usually have some of that music already in their inner ear. It’s a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

Reluctantly leaving the group’s exploration of this meaty quartet behind, I walked over to the large auditorium, where a piano trio was being coached by pianist Cynthia Darby on Ann Callaway’s 2007 Memory Palace. Memory Palace is a pavane with theme and variations, with the dreamy pavane being not so gently undermined throughout. The group was doing their best with the piece, but some aspects—such as extended piano techniques requiring the pianist to pluck the strings inside the piano—were clearly demanding. With Darby’s aid, the group persevered, and remarked afterward that they enjoyed their study of the piece.

The formal side of the workshop ended with a concert by the Del Sol Quartet in the beautiful Littlefield Music Auditorium. Their program included excerpts from Ruth Crawford’s String Quartet of 1931, and from two attractive quartets by American composer Gabriela Lena Frank, both with the Peruvian themes that are such a vital part of this composer’s vocabulary.

After dinner, I borrowed a viola and joined five other participants to read through Shulamit Ran’s String Sextet. It was challenging but intriguing, and I hope to encounter it again one day.

After the workshop, I asked Morrison and Mukhopadhyay if there was anything about the music that surprised them. “Yes! That there is so much, and that it is so good!” says Morrison. “Women have been composing forever. The earliest musician whose name we actually know is the Sumerian composer and author Enheduanna, 2285–2250 BCE. There are wonderful composers from all eras.”

For participants at the workshop, she continues, “there were a number of discoveries. The most enthusiasm came from a group who played Lyric Sonata by Harriet Bolz, a septet for string quartet, flute, clarinet, and bassoon. They all loved it!

“I played a clarinet quintet by [English composer] Elizabeth Maconchy that was possibly a little hard for one day, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and would love to play it again,” Morrison says.

“Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Divertimento for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello was a hit. Grazyna Bacewicz is a fantastic composer. We absolutely love Ethel Smyth, both her quartet and her cello quintet.”

“Music by women composers should be in every workshop,” adds Mukhopadhyay.

Is CMNC planning to repeat the event? “Absolutely!” replies Morrison. “And even more important, I feel, is to keep assigning these works even if it’s not a special workshop.”Professional musicians, concert promoters, and artistic directors—CMNC’s “Celebrating Women Composers” day has thrown down the gauntlet.

I urge you to accept the challenge, add women composers to your repertory, and bring new vigor to your programming!



Chamber Music by Women Composers

Not sure where to start? Elizabeth Morrison, Carol Mukhopadhyay, and the CMNC helped compile the following list of mainly string pieces to explore, by playing level.

Low intermediate

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (German, 1805–47): String Quartet in Eb

Madeleine Dring (English, 1923–77): Trio for flute, oboe, and piano

High intermediate

Ann Callaway (American, b. 1949): Memory Palace (trio for clarinet, cello, and piano)

Nancy Dalberg (Danish, 1881–1949): String Quartet No. 2 in G minor, Op. 14

Clara Schumann (German, 1819–96): Piano Trio 

Dora Pejacevic (Croatian, 1885–1923): Piano Quartet in D minor, Op. 25


Rebecca Clarke (English, 1886–1979): Short works for string quartet, including Comodo et amabile

Amy Beach (Mrs. H.H.A. Beach) (American, 1867–1944): String Quartet, Piano Quintet

Germaine Tailleferre (French, 1892–1983): Piano Trio

Teresa Carreño (Venezuelan, 1853–1917): String Quartet


Grazyna Bacewicz (Polish, 1909–59): String Quartet No. 4

Elizabeth Maconchy (English-Irish, 1907–94): Clarinet quintet, string quartets

Ethel Smyth (English, 1858–1944): String Quartet in E minor; String Quintet with two cellos

Shulamit Ran (Israeli-American, b. 1949): String Sextet

Ruth Crawford (Seeger) (American, 1901–53): String Quartet