Women Composers

Composers from England

William Boyce

January 01, 1711 -

Late Baroque Period

Born in London in 1711, William Boyce was an English composer, organist, and musical editor. His musical studies began at a young age when he sang in the choir at St. Paul's Cathedral. Once his voice broke, he began to study with the cathedral organist.

Boyce was known for his church music and works for the stage. Often times his compositions were written for use based on his current employment. For instance, while working at the Chapel Royal, he wrote many choral pieces for its weekly services. While the Master of the King’s Musick, he composed annual odes for the New Year and for His Majesty’s birthday. Later in his life, Boyce struggled with deafness, a discouraging fate for a musician. Some of Boyce’s well-known works include his serenata Solomon and his chamber work Twelve Sonatas for Two Violins, with a Bass for the Violoncello or Harpsichord.

 


Benjamin Britten

November 22, 1913 -

Modern Period

Benjamin Britten was an expert in three different musical fields -- conducting, composing and playing the piano. Britten was born in Lowestoft, a town on the English seacoast. (His birthday, November 22nd, happens to be the saint day of the patron saint of music, St. Cecilia.) Benjamin's father was a dentist; his mother loved to sing, and regularly held concerts in their home.

From the moment he started playing the piano, Britten knew he wanted to earn his living as a composer. His first paying job was writing music for films.

Britten was a pacifist -- he didn't believe in fighting wars. So when it became obvious that England would go to war with Germany in 1939, Britten left for America. But it was impossible to take the "Brit" out of Britten. In the middle of World War II, he sailed back to his native country.

When the war was over, the biggest opera company in England held a gala reopening, and commissioned Britten to write a new opera for the occasion. Britten was also asked to compose an opera when Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of England.

 


William Byrd

January 01, 1540 -

Renaissance Period

William Byrd is considered one of the most important English composer who lived and worked during the sixteenth century. He wrote in a variety of genres, both sacred and secular music, and both vocal and instrumental music. It is believed that he was the student of the famous composer Thomas Tallis with whom he shared exclusive rights to print and publish music in England. Though he was Catholic, Byrd served the Church of England as both an organist and choirmaster.

 


Rebecca Clarke

August 27, 1886 -

Modern Period

Rebecca Clarke was an English composer and performer who lived during the early twentieth century. She began her music studies early, being forced along with her siblings to perform on demand for their father. She received her first formal education from the Royal Academy of Music, but her father forced her to withdraw after he received word that one of her teachers proposed marriage.

After withdrawing from the Royal Academy of Music, Rebecca went on to become Charles Stanford's first female student at the Royal College of Music. He encouraged her to switch her instrument from violin to viola, with which she would later tour internationally.

Though Rebecca was thrown out of her home in her twenties, she did not despair. Instead, she used the opportunity to focus more on her musical studies and performance schedule. Some of her notable accomplishments include becoming the first female to play with the Queen's Hall Orchestra as well as founding her own female ensemble – the English Ensemble piano quartet.

 


Edward Elgar

June 02, 1857 -

Late Romantic Period

Edward Elgar's father was a musician who tuned pianos, owned a music shop and was employed as a church organist. The young Edward learned to play the organ and violin at a young age, and composed his first short piece at the age of 10. His first job was as assistant organist to his father. His main love was composition, although his music was not successful until his Enigma Variations were published in 1899. This work made him famous. Other well-known pieces are the march, Pomp and Circumstance, and his Cello Concerto.

Until Elgar, there had not been a major creative composer in England since Handel’s death in 1759. He became known as England’s greatest composer and was widely recognized in his day. Unfortunately, Elgar’s fame waned at the end of his life – he composed little music during his last fifteen years and withdrew from almost all musical contact. It was not until the 1960’s that his music again became popular.

 


Orlando Gibbons

December 25, 1583 -

Early Music Period

Orlando Gibbons was one of the most popular composers for church music during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. He also was an organist, and wrote quite a few impressive works for the organ. Raised in a musical family, it is likely that he received his first music lessons from his older brother. In 1596 he joined the King’s College Choir at Cambridge and served there for a few years. In the early 1600s, he was appointed organist at Chapel Royal. Many considered him to be the greatest organist in all of England! In 1619, he was appointed the important post of Musician for the Virginals. In 1623, he added organist at Westminster Abbey to his list of accomplishments. Sadly, Orlando Gibbons died suddenly in 1625. He was only 42.

 


Gustav Holst

September 21, 1874 -

Modern Period

Known primarily for The Planets, Gustav Holst also composed other music, played the trombone and taught at a girl's school in London. His father taught him piano at an early age, but a nerve disease cut his career as a pianist short. He went on to attend the Royal College of Music where he studied composition and met fellow student Ralph Vaughn Williams, who became a lifelong friend.

Holst was very interested in Hindu literature and philosophy and even learned Sanskrit so that he could translate passages written in this language himself. This religion influences many of his works.

Because of his jobs as a trombonist and a teacher, Holst did most of his composing in his spare time. The success of The Planets thrust him suddenly into the spotlight, where he was not very comfortable. However, it also insured his financial well-being. Because of illness, Holst gave up teaching in 1925 and was able to spend the next several years writing music. His works include operas, choral music, orchestral pieces and songs.

 


Thomas Morley

January 01, 1557 -

Classical Period

Thomas Morley was an organist, composer, editor, and music printer who lived and worked during the sixteenth century. It is believed that he was a student of composer William Byrd. He is most known for his work with the madrigal. At this point in history, a madrigal was a short secular piece for any number of equally important voices that used free form poetry as its text. It came to prominence in Italy but Morley is remembered as the composer who first brought it to England.

 


Henry Purcell

March 07, 1659 -

Baroque Period

Henry Purcell, who lived during the Baroque era, was one of the greatest English composers of all time. As a youth, he studied under some of the finest English musicians of the period. In 1679, he was appointed organist for Westminster Abbey, where he is buried.

Purcell was also an organist for the Chapel Royal, the royal instrument keeper and a court composer. He wrote many works for church use, including anthems and settings of the liturgy and was also known for his songs, instrumental music, one opera, Dido and Aeneas, and music for stage productions. Despite the fact that he was an organist, he wrote little for this instrument.

 


John Rutter

September 24, 1945 -

Modern Period

John Rutter came to know music early on in his life serving as a chorister during his school days. He is an internationally-recognized composer and conductor who has traveled the world appearing with top ensembles. Though known primarily for his choral works, he has also composed music for orchestra and instrumental ensembles, children’s opera, and even music for television! After serving as the Director of Music at Clare College in the 1970s, Rutter went on to found a popular chamber choir known as the Cambridge Singers.

 


Ethel Smyth

April 23, 1858 -

Romantic Period

Ethel Smyth was a respected English composer of her time and known for her chamber music, orchestral works, vocal scores, and opera.

Ethel was born into a successful family who didn't understand why she sought to follow her ambitions to become a composer. At that time, it was uncommon for women to pursue a career in this way. She studied for a period at the Leipzig Conservatory and then left to study privately. Her work met the approval of big-name composers of her time including Brahms, Clara Schumann, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky. An advocate for women's rights, Ethel sometimes would allow her political views to seep into her work. She lost her hearing later in life, and at that point devoted herself to writing prose.

 


Thomas Tallis

January 30, 1505 -

Early Music Period

Thomas Tallis was an important 16th-century English composer. After several early jobs as an organist, Tallis went on to work at the Chapel Royal where he played, sang, and composed under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I. He is most known for writing Latin masses and hymns, English service music, and sacred works that reflect the religious and political turmoil that existed within the Church of England at the time. Liturgical music in England was going through a major transition, texts moving between Latin and the native English. Tallis is known as the teacher of another famous composer, William Byrd, with whom he shared exclusive rights to print and publish music in England.

 


Ralph Vaughan Williams

October 12, 1872 -

Late Romantic Period

Ralph Vaughan Williams came from the village of Down Ampney, where his father was a minister. His mother was the niece of Charles Darwin, the scientist who came up with the theory of evolution. When Ralph (pronounced "Rafe" in England) was a kid, he already knew he wanted to be a composer.

Vaughan Williams was dedicated to collecting and studying English folk music to preserve it for the future. Traditionally, folk songs are passed on orally -- that is, someone learns a song by listening to another person sing it. Vaughan Williams traveled around England, writing down folk songs. He collected over 800 of them! Those folk songs had such a big influence on him that many of them ended up in his compositions.

Because of his interest in old tunes, Vaughan Williams was asked to revise the official English Hymnal. One of the most famous orchestra pieces Vaughan Williams composed is based on a tune from that hymnal - a tune by 16th century Brittish composer Thomas Tallis.

Among the pieces Vaughan Williams wrote were nine symphonies, and a number of concertos, including some for instruments you wouldn't expect to be featured as soloists — harmonica and bass tuba!

 


Thomas Weelkes

October 25, 1576 -

Early Music Period

Thomas Weelkes was an English composer known for his madrigals and church music. A madrigal is a piece for multiple voices, each of equal importance, set to fine poetry. Madrigals written around this time often used word painting, a term used to describe music that literally reflects a text’s meaning.

Weelkes worked early in his career for several noble patrons. He later went on to make a living as an organist at Winchester College from 1598–1602. Many of his madrigals were composed around this time. He then went on to work as organist and choirmaster at Chichester Cathedral, holding a clerkship on the side. His work in the church likely led to him writing English anthems and ten complete Anglican services.

 


Women Composers

Composers from England

William Boyce

January 01, 1711 -

Late Baroque Period

Born in London in 1711, William Boyce was an English composer, organist, and musical editor. His musical studies began at a young age when he sang in the choir at St. Paul's Cathedral. Once his voice broke, he began to study with the cathedral organist.

Boyce was known for his church music and works for the stage. Often times his compositions were written for use based on his current employment. For instance, while working at the Chapel Royal, he wrote many choral pieces for its weekly services. While the Master of the King’s Musick, he composed annual odes for the New Year and for His Majesty’s birthday. Later in his life, Boyce struggled with deafness, a discouraging fate for a musician. Some of Boyce’s well-known works include his serenata Solomon and his chamber work Twelve Sonatas for Two Violins, with a Bass for the Violoncello or Harpsichord.

 


Benjamin Britten

November 22, 1913 -

Modern Period

Benjamin Britten was an expert in three different musical fields -- conducting, composing and playing the piano. Britten was born in Lowestoft, a town on the English seacoast. (His birthday, November 22nd, happens to be the saint day of the patron saint of music, St. Cecilia.) Benjamin's father was a dentist; his mother loved to sing, and regularly held concerts in their home.

From the moment he started playing the piano, Britten knew he wanted to earn his living as a composer. His first paying job was writing music for films.

Britten was a pacifist -- he didn't believe in fighting wars. So when it became obvious that England would go to war with Germany in 1939, Britten left for America. But it was impossible to take the "Brit" out of Britten. In the middle of World War II, he sailed back to his native country.

When the war was over, the biggest opera company in England held a gala reopening, and commissioned Britten to write a new opera for the occasion. Britten was also asked to compose an opera when Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of England.

 


William Byrd

January 01, 1540 -

Renaissance Period

William Byrd is considered one of the most important English composer who lived and worked during the sixteenth century. He wrote in a variety of genres, both sacred and secular music, and both vocal and instrumental music. It is believed that he was the student of the famous composer Thomas Tallis with whom he shared exclusive rights to print and publish music in England. Though he was Catholic, Byrd served the Church of England as both an organist and choirmaster.

 


Rebecca Clarke

August 27, 1886 -

Modern Period

Rebecca Clarke was an English composer and performer who lived during the early twentieth century. She began her music studies early, being forced along with her siblings to perform on demand for their father. She received her first formal education from the Royal Academy of Music, but her father forced her to withdraw after he received word that one of her teachers proposed marriage.

After withdrawing from the Royal Academy of Music, Rebecca went on to become Charles Stanford's first female student at the Royal College of Music. He encouraged her to switch her instrument from violin to viola, with which she would later tour internationally.

Though Rebecca was thrown out of her home in her twenties, she did not despair. Instead, she used the opportunity to focus more on her musical studies and performance schedule. Some of her notable accomplishments include becoming the first female to play with the Queen's Hall Orchestra as well as founding her own female ensemble – the English Ensemble piano quartet.

 


Edward Elgar

June 02, 1857 -

Late Romantic Period

Edward Elgar's father was a musician who tuned pianos, owned a music shop and was employed as a church organist. The young Edward learned to play the organ and violin at a young age, and composed his first short piece at the age of 10. His first job was as assistant organist to his father. His main love was composition, although his music was not successful until his Enigma Variations were published in 1899. This work made him famous. Other well-known pieces are the march, Pomp and Circumstance, and his Cello Concerto.

Until Elgar, there had not been a major creative composer in England since Handel’s death in 1759. He became known as England’s greatest composer and was widely recognized in his day. Unfortunately, Elgar’s fame waned at the end of his life – he composed little music during his last fifteen years and withdrew from almost all musical contact. It was not until the 1960’s that his music again became popular.

 


Orlando Gibbons

December 25, 1583 -

Early Music Period

Orlando Gibbons was one of the most popular composers for church music during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. He also was an organist, and wrote quite a few impressive works for the organ. Raised in a musical family, it is likely that he received his first music lessons from his older brother. In 1596 he joined the King’s College Choir at Cambridge and served there for a few years. In the early 1600s, he was appointed organist at Chapel Royal. Many considered him to be the greatest organist in all of England! In 1619, he was appointed the important post of Musician for the Virginals. In 1623, he added organist at Westminster Abbey to his list of accomplishments. Sadly, Orlando Gibbons died suddenly in 1625. He was only 42.

 


Gustav Holst

September 21, 1874 -

Modern Period

Known primarily for The Planets, Gustav Holst also composed other music, played the trombone and taught at a girl's school in London. His father taught him piano at an early age, but a nerve disease cut his career as a pianist short. He went on to attend the Royal College of Music where he studied composition and met fellow student Ralph Vaughn Williams, who became a lifelong friend.

Holst was very interested in Hindu literature and philosophy and even learned Sanskrit so that he could translate passages written in this language himself. This religion influences many of his works.

Because of his jobs as a trombonist and a teacher, Holst did most of his composing in his spare time. The success of The Planets thrust him suddenly into the spotlight, where he was not very comfortable. However, it also insured his financial well-being. Because of illness, Holst gave up teaching in 1925 and was able to spend the next several years writing music. His works include operas, choral music, orchestral pieces and songs.

 


Thomas Morley

January 01, 1557 -

Classical Period

Thomas Morley was an organist, composer, editor, and music printer who lived and worked during the sixteenth century. It is believed that he was a student of composer William Byrd. He is most known for his work with the madrigal. At this point in history, a madrigal was a short secular piece for any number of equally important voices that used free form poetry as its text. It came to prominence in Italy but Morley is remembered as the composer who first brought it to England.

 


Henry Purcell

March 07, 1659 -

Baroque Period

Henry Purcell, who lived during the Baroque era, was one of the greatest English composers of all time. As a youth, he studied under some of the finest English musicians of the period. In 1679, he was appointed organist for Westminster Abbey, where he is buried.

Purcell was also an organist for the Chapel Royal, the royal instrument keeper and a court composer. He wrote many works for church use, including anthems and settings of the liturgy and was also known for his songs, instrumental music, one opera, Dido and Aeneas, and music for stage productions. Despite the fact that he was an organist, he wrote little for this instrument.

 


John Rutter

September 24, 1945 -

Modern Period

John Rutter came to know music early on in his life serving as a chorister during his school days. He is an internationally-recognized composer and conductor who has traveled the world appearing with top ensembles. Though known primarily for his choral works, he has also composed music for orchestra and instrumental ensembles, children’s opera, and even music for television! After serving as the Director of Music at Clare College in the 1970s, Rutter went on to found a popular chamber choir known as the Cambridge Singers.

 


Ethel Smyth

April 23, 1858 -

Romantic Period

Ethel Smyth was a respected English composer of her time and known for her chamber music, orchestral works, vocal scores, and opera.

Ethel was born into a successful family who didn't understand why she sought to follow her ambitions to become a composer. At that time, it was uncommon for women to pursue a career in this way. She studied for a period at the Leipzig Conservatory and then left to study privately. Her work met the approval of big-name composers of her time including Brahms, Clara Schumann, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky. An advocate for women's rights, Ethel sometimes would allow her political views to seep into her work. She lost her hearing later in life, and at that point devoted herself to writing prose.

 


Thomas Tallis

January 30, 1505 -

Early Music Period

Thomas Tallis was an important 16th-century English composer. After several early jobs as an organist, Tallis went on to work at the Chapel Royal where he played, sang, and composed under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I. He is most known for writing Latin masses and hymns, English service music, and sacred works that reflect the religious and political turmoil that existed within the Church of England at the time. Liturgical music in England was going through a major transition, texts moving between Latin and the native English. Tallis is known as the teacher of another famous composer, William Byrd, with whom he shared exclusive rights to print and publish music in England.

 


Ralph Vaughan Williams

October 12, 1872 -

Late Romantic Period

Ralph Vaughan Williams came from the village of Down Ampney, where his father was a minister. His mother was the niece of Charles Darwin, the scientist who came up with the theory of evolution. When Ralph (pronounced "Rafe" in England) was a kid, he already knew he wanted to be a composer.

Vaughan Williams was dedicated to collecting and studying English folk music to preserve it for the future. Traditionally, folk songs are passed on orally -- that is, someone learns a song by listening to another person sing it. Vaughan Williams traveled around England, writing down folk songs. He collected over 800 of them! Those folk songs had such a big influence on him that many of them ended up in his compositions.

Because of his interest in old tunes, Vaughan Williams was asked to revise the official English Hymnal. One of the most famous orchestra pieces Vaughan Williams composed is based on a tune from that hymnal - a tune by 16th century Brittish composer Thomas Tallis.

Among the pieces Vaughan Williams wrote were nine symphonies, and a number of concertos, including some for instruments you wouldn't expect to be featured as soloists — harmonica and bass tuba!

 


Thomas Weelkes

October 25, 1576 -

Early Music Period

Thomas Weelkes was an English composer known for his madrigals and church music. A madrigal is a piece for multiple voices, each of equal importance, set to fine poetry. Madrigals written around this time often used word painting, a term used to describe music that literally reflects a text’s meaning.

Weelkes worked early in his career for several noble patrons. He later went on to make a living as an organist at Winchester College from 1598–1602. Many of his madrigals were composed around this time. He then went on to work as organist and choirmaster at Chichester Cathedral, holding a clerkship on the side. His work in the church likely led to him writing English anthems and ten complete Anglican services.

 


 

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