10 women composers you have to know about

07 October 2019
By Ellie Palmer
Or, to re-word it: 10 composers you have to know about... who all happen to be women

If you aren't aware of the ten names on this list, you will be by the end of it. We've picked out 10 women who are lighting up the 21st Century with their music. 

1. Errollyn Wallen

Photo credit: NMC Recordings

Wallen first came to our attention in 2018 when we witnessed a live performance of First Arabesque, Another Arabesque – a re-imagination of Debussy’s famous piece. But she has been advancing the game for women composers for years already. She was the first-ever black woman to have her work performed at the BBC Proms. Her Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra was performed by the BBC Philharmonic back in 1998.

Although this is, of course, something to be proud of, she admits, “It actually feels embarrassing to have to draw attention to the fact that there are still so few people of colour in the classical music industry.” Hear, hear.


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2. Gabriela Lena Frank

Photo credit: Sabina Frank

Being named on the Washington Post’s list of the 35 most significant women composers in history, we felt Gabriela deserved her place on our list.

Born in California to a mother of Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, her multicultural heritage is explored regularly within her compositions. A lot of her work is inspired by her travels throughout South America, and incorporates Latin folklore, poetry, mythology, and native musical styles. Take a listen below.


3. Melanie Spanswick

Photo credit: Erica Worth

Long-serving Pianist Magazine contributor Melanie is one of the few female composers to be published in the renowned Edition Schott series. She is highly thought of, which comes as no surprise considering she is one of the leading voices in modern-day piano festivals. Much of her work has been included in piano festival syllabuses around the world.

Melanie presents one piano lesson in each issue of Pianist. Pick your copy here.


4. Caroline Shaw

Photo credit: Kait Moreno

Shaw’s area of compositional expertise may be vocals (she was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for her a cappella piece Partita for 8 voices) but she does have a knack for writing progressive piano pieces. In January of this year, she premiered her new Piano Concerto, Watermark, with pianist Jonathan Biss and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Shaw stated that the piece is a direct response to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3. “A Pulitzer Prize is just the beginning,” the Seattle Symphony wrote after the performance.


5. Kaija Saariaho

Photo credit: Kaija Saariaho

Saariaho is one of Finland’s most cherished composers. She describes her music as ‘spectral’ which, compared to the standard harmony, melody and rhythm addressed in classical music, is an entirely different kettle of fish. Spectral music develops over time and is always in motion.


6. Sarah Nicolls

The ultimate act of ‘changing the game’ in the music industry is to invent something that has never been thought of.

That is exactly what Sarah Nicolls has done.

She invented the ‘inside-out piano’, a sculptural feast of an instrument played, pushed and swung. Nicolls explores all kinds of technological features on the inside-out piano, which she combines with the acoustic aspects of the instrument. The result?

Sarah features inside issue 110 of Pianist, which pays tribute to a host of brilliant women composers. Get your copy here.



7. Jennifer Higdon

Photo credit: WRTI 90.1

2010 Pulitzer Prize Winner and 2x Grammy Award winner Jennifer Higdon certainly seems to be doing something right. The American is one of the most performed living American composers of the 21st Century. Higdon has stated that she favours music that makes sense, rather than writing music that adheres to the forms of Classical. She considers her work to be neo-romantic.

Her presence as one of the most recognised and successful composers of our time easily puts her high on our list of composers who are changing the game.


8. Jia Chai

Photo credit: The Contemporary Music Research Centre, York

Perhaps one of the less well-known names on this list, but my eye was well and truly caught last year when I heard Jia’s Where is the shadow of the moon? Using Debussy’s Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut as her basis, the 32-year-old concerned herself with creating a soundworld that uses music materials that are derived directly from the main music materials that Debussy used. This bold approach – an approach that created an absolutely stunning piece of music – surely puts Jia in the category of ‘should be more well-known’.


9. Elena Kats-Chernin

Photo credit: CutCommon Mag

Watch the video below and see if you recognise it.

This piece is Elena Kats-Chernin’s Eliza’s Aria, which was famously picked up by British bank Lloyds TSB for an advertisement campaign back in 2007. It soon became one of the most recognisable themes on British TV in the 20th Century.


10. Unsuk Chin

Last but by no means least, we have Korean composer and pianist Unsuk Chin.

Her career speaks for itself: Her works have been performed by Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Philharmonia Orchestra, Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, and conducted by Kent Nagano, Simon Rattle, Alan Gilbert, and more. 

And breathe.

Take a look at the 10 female pianists we highlighted back on International Women's Day earlier this year.