'Distinguished Rebels': Stories of women who have changed the face of classical music

Learn more about the women that have shaped the face of classical music.Brooke Knoll/APM

March 01, 2023

March is Women's History Month, and we're celebrating women who have changed the face of classical music. Learn more about 10 women who have contributed to classical music as composers, performers, conductors and educators.

Ethel Smyth

Dame Ethel Mary Smyth
Dame Ethel Mary Smyth (1858 - 1944)
Getty Images

Born in 1858, Smyth was introduced to music by her mother as a child. Despite disapproval from her father, she made music her career, studying at the Leipzig Conservatory and brushing elbows with the likes of Antonin Dvorak, Edward Grieg and Clara Schumann. Her opera, Der Wald, was the first opera written by a woman to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1903.

Andrea Blain, former national host/producer

LISTEN — Distinguished Rebels: Ethel Smyth

Valerie Coleman

Composer Valerie Coleman.
Composer Valerie Coleman.
Matthew Murphy

As a baby, Valerie Coleman pretended to play the flute with sticks she found in her backyard. By the time she was 14, she was playing a real flute in her school band and had already written three full-length symphonies. As a student, she became the founder of the now acclaimed wind ensemble Imani Winds. She is now an in-demand composer, a Grammy-award winning artist and entrepreneur who continues to break down cultural and social barriers in classical music.

Jillene Khan, classical host

LISTEN — Distinguished Rebels: Valerie Coleman

Distinguished Rebels: Valerie Coleman

Maud Powell

Maud Powell
Maud Powell
/Wikimedia Commons

At the turn of the 20th century, Maud Powell picked up the violin as a young child and never really put it down. She believed her duty as an artist was to excite the novice and the expert alike. She performed music that was appealing to all, and was sought out by composers to premiere their violin concertos. Powell also included African-American spirituals in her recitals, to uplift the legacy and music of Black Americans. A slogan from her husband encapsulates her energy as a performer and musician: "the arm of a man, the heart of a woman, and the head of an artist."

Julie Amacher, program director

LISTEN — Distinguished Rebels: Maud Powell

Distinguished Rebels: Maud Powell

Florence Price

Florence Price
Florence Beatrice Smith Price
University of Arkansas

Florence Price was tireless in her pursuit of excellence, a task made even harder by the discrimination she faced as a black woman. Price wrote a massive catalogue of works for a variety of ensembles and instrument, and she was the first black woman to have a work performed by a major American Orchestra. Price had to fight to be taken seriously as a composer, all while raising two kids and dealing with an unsupportive husband. Her music illustrates the depth of American musical identity and the tenacity of the American spirit.

Siriana Lundgren

LISTEN — Distinguished Rebels: Florence Price

Distinguished Rebels: Florence Price

Fanny Mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel
Moritz Daniel Oppenheim | The Jewish Museum, New York

From a very young age, Fanny Mendelssohn was composing songs and piano pieces. Although not afforded the same opportunities as her younger brother, Felix, she wrote hundreds of works and was looked up to by him. So much so, that she was given the nickname Minerva: the goddess of wisdom. She published works under her brother's name until 1846, when a collection of her pieces under her own name was published.

Andrea Blain

LISTEN — Distinguished Rebels: Fanny Mendelssohn

Hazel Scott

Hazel Scott
Hazel Scott
photographer: James Kriegsmann, New York [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1939, Time magazine said "the darling of café society, Hazel Scott, commits arson while playing the classics." Scott amazed audiences with her unique takes on classical music, infusing boogie-woogie and jazz into her playing. A child prodigy, she started studying at Juilliard at 8 years old. By 19, she had her own radio show, performed on Broadway and would be seen on the silver screen. She fought for racial and social justice throughout her life, and was one of the first Black performers to refuse to play to segregated audiences.

Meghann Oglesby, producer for Performance Today

LISTEN — Distinguished Rebels: Hazel Scott

Distinguished Rebels: Hazel Scott

Lara St. John

Violinist Lara St. John
Violinist Lara St. John.
Andrew Ousley (Unison Media)

Canadian violinist Lara St. John started playing violin when she was only two years old and entered the Curtis Institute of Music at thirteen. Praised for her powerful presence with fearless and fiery chops, she is a champion for music off the beaten path, including reimagined Eastern European folk tunes and an entire album of works for solo violin written by women composers. Lara is also an outspoken advocate for survivors of sexual abuse in the world of classical music, a role she stepped into bravely after her own horrific experiences as a music student at Curtis.

Valery Kahler, host/producer

LISTEN — Distinguished Rebels: Lara St. John

Distinguished Rebels: Lara St. John

Tine Thing Helseth

Tine Thing Helseth
Tine Thing Helseth
Courtesy of the artist

Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth fell in love with the instrument at the age of seven and promptly joined her school band. She began earning awards for her performances and won Newcomer of the Year in the Norwegian Grammys, the first classical musician to ever be nominated for the category. In 2007, she released her first album featuring the four major classical trumpet concertos, reminding the world that classical trumpet was not a boys’ club. That same year, Tine and some friends founded the ten-woman brass ensemble tenThing. Together with her all-female band, Tine is helping to build a musical future where “ten-woman” is an unremarkable line-up, and “all-female” an unnecessary descriptor.

Valery Kahler, host/producer

LISTEN — Distinguished Rebels: Tine Thing Helseth

Distinguished Rebels: Tine Thing Helseth

Lara Downes

Lara Downes
Pianist Lara Downes
Lara Downes

When pianist Lara Downes was a little girl, she came across a picture of the young Clara Wieck, later known as Clara Schumann, and was thrilled to finally see someone who looked like her in classical music, someone she could relate to and be inspired by. She would go on to become that person for a new generation of musicians. After studying in Europe, Lara returned to the United States to teach at University of California, Davis. There, her signature approach to music making really blossomed. Lara has always performed music by traditionally underrepresented composers, but the extent of her advocacy has continued to grow. Lara is also a producer, storyteller, arts advocate, radio host and collaborator.

Valery Kahler, host/producer

LISTEN — Distinguished Rebels: Lara Downes

Distinguished Rebels: Lara Downes

Germaine Tailleferre

Germaine Tailleferre
Germaine Tailleferre in 1937
Wikimedia Commons/Studio Harcourt

Germaine Tailleferre was a power player in 1920's Paris as a musician and composer. She became the only female member of 'Les Six,' a group of six composers who exemplified the modern French sensibility at that time. She attended the Paris Conservatory without the encouragement or financial support of her family, determined to learn and compose. Her music is known for its charm, wit, elegance and grace.

Katie Condon, Class Notes manager

LISTEN — Distinguished Rebels: Germaine Tailleferre