We are regularly bombarded with information about Schumann’s syphilis, Mozart’s interest in rimming, and Tchaikovsky’s unfortunate love for his nephew. But what about the kinky exploits of women composers in history? In the name of gender equality in music, I have ranked the sex lives of 30 women composers in absolutely objective order of worst to best.
This ranking was calculated using the following three indicators of “quality of composer sex life”:
1. Sexiness of composer’s music
2. Consistency of composer’s sexual encounters
Out of respect for privacy, this list unfortunately excludes living composers, but just imagine the paranormal Fibonacci sequence orgies where you might find Sofia Gubaidulina.
30. Lili Boulanger (1893–1918): Chronically ill from the age of two, Lili Boulanger became the youngest person to win the Prix de Rome for composition (hot), and died probably a virgin at 24 from bronchial tuberculosis (less hot). Her choice of song text gives us a peek into her bedroom: “I seem to feel a weeping within me, a heavy, silent sobbing, someone who is not there.” Let us mourn the heart-pounding music she might have written if she had not been constantly sick and lonely; maybe a sequel to her creepy-yet-titillating “Les Sirènes.” Lili may have been a brilliant and sensitive composer, but she scores zero in musical sexiness, zero in consistency, and zero in scandal.
29. Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979): It’s possible that the Boulanger sisters’ low ranking was because they were only allowed one hour of “wild time” per week growing up. Nadia “the one-woman graduate school” was famously hard to please. She probably thought sex was a distraction from her top priorities—teaching and God—and would probably have hated to be included on this list more than any other composer. That said, she was world-famous, which is sexy, and she dashed the romantic hopes of her student Louise Talma (#8), which adds a whisper of scandal. “Three Pieces for Cello and Piano” is ethereal but touches no lower than the head.
28. Marion Bauer (1882–1955): Bauer’s galactic “Sun Splendor” was premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1936, but the title is probably the hottest thing about this piece. Single for most of her life, Bauer was hoping to get it on with Ruth Crawford Seeger (#17) at the International Contemporary Music Festival in Liège by renting a single hotel room for the two of them. Bauer shot her shot, but sadly it only made Ruth “uncomfortable.” One wishes Bauer had instead reserved the room for Ethel Smyth (#5), who shared her love of women and racism.
27. Mary Howe (1882–1972): There is simply nothing erotic about Mary Howe. However, given the fact that Mary Howe had three children, we know for a fact that she had sex more than once. She also lived through the ‘60s, a famously sexual decade.
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26. Julia Perry (1924–1979): A pioneering Black composer, Perry won two Guggenheims to study with Nadia Boulanger and Luigi Dallapiccola in France and Italy, and hone her Romance language skills in all ways. One hopes Perry had at least one divertimento and not too much shaming from Nadia “Wild Time” Boulanger. Revealing song title: “How Beautiful Are the Feet.”
25. Dorothy Howell (1898–1982): Howell’s lush symphonic poem “Lamia” was premiered in 1919 at the Proms and performed five times in a single season. “Lamia” should be performed more often, but regrettably it is not sexy. One wonders what exactly she was doing while tending Edward Elgar’s grave for years. While Bruckner fingered and kissed the skulls of Beethoven and Schubert, Howell had a lack of eyewitnesses and a greater longevity of contact.
24. Isabella Leonarda (1620–1704): A high-achieving nun, Isabella Leonarda was one of the most productive composers of her time, and stated that she wrote music not for credit, but so that everyone would know how dedicated she was to the Virgin Mary. So very dedicated, in fact, that her “Sonata Duodecima” is the perfect striptease song: a win today for queer subtext and nun fetishists.
23. Cécile Chaminade (1857–1944): For composers who weren’t high-achieving nuns, marriage was problematic because it often meant the end of music-making. But not for Cécile Chaminade: she was smart, and married an old man who also happened to be a music publisher. She insisted the two live separately so that she could carry on her affairs. “My love is music,” she once said, “I am its nun.” This point is underlined by the generous double-tonguing in her Flute Concertino.
22. Florence Price (1887–1953): Price was one of those self-proclaimed “timid” people who then does a suspiciously convincing job setting tantalizing, passionate cadences to the Langston Hughes poem “Song to the Dark Virgin”:
That I were a garment,
A shimmering, silken garment,
That all my folds
Might wrap about thy body,
Absorb thy body,
Hold and hide thy body,
Thou dark one.
Suggestive titles: “Little Miss Perky”; Piano Concerto in One Movement (guess which).
21. Alice Mary Smith (1839–1884): The first British woman to compose a symphony, Alice Mary Smith tended more towards Classical style than Romantic, and we all know what that means. She had a long, stable marriage to a lawyer, and from her bouncy symphonies to her smooth Clarinet Sonata, we might surmise that she wasn’t into anything scandalous, just a dependable good time. Power to you, Alice Mary Smith.
20. Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665–1729): In 1673, King Louis XIV took this child prodigy on as a Versailles court musician. From the age of eight, young Élisabeth’s education was directed by the King’s official mistress, the Marquise of Montespan, who was enemy number one of the Roman Catholic Church, and who may or may not have poisoned one of the King’s other less-official mistresses. Madame de Montespan’s teachings must have included some carnal knowledge: Jacquet de La Guerre’s oeuvre evokes bulging breeches and trysts outside of her marriage with the court organist.
19. Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983): Is there anything better than riding…a wave of success? “Les Six” composer Germaine Tailleferre was playing four hands with Gershwin at a party in New York when she met her first husband, New Yorker cartoonist Robert Barton. She and Barton got engaged after their first (presumably satisfying) date, and were thereafter known as the “Romeo and Juliet of New York.” After the honeymoon period, Barton started to get increasingly jealous of her fame. When he found out she was pregnant in 1926, he took a gun, shot at her pregnant belly, and missed. And this was not the only toxic man in Tailleferre’s life. Her father told her that “composing music was no better than being a streetwalker” (so she defiantly changed her last name) and her second husband discouraged her from composing completely. Maybe for this reason, her music is not particularly sexy, although she did once write a piece for harp.
18. Emilie Mayer (1812–1883): While evading marriage, Mayer wrote eight symphonies, 15 overtures, seven string quartets, an opera, and tons of chamber music. In public, she was modest and reserved, and built a reputation as the “female Beethoven.” In private, she was someone who got the job done. We can assume that she serviced herself in the style of her music: Mayer was an ultra-Romantic maximalist, loved complex rhythms, and often evaded resolution until the very last moment…
Ranking the sex lives of 30 women composers in absolutely objective order of worst to best. In the name of gender equality in music. @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet
17. Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901–1953): By the summer of 1929, Crawford had already turned down two marriage proposals and at least one recorded sexual come on, and wondered to Marion Bauer if “I shall ever want intercourse… I seem not to be warm and not to desire it.” Bauer assured her that “anyone who writes music like hers must be warm, and will want it when the time comes.” The two continued to have sexually charged conversations about whether you could sublimate sexuality in music without actually having sex, peaking in a moment that would make a great scene in the Ruth Crawford Seeger biopic we all deserve: “She draws me very close to her and kisses me…my head is on Marion Bauer’s shoulder and her arm is about me and her hand on my arm, and my hand in hers. I have found a beautiful, a sincere, a warm friend. I am deeply stirred.” Here’s to more sincere, warm friendships like this one.
16. Maria Szymanowska (1789–1831): See: Szymanowska’s lip-biting “Nocturne in A-Flat Major for Three Hands.” What the fourth hand does is dealer’s choice.
15. Louise Farrenc (1804–1875): Louise Farrenc’s music is HOT. (See: her piano quintets.) In 1842, she was appointed Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire: hot. She finally won equal pay after her nonet was premiered by Joseph Joachim: very hot. She was married to a flute player ten years her senior who she met in a class (hot), and the couple toured France together (touring can be lonely, but as a couple… hot).
14. Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805–1847): Fanny Hensel composed her own wedding march when she married the painter Wilhelm Hensel, auguring a lifetime of setting the couple’s tempo. It would be remiss not to note that she was born with powerful and tireless “fugal fingers.”
13. Castelloza (c.1200): Trobairitz, and lamenter of fuckboys in the Middle Ages:
Friend, if you had shown consideration
Meekness, candor and humanity
I’d have loved you without hesitation.
12. Teresa Carreño (1853–1917): If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to compare the bedroom styles of brothers, Teresa Carreño’s archive is held at Vassar College. This Venezuelan pianist-composer was nicknamed the “Lioness of the Piano,” and many of her musical collaborations became so heated that they turned into marriage…rawr! Beating even Alma Mahler (#3), Carreño had a record-breaking total of four husbands: composer Emile Sauret, opera star Giovanni Tagliapietra, composer Eugen D’Albert, then another Tagliapietra variation with Giovanni’s brother Arturo. To support her children in an off-husband season, she gave up composing to focus on touring. Ideally, a good sex life should be inspiring and invigorating, rather than forcing the end of one’s composing. Also, her music is average-level sexy. Bonus points for bagging brothers, though.
11. Barbara Strozzi (1619–1677): Barbara Strozzi balanced being one of the top composers of the Baroque era with the busy life of a concubine. Her breasts are amply visible in all of her portraits. Above all, she achieved her astounding level of success without any support from the Church (obviously), consistent patrons, or even, it would seem, for her amply visible breasts. Related song titles: “L’amante segreto” (“The Secret Lover”), yet “Che si può fare?” (“What can you do?).
10. Louise Talma (1906–1996): Talma had an obsessive crush on Nadia Boulanger (#29), covered her bedroom in Nadia photographs, wrote “Three Madrigals” about her, and picked her as a godmother when she converted to Roman Catholicism (no comment). While Boulanger rejected earthly pleasures, Talma was deeply sensual: she had many intense affairs, including with fellow Boulanger worshiper Ethel Chapman; she loved chocolate and smoking; she clearly had something going on at the MacDowell colony, where she went 41 times. For further reading, see Kendra Preston Leonard’s Talma biography, which introduced me to the crucial word “sapphonics.”
9. Angela Morley (1924–2009): Morley’s strong suits were frothy romance and high drama, from the Cinderella perfection of “The Slipper and the Rose” (1976) to the rabbit violence of “Watership Down” (1978). Morley won multiple Emmys, and was the first transgender person to be nominated for an Academy Award (hot). She appears to have had a special thing for singers, which suggests she got off on worshiping divas: first, Beryl Stott, followed by Christine Parker, whose love and support was essential to Morley through her transition. Revealing song titles: “Ring-A-Ding Girl”; “Climbing the Down.”
8. Margaret Bonds (1913–1972): Information is scarce on Margaret Bonds’s sex life. This makes her music rich source material for speculative fantasy. What did she gossip about with her best friend, Langston Hughes? What congress was she embedding in those long, slow spiritual arrangements, commissioned by Leontyne Price? Telling song titles: “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed”; “Even in the Moment of Our Earliest Kiss,” to be played à volonté—willfully.
7. Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979): Clarke liked it intense and dark. Think: Scorpio season. Think: seducing a married baritone eight years younger than you. Her sexual masterpiece, “The Seal Man” (1922), is about losing your mind with desire at the call of a seal man who comes to your house, leads you into the sea, then drowns you (hot). Clarke dedicated the song to her own seal man, aforementioned married baritone John Goss, and he articulated every last syllable in its UK premiere.
6. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179): Hildegard of Bingen was a Medieval composer, philosopher, mystic, and abbess. The key to understanding her music is the fact that she was also the first person to describe the female orgasm in writing. Here is the English translation from Causae et Curae in full:
When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man’s seed. And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat descending from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman’s sexual organs contract, and all the parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can hold something enclosed in his fist.
And here is her description of balls:
The wind that is in their loins is more fiery than windy. It has two tabernacles under its command into which it blows as a pair of bellows. These tabernacles surround the stem of all of the man’s powers, like small buildings put up next to a tower for its defense. For that reason there are two, so that they may more strongly surround the stem, make it firm and hold it and, further, so that they may capture more strongly and aptly the aforementioned wind and attract and emit it in an even manner, like two pairs of bellows blowing jointly into a fire.
Hildegard may have been a literal saint, but her sex life was not exactly monophonic. Also, she was not one to shy away from a melisma, which means she has experience with both tops and bottoms.
5. Ethel Smyth (1858–1944): The first British woman to compose an opera, and a radical activist. Smyth was beloved by Tchaikovsky (game recognizes game), wore tweed suits, and was rarely short on lovers. Who can say how all those suffragettes passed the time in jail together “in good company”? Who can say if Emmeline Pankhurst’s hand ever strayed as they practiced aiming stones to break politicians’ windows? (The sapphonics of Smyth’s song “Possession” lead one to imagine.) When Smyth got the hots for Virginia Woolf, 25 years her junior, Woolf wrote: “An old woman has fallen in love with me. It is like being caught by a giant crab.”
4. Mel Bonis (1858–1937): Melanie Bonis’s parents refused to let her study composition, until César Franck insisted. In singing class, she met the poet Amédée Landély Hettich, and the two started collaborating, as it were. Scandalized, her parents forced her to leave the “dangerous artistic world” of the conservatoire and arranged a marriage with a much older widower who hated music. A few years into the marriage, she ran into Hettich—by then also married—and their affair produced art songs like “Elève-toi, mon âme” (“Raise yourself, my soul”), dozens of other pieces that he helped her publish over the years, and an illegitimate daughter named Madeleine. She used the pseudonym “Mel Bonis” in part to be as sensual as she wanted (see: her entire catalog). Later, Bonis took Madeleine in “as her god-daughter” but had to confess the truth when Madeleine fell in love with her half-brother. The rights to this family drama are available.
3. Alma Mahler (1879–1964): Alma Mahler is the only composer on this list to have a life-sized sex doll made in her likeness. Though only 17 of Alma’s songs survive (or weren’t suppressed by Gustav), all are sultry affairs. Musicologist Sally Macarthur points to them as prime examples of Romantic writing that doesn’t focus on a single final climax, but…many: this is how we know Alma was a pro in all regards. “I don’t know if it’s any good, all I know is that it is full of passion,” Alma said about her music. Composition and sex fed each other: Alma’s first kiss was with Gustav Klimt, inspiring her first lieder; at 21, she had an affair with her composition teacher, Alexander Zemlinsky, whom she often called ugly to his face (hot). While schtupping Zemlinsky she had an affair with (then married) Gustav Mahler. Gustav banned her from composing, so she had an affair with someone more supportive: the architect Walter Gropius. After she ended yet another affair with the painter Oscar Kokoschka, he commissioned the infamous Alma sex doll to be made in her exact measurements. The next affair (she was married to Gropius by then, but it’s hard to keep track) was with the writer Franz Werfel, whom she married next. Alma loved sex, lieder, and insulting men: an icon!
2. Clara Wieck Schumann (1819–1896): At last we reach the Urtext of composer sex lives. When Clara Wieck was 13, a talented upstart named Robert Schumann moved into her house to study with her father Frederick. Unbeknown to Clara, Robert was also having a tryst with the Wieck household maid, from whom he likely contracted syphilis and puzzlingly referred to as “Charitas.” Robert and Clara started writing increasingly passionate letters—she was a virtuoso pianist, soon becoming one of the most well-known musicians in Europe and history, as well as a burgeoning composer—and their love was born out of deep mutual admiration (hot). When Clara found out about the maid, she threatened, “If you can’t control your animal urges, I will never be yours.” Schumann mustered control and they became the iconic power couple of the Romantic era. The Schumanns wrote in a joint sex diary to keep track of how often they did it “for health reasons.” They did it a lot, as corroborated by their eight children. However, as Clara Schumann expert (and VAN contributor) Sarah Fritz generously explained to me on Twitter, Clara did NOT contract Robert’s syphilis because he was in non-contagious stage two by the time their inner voices started harmonizing. Then the couples’ best friend Brahms, 14 years younger than Clara, turned the duet into a trio, and slid into her epistolary DMs with comments like “I should like to spend the whole day calling you endearing names and paying you compliments without ever being satisfied.” When it didn’t work out between them (no one knows whether or not they did it, but I like to think that they did), Brahms fell for her daughter, and continued to refuse to publish a piece without Clara’s approval. Her smokeshow “Piano Trio in G minor” gives a sense of what was keeping the Schumanns so busy, and what made Brahms want a piece of the action.
1. Pauline Oliveros (1932–2016): Clear your mind. Now think: resonant caves. Think: electronics. Think: Deep Listening. Everything Pauline Oliveros did was full of freedom, openness, and blopping (her term). She gets three chili pepper points for her desire not being limited to organic beings: Oliveros is the author of an essay titled “Sex as We Don’t Know It: Computer Music Futures,” and she once described the accordion as “huggable” (leaving us to wonder her thoughts on the cello). When her longtime partner Linda Montano (herself a teacher of “sacred sex” workshops) went to Rose Mountain (is that a metaphor?) Oliveros pined for her lustily, writing both “Rose Moon” and “Rose Mountain.” She used the laughter of her lover Laurel Johnson in one of her pieces, and she even scored Annie Sprinkle’s “The Sluts and Goddesses Video Workshop – Or How to Be A Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps.” In other words, Oliveros literally wrote the soundtrack for how to be a sex goddess, as if we needed further confirmation that Pauline comes out on top. ¶
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