top of page
  • Writer's pictureSarah MacDonald

"Silent in the Churches" - Liturgical Choral Music by female composers

Updated: Aug 23, 2020

An illustrated lecture by Sarah MacDonald

with the Selwyn Consort (members of the Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge)

Minerva Festival | Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge | Friday 21 February 2020 at 1:00pm



Welcome to Great St Mary’s Church, and thank you for coming. I’m grateful to the gathered members of the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College who have kindly given up their time to sing, and I’m indebted to the committee of the Minerva Festival for organising everything. Before I start, please could I ask you to check that your phone is on silent; also, please note that recording of this event is not permitted. Finally, just to confirm that this is not intended as an academic lecture, so I don’t have a footnote-covered hand-out or elaborate Power-Point slides for you, and there will be no exam at the end. Instead, I hope that you will find it an entertaining and enlightening historical survey of liturgical choral music that just happens not to have been composed by men.


My title, “Silent in the churches”, is taken from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, chapter 14, verses 34-35. In the New Revised Standard translation, verse 34 reads as follows: “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says”. This sentence (and a couple of others like it) have been used for centuries to justify the church’s refusal to allow women to contribute to public worship. Ironically, most scholars are agreed that this particular passage was most likely not written by St Paul at all, but was actually a later interpolation by a different writer or scribe. Amongst various grammatical exegetical propositions substantiating this claim is the indisputable fact that in several important early sources, verses 34 and 35 appear in the margins or at the end of the chapter, rather than in their correct numerical place between verses 33 and 36. Nonetheless, whether it is strictly Pauline or not, the use of such passages as ammunition over two thousand years of the suppression of women in the church is undisputed.

Unlike some of you here today, I grew up with female priests as the norm – women have been ordained in the Anglican Church of Canada since 1969, so I have never known any different. On the other hand, despite this more liberal view of women’s ministry, neither my mother nor I were permitted to sing in our local cathedral choir, but my father and younger brothers were. As a child I was baffled by this bizarre practice, which was blamed on “Tradition” , presumably backed up by St Paul. Fortunately, there are now opportunities for girls and women (altos at least) to sing in cathedrals, and there are female priests in the vast majority of the provinces of the Anglican Communion, though the consecration of women as bishops in the Church of England is so recent that even the first-year undergraduates here will remember it.

Despite the more visible presence of women in liturgical leadership roles both clerical and musical over the past 50 years, there is one place where they are still noticeably neglected, namely on liturgical music lists. Recent research in another ancient university somewhere near Reading, found that in the 2018-19 academical year, just 2.02% of the music sung in their college chapels was by female composers – slightly lower than the percentage of works by William Byrd that were sung in the Michaelmas Term alone. The three main choral foundations of that university, each of which sings seven services a week, managed only one piece each by a woman out of a total of about 1750 named composers programmed liturgically over the year. A similar study is currently ongoing with cathedral music lists across the UK – it remains to be seen whether they fare any better. I would like to think that were such a survey taken of Cambridge college chapels, we might demonstrate rather more diversity than Oxford, and if we did, it would be due in no small part to last year’s inaugural Cambridge Female Composers Festival.

Now entitled the Minerva Festival (aptly named after the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare), this visionary student initiative celebrates female and non-binary composers, and encourages all of us to programme their work. Today’s talk will focus specifically on liturgical choral music over the past thousand years or so. The programme that you are about to hear is structured chronologically, and is divided into seven historically approximate but helpfully familiar musical sections: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, 18th-century, Victorian/Edwardian, 20th-century, and Contemporary. In each part, I will introduce you to the composer whose music the Consort will perform and tell you where you can find more information, including editions and publications.


Western classical music originates in the sacred monophonic music of the Roman church, now known as Gregorian Chant or plainchant. Popular legend credits Pope Gregory I with inventing it single-handedly, hence the name “Gregorian”, though not surprisingly its history is rather more complicated than that. Plainchant developed gradually over the first millennium of the Christian church, and the various repertoires which were received and standardised during Gregory’s reign include multifarious musical, liturgical, and geographical influences. As well as the many traditional melodies, there were specific composers of sacred monophony, the most famous of whom was – perhaps surprisingly – a woman, namely Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). Hildegard was a German Benedictine Abbess, mystic, philosopher, composer, and visionary. During her lifetime, she founded two monasteries, invented a language, and wrote medicinal, theological, and liturgical texts, as well as being a prolific composer. Over 150 of her musical works have survived, including individual songs and liturgical drama, and what is thought to be the earliest example of a morality play. She was canonized by the pope in 2012. Hildegard’s music is melodically wide-ranging and highly melismatic, and she set her own words. The Consort will now give the first performance of an extract of “Spiritus Sanctus vivificans vita” (Holy Spirit, who gives life unto life) with words and music by Hildegard of Bingen, in a new arrangement by me.



It is generally accepted that the development of polyphony in 12th-century Notre Dame marks the official birth of the western classical canon. The genre developed over the next few centuries, flourishing in particular during the 1500s and 1600s. We normally associate this music with men such as Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, and Byrd. Much of the repertoire was written to be sung in monasteries, cathedrals, and educational choral foundations (including Oxbridge colleges), all of which were, of course, entirely male. However, there was also a wealth of polyphony written by nuns for use in convents. Much of this music is only being rediscovered, researched, edited, and published now. In many cases, if it was published at all during the composer’s lifetime, it was done so anonymously, which makes it harder to source and attribute.

To put its availability (or rather lack thereof) into context: we are all accustomed to having instant access to the collected works of the great composers of the past. For example, the first collected critical editions of Bach, Byrd, and Palestrina were published between the late 19th-century and the middle of the twentieth, thanks to the visionary work of the Bach Gesellschaft, Stainer & Bell, and Breitkopf and Härtel. Perhaps early in the 22nd century it will be as easy to find collected editions of music by the conventical composers whose works you are about to hear now. For the time being, you have to go directly to the scholars doing the research.

Some of this repertoire has a small compass (the measurement of the interval from the bottom note of the bottom part to the top note of the top part) which seems to relegate it to performance by women’s voices only (i.e., it could never appear on mainstream liturgical music lists). This is the case with the male monastic composers’ repertoire too of course, and yet Palestrina’s Missa Aeterna Christi munera (for example) which has a limited compass indicating that it is suitable for men’s voices (i.e., ATB) only, is often sung by full SATB forces. In some cases, a little bit of imagination with transpositions is all that is required. The Consort will now perform two pieces of Italian Renaissance polyphony, by the 16th-century nuns Raphaella Alleotti (c1570-c1546) (some of whose extant music is available on the Choral Public Domain Library ( and Leonora d’Este (1515-1575) (editions of whose music can be obtained from Professor Laurie Stras at the University of Southampton).




Another Italian nun whose music has been rediscovered relatively recently is the wonderfully-named Maria Xaveria Peruchona (or MXP for short). She was born in 1652, and died at some point after 1709, and is thus a contemporary of the likes of Scarlatti, Corelli, Purcell, and Pachelbel (all of whose names I expect are more familiar). Peruchona’s only surviving collection of works was published in Milan in 1675. Coincidentally, the international three-letter code for Milan’s largest airport is MXP. The text for the Easter anthem ‘Cessate Tympanum’ was written by the composer herself, and can be summarised roughly as “Silence your drums, cease your wars, for the organ and trumpets are triumphant today; O how sweet it is to see the Sovereign of Heaven, Jesus, who has risen, and freed all mortals from the pain of death.” The music is florid, virtuosic, and Baroque, and a modern edition is available in Multitude of Voyces’ ground-breaking 2019 anthology, which is distributed by Stainer and Bell.



When people are asked to list female composers of classical music, two names which appear frequently, even from non-specialists, are Clara Schumann (wife of the more famous Robert), and Fanny Mendelssohn (sister of the more famous Felix). Our next composer is the latter, Fanny, who was a prodigiously gifted pianist as a child, and apparently could play much of the Well Tempered Clavier from memory by the age of just 13. A number of Fanny’s early compositions were published under her younger brother’s name. She was educated at the Sing-Akademie in Berlin, whose leader once paid her the highest of all compliments: in a letter to the poet Goethe, he wrote that “she plays like a man”. Unfortunately, despite her significant gift, Fanny, as a woman was not allowed to have a career, and her potential was undoubtedly never fully realised. Her father put this very succinctly to her in a letter in 1820: “Music will perhaps become his [i.e., Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.” The Consort will now perform her beautiful setting of Wilhelm Müller’s poem “Gebet in der Christnacht” (Prayer on Christmas Eve), which was originally published as a solo song for voice and piano. In it, the poet reflects upon God’s love for us, as manifest by Christ’s death on the cross, by the appearance of the star in the east to lead the kings, and by the angels’ proclamation to the shepherds, including specifically to the shepherdess ‘Esther’, to whom the angel sings “der Heiland ist geboren” – “the Saviour is born”. The piece is heard here in a lovely and effective arrangement for four voices by Olivia Sparkhall, which is included in the Multitude of Voyces anthology.



We move now into the realms of Victoriana and Edwardiana, that most significant time in the history of English church music, and we venture into the new world as well. One of our next two composers, Amy Beach, was born in New Hampshire in 1867, and showed signs of exceptional musical ability at a very young age. Despite a number of early musical successes, after her marriage at the age of 18, she was forced to limit her public appearances to two recitals per year, and much of her further development as a composer was of necessity self-taught, as her husband objected to her studying with a tutor. Nonetheless, her career saw a number of significant “firsts”: she was the first female composer to have her music performed by the Handel and Haydn Society; she was the first woman to compose and publish a symphony; in a review after a concert in Germany, she was labelled the first American woman “able to compose music of a European quality of excellence”. Although she wrote only a small amount of choral music, the Nunc dimittis that you are about to hear is a lovely and useful setting. The edition is my own, with the words and rhythms adapted slightly in places to match the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The Gloria Patri is also editorially constructed. This edition will be published in Volume 3 of the Multitude of Voyces anthologies, and will be paired with a specially-composed Amy Beach pastiche Magnificat by Olivia Sparkhall.

Imogen Holst was another musician with a more-famous male relative (her father, Gustav). She was a composer, pianist, conductor, and writer, and spent much of her career as Benjamin Britten’s assistant, and then joint artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival. Her involvement helped to bring the festival to lasting pre-eminence in the English musical establishment. Unfortunately, much of her own compositional work is unperformed and unpublished. Imogen Holst is buried near Britten and Peter Pears in the parish churchyard in Aldeburgh. This setting of words by the great metaphysical priest-poet John Donne is published in the Multitude of Voyces anthology.




I have often heard conductors raise concerns over programming works by women because they have incorrectly assumed that the only music available is likely to be too difficult. They have looked at the music of certain high-profile contemporary names, and assumed that all other female composers must also necessarily be writing esoteric and complex music that is only suitable for professional choirs. I hope that the music you’ve heard so far today has reassured you on two counts: firstly, that there were plenty of dead women who wrote excellent and achievable liturgical music. Secondly, I also want to assure you that many living composers understand how to write well for amateur singers who never have enough rehearsal time. Many of us actually understand that latter constraint only too well!

Cecilia McDowall was born in London in 1951. She read Music at the University of Edinburgh and Trinity College of Music, and has had a successful career as an award-winning composer. She has written a significant body of liturgical choral music, and was even once last year programmed by one of those afore-mentioned Oxford choral foundations. The movement that you are about to hear from is from her Missa Brevis, which was published last month by Selah Publishing from Pittsburgh, in the brand new ‘Sarah MacDonald Choral Series’ (yes, really) for which I am the series editor. Also published in this series this stunning setting of Robert Bridges’ poem ‘My eyes for beauty pine’ by Elizabeth Coxhead, a singer, composer, and BBC Radio 3 producer. The series features liturgical choral music by female composers from Canada, the States, and the UK, and will release 12-15 new titles twice each year.




Before I finish, allow me to reiterate my thanks to the Selwyn Consort, the committee of the Minerva Festival, and to the Vicar and church wardens of Great St Mary’s, for hosting this event. I would like to conclude with the following thoughts. Lest there be any concern, I’m all in favour of dead white men, and I don’t object at all to the western classical canon – or our niche fraction of it, the Anglican liturgical choral canon – as it has been received and passed on. However, there is a great deal of wonderful but neglected repertoire out there which deserves to be unearthed, researched, edited, and, most importantly, performed, so do get those PhD proposals submitted. I hope that eventually these overlooked female composers will find their places on liturgical music lists alongside – i.e., not replacing – Palestrina, Stanford, and Leighton. On the other hand, if eventually some of the more forgettable workmanlike fare which makes regular appearances on liturgical music lists (William Sterndale-Bennett in D minor, Herbert Murrill in E, C. S. Lang in C, John Goss in A – I could go on…) is replaced by something better by a woman, then surely that is a good thing. It would be wonderful to see a gradual rebalancing of liturgical music lists everywhere, giving voice to generations of women who have been “silent in the churches” for far too long.


MULTITUDE OF VOYCES ANTHOLOGIES (distributed by Stainer & Bell)

1 – SATB anthems (publ. 2019)

2 – SSA anthems (forthcoming April 2020)

3 – Liturgical music (forthcoming 2021)

4 – Christmas music (forthcoming 2021)

THE SARAH MACDONALD CHORAL SERIES (Selah Publishing Co., Inc., Pittsburgh)

12-15 titles every January and June, inaugurated January 2020

GOOGLE SPREADSHEET (hosted by @oneequalmusic on Twitter)



(definitely not exhaustive!)


Aleotti, Raphaella (Vittoria)

Assandra, Caterina

Beach, Amy

Boulanger, Lili

Caccini, Francesca

Cesis, Sulpita

Clarke, Rebecca

Cozzolani, Chiara Margarita

d’Este, Leonora

Hildegard of Bingen

Leonarda, Isabella

Meda, Bianca Maria

Mendelssohn, Fanny

Moore, Undine Smith

Nascimbeni, Maria Francesca

Peruchona, Maria

Poston, Elizabeth

Price, Florence

Rusca, Claudia Francesca

Smythe, Ethel

Strozzi, Barbara

Vizzana, Donna Lucrezia


Allan, Kathleen

Andrew, Kerry

Barnett, Carol

Beamish, Sally

Bebbington, Amy

Bettinis, Abbie

Bingham, Judith

Briggs, Kerensa

Burk, Katie

Burk, Maggie

Burrell, Diana

Campbell, Hilary

Cattley, Sarah

Coxhead, Elizabeth

Daley, Eleanor

Dunphy, Melissa

Frances-Hoad, Cheryl

Johnson, Emma

Kimble, Elizabeth

Larsen, Libby

LeFanu, Nicola

MacDonald, Sarah

Martin, Stephanie

McGregor, Gemma

McDowall, Cecilia

Musgrave, Thea

Nixon, June

Panufnik, Roxanna

Parker, Alice

Pritchard, Deborah

Portman, Rachel

Rimkus, Sarah

Rooney, Annabel

Rose, Kathryn

Samuel, Rhian

Sparkhall, Olivia

Watson-Henderson, Ruth

Weir, Judith

Wheeler, Janet

Willis, Alison

1,502 views0 comments


bottom of page