Swiss music history reloaded: Where are the women?


Women composers are a rare thing in Swiss music history. Were there really none at all or has the collective memory simply ignored them up to now?

Daniel Lienhard - 2019-10-21
Swiss music history reloaded: Where are the women? - A pioneer from Geneva: Caroline Boissier-Butini (1786-1836) was known all over Switzerland during her lifetime. Here we see her in a portrait by Firmin Massot (1807)
A pioneer from Geneva: Caroline Boissier-Butini (1786-1836) was known all over Switzerland during her lifetime. Here we see her in a portrait by Firmin Massot (1807)

The online dictionary of women musicians, MuGi (based in Frankfurt), and the “Archive for women and music” (Archiv Frau und Musik in Hamburg) are initiatives that aim to provide a basis for creating a canon of music by women, and that want to write a new kind of music history. Their aim is a music history that does justice not just to the work of men, but of women too. Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: This isn’t an easy task in the case of Switzerland. Its music history is in any case somewhat unusual, and women were even more constricted here because of it. In other words: feminine creativity was suppressed for centuries in Switzerland. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to claim that Switzerland has been devoid of women composers, conductors and instrumentalists. 

Let’s go back along the timeline as far as possible, into the Middle Ages and Early Modern times. Unlike in neighbouring countries, Switzerland did not have any aristocratic courts, which also meant an almost complete lack of institutionalised music-making. Music was practised only in churches and monasteries – and also in the form of folk music, of course. The most famous Swiss composer of the Renaissance, Ludwig Senfl (ca 1490-1543), was recruited as a choirboy for the court chapel of the Hapsburg King Maximilian I and spent his whole career as a musician in Vienna and Munich. Is it possible that a woman composer of the time might simply have been overlooked? Given the societal restrictions on women, we can pretty much exclude this possibility. 

Heavenly sounds: What music did women play in convents? August Wilhelm Roesler’s painting reflects the imaginative world of the 19th century.


Milan as a starting point

One place where a woman could achieve success as a composer in the Renaissance or Baroque was a convent. And indeed, the convent of Santa Caterina in Milan was home to Claudia Francesca Rusca (1593-1676), a nun who wrote remarkable sacred works including sacred concertos, motets and magnificats. A splendid edition of her works was published by Giorgio Rolla in 1630.

But why should we consider a Milanese nun the first woman in Swiss music history? The composer and music historian Walter Jesinghaus from Canton Ticino was convinced that she belonged to the Rusca family who came from Locarno or Lugano. But there is a problem: it has up to now been impossible to confirm or disprove the possibility that she was really Swiss. 

Composing as an educational ideal

A cosmopolitan in Switzerland: The Dutch composer and writer Isabelle de Charrière lived in Neuchâtel (here in a portrait by Maurice Quentin de La Tour from 1771).


Our next candidate also raises the question as to what we really mean when we call someone a “Swiss woman composer”: Isabelle de Charrière (1740-1805), also known as Belle van Zuylen, was born near Utrecht, came from the Dutch high aristocracy, and spent her childhood and youth in the Netherlands. After marrying in 1771, she moved to Colombier in what is now Canton Neuchâtel. 
De Charrière had received a sound education in the sciences, art and philosophy, and was in contact with many intellectuals of her age. She wrote novels and plays, and composing music was another aspect of her broad-based education. Several vocal works and piano pieces by her were published in Amsterdam and Paris in the 1780s. She is also said to have composed stage works to her own libretti, though only one has survived, and its authorship is not completely certain. 

Switzerland lags behind 

In Switzerland in the 19th century, there were very few successful composers of either gender. The men included Friedrich Theodor Fröhlich, Ferdinand Fürchtegott Huber, Xaver Schnyder von Wartensee and Joachim Raff. There was a general conviction in the 19th century that only men possessed creative potential, so women were simply assumed to be incapable of composing. The opposite was proven, however, by Caroline Boissier-Butini (1786-1836) from Geneva, and Fanny Hünerwadel (1826-1854) from Lenzburg. 

Hünerwadel was educated in Zurich. Her oeuvre comprises only seven songs and a piano piece, but she enjoyed public performances as a singer and pianist. Boissier-Butini only performed in private concerts, but she has left us numerous brilliant instrumental works in a Classical/Romantic style in which she quoted milking songs, the ranz des vaches and alphorns. As a woman, however, she was prevented from embarking on an artistic career unhindered, because music was regarded as unseemly in Geneva at the time.

Here you can listen to some Caroline Boissier-Butini's pieces

The pianist and singer Fanny Hünerwadel was given weekly tuition in Zurich in singing, piano playing, music theory and composition. Oil painting by Anna Fries, Rome, 1854.


The orchestral scene

Today’s Swiss symphony orchestras were set up in various forms between the 16th and the 20th centuries. The absence of educational centres for music here meant that the members of these orchestras were mostly foreigners, right up to the early 20th century. What’s more, the orchestras existed as associations that only allowed male members. 
There were exceptions, however, that proved the rule. In 1875, a woman violinist played in the Tonhalle Orchestra, Bern employed a woman harpist from 1906 onwards, and a woman violinist as of 1910. Basel had a small number of women string players in its midst from 1900 onwards, though the orchestra in Geneva did not employ any women until the 1920s. So there were already several well-trained women instrumentalists in Switzerland at that time; it’s just that it was difficult for them to get into the Swiss orchestras. 

Still a male preserve in 1904: The Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra on a postcard (source: Zentralbibliothek Zürich).


Soloists allowed

The gender distribution among solo performers was a different matter, however. Swiss concert programmes from the 19th century onwards included both international stars such as the singer Marcella Sembrich and the pianists Clara Schumann and Teresa Carreño, and Swiss women musicians too. There were top-class Swiss singers (such as Ida Huber-Petzold, Maria Philippi and Anna Walter-Strauss) along with several Swiss women violinists (e.g. Anna Hegner and Adele Bloesch-Stöcker), cellists (such as Elsa Rüegger) and pianists (such as Marcelle Chéridjian-Charrey). It is clear that women soloists found greater societal acceptance at this time than was the case with composers and orchestral musicians. 

Until well into the 20th century, the cities of Switzerland were unable to compete with the European music metropolises such as Paris, Vienna, Munich, Berlin or Leipzig. Switzerland lacked the inspiring atmosphere of the upper-class salons, famous names at its conservatories, and the lively engagement with contemporary music that was found abroad. For this reason, almost all Swiss composers studied at foreign conservatories, at least for part of their training, and the same was true of the few women who decided to devote themselves to composition, despite contravening all societal conventions. 

Slow change in the 20th century

In the early 20th century, two French-Swiss women composers, Fernande Peyrot (1888-1978) and Marguerite Roesgen-Champion (1894-1976) secured a place for themselves in Swiss music history. Peyrot lived in Geneva, where she taught and composed in all manner of genres, but Roesgen-Champion was active primarily in Paris, where she was successful both as the composer of a large body of music, and as a pioneer of the harpsichord renaissance.

Completely underappreciated: in the 1930s, the Genevan composer and music teacher Fernande Peyrot wrote her “Préludes pour guitare”.


In the mid-20th century, several women conductors from Switzerland began making waves across Europe. Hedy Salquin (1928-2012) was the first woman to complete her training as a conductor at the Conservatoire in Paris, and she thereafter enjoyed career successes throughout Europe. Sylvia Caduff (*1937) was the first woman to win the renowned Dimitri Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition, and was also the first woman to be appointed General Music Director at a German orchestra (in Solingen, from 1977 to 1985). Graziella Contratto (*1966) was the first woman to be appointed chief conductor at a French state orchestra (the Orchestre des Pays de Savoie, where she worked from 2003 to 2009).

New momentum in the 21st century

A lively contemporary music scene emerged in Switzerland in the late 20th century, and this fact also changed the situation for women composers. Charlotte Hug, Cécile Marti, Mela Meierhans, Katharina Rosenberger, Cathy van Eck and Helena Winkelman are all well-known names on the Swiss music scene today. Women musicians such as the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the cellist Sol Gabetta studied in Switzerland and are today resident here, but are in demand all over the world – as is the singer Regula Mühlemann, a native of Lucerne. And the proportion of women in Swiss symphony orchestras is today in line with the European average (30-40%).

In 2018, the Lucerne soprano Regula Mühlemann won the Opus Klassik Prize for the best young singer of the year for her album Cleopatra.


Even though concert programmes remain dominated by men, and more men than women still study composition at the Swiss universities of music, Switzerland is slowly catching up on what it lacked over the previous centuries. It is finally promoting the creative potential of women, and encouraging a varied music scene in which women too can flourish. Now it’s the task of musicologists, journalists and cultural organisations to ensure that the activities of these women conductors, composers and soloists are properly documented. Then, perhaps, the music history of Switzerland that will be told in 100 years will look very different indeed.


Daniel Lienhard is a horn player in the Bern Symphony Orchestra. He is especially interested in chamber music in all kinds of combinations, and in 1983 founded the Dauprat Horn Quartet. He is joint President of the Forum for Music Diversity, which was founded in 1982 in the wake of the second phase of the women’s movement, and which campaigns for equality of opportunity among men and women in the field of classical music.