For a couple of months now, I’ve wanted to create a series of social media posts highlighting historical women flutists in Western classical music. What started as a few notes on my phone quickly grew into a mess of memos and bookmarked articles, but when I sat down to organize the info I’d collected, I realized I should also put up a copy here for those of you who aren’t on Instagram.
This is more of a starting place than a thorough list, but I’ll keep it updated as I find out about more notable women. It’s important to remember that just because few written records survive from some eras of Western history, that doesn’t mean women never played the flute.
In many historical eras, women had limited access to formal education and publishing. Additionally, they practiced music in the private sphere and would have had little motivation to preserve records of flute-playing activities in times when that went against the social norm. For every woman listed here, even briefly, there were likely dozens more.
Euterpe isn’t technically a historical figure – but as the Goddess of Music she was an important cultural influence in ancient Greece, so I’m making an exception. Euterpe is credited with the invention of wind instruments, and is often depicted holding a flute. She was the daughter of Mnemosyne and Zeus and one of nine muses. She was said to live on Mount Olympus with her sisters (sometimes referred to as water nymphs), where they entertained the gods with their artistic talents. Euterpe also inspired the development of the fine arts in ancient Greece including music, drama, and poetry.
Lamia of Athens (300 B.C.)
Lamia began her career as a flutist, but later became the mistress of Demetrius Poliorcetes. She was a courtesan-musician known as a hetaira. Despite being a career path that required a high degree of education, its association with prostitution is problematic in relation to the negative gendered stigmas of female flutists from previous eras in Western history. As a result, many records of her life (at least, those that are available in the English language) are written through a heavily biased lens. Not much is known about her life; however, despite that bias, Lamia seems to be most remembered for her wit, talent, and intelligence.
Although I don’t know the names of any specific female flutists from this time period, there are several paintings of women from Tudor England and Renaissance Italy who are depicted holding or playing a flute. The printing press was invented in the 1430s, so there aren’t a ton of written records or music publications from this era in general, and if there were, it was reserved for the upper class. Even though we don’t know much, we DO know enough to rest assured that women did play the flute in the 15th and 16th centuries. Unfortunately, while we know the names of some of the artists who painted female flutists from this era, the subjects of their work remain unknown.
RACHEL BAILLIE, LADY BINNING (1696 – 1773)
Lady Binning was a Scottish noblewoman who received music lessons with her older sister during childhood, though unlike her sister, with the addition of flute lessons. Receipts from the household show the purchase of her flute in 1702. Flute playing was a family activity for the Baillies which Rachel seems to have continued after her marriage, even though it wasn’t directly referenced in their records – several pieces of chamber music that include parts for the transverse flute were preserved in the couple’s personal library.
Susanna Montgomerie, Countess of Eglinton (1690 – 1780)
Another Scottish noblewoman with musical talents; however, it’s unclear whether Lady Eglinton actually played the flute or the recorder. Our evidence that she played a member of the flute family comes from a suitor, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, who sent her a flute as a token of his affections. Unable to make a sound from the instrument, the Countess inspected the interior of the instrument and found a rolled-up love poem stuffed inside. In it, Clerk fantasizes about courting her and laments that he would love to trade places with the instrument so that he could receive a kiss from her lips. William McGibbon also dedicated his “Sonatas for Two German Flutes or Two Violins and a Bass” to Lady Elington in 1734.
Anna Amalia, Princess of Prussia (1723 – 1787)
Anna Amalia was the 12th child of Frederick Wilhelm I and Queen Sophia Dorothea and the youngest sister of Frederick the Great.
Their father forbade his children to study the arts (he was militaristic and ran a very strict household), but Anna Amalia studied music in secret with her brother and their eldest sister, Wilhelmine. Playing music together in stolen moments seems to have provided them some solace from their father’s abusive household. After the death of their father, Anna Amalia began taking lessons from their cathedral organist, Gottlieb Hayne.
She was also able to network and attend concerts with other musicians once her brother brought the arts back to the Prussian court. Although Anna Amalia never married, becoming the Abbess of Quendlinberg allowed her to live comfortably while pursuing her musical interests. Around this time, she began lessons with Johann Kirnberger, a student of J.S. Bach, and shifted her interests more seriously towards composition. Anna Amalia also collected and curated a library of 680 scores, a significant collection that still exists today and has been invaluable to modern scholars. She was proficient in harpsichord, organ, lute, flute, and violin, and her compositions include chamber music, cantatas, arias, and fugues. The Sonata in F Major is her only surviving work for flute.
We don’t know her first name, but we do know that this young woman came from a family of flutists, the most famous of which was Pierre Évrard Taillart (1719-1782; successor to Blavet at the Concert Spirituel and composer of several chamber pieces for flute). Mlle Taillart probably learned flute at home and performed with her family, though records show that she also performed an unspecified flute sonata at the Concert Spirituel in Paris on November 1, 1735. She may have been the first female woodwind player to perform in that concert series.
Alicia Astley, Lady Tankerville (1718-1791)
The little that’s known about Lady Tankerville’s musical activities comes from the records of an acquaintance by the name of Charles Gurney. The pair lost touch when she moved to Prussia sometime after 1760, and Gurney says that she was to become a lady-in-waiting for Princess Anna Amalia. I’m not sure if that really happened, since Anna Amalia became the Abbess of Quedlinburg in 1755. But both women were proficient in harpsichord and flute, so it’s fun to imagine them playing flute duets together in a time period when that would have been very much outside the norm.
“Miss Davisse [ sic ] whose extraordinary Performance on the German Flute was received with the greatest Applause by the Nobility and Gentry in London, will perform at the Theater Royal Tomorrow evening.”From the Dublin Theater‘s calendar of performances
Marianne was a multi-instrumentalist internationally known for playing the glass harmonica – but before that, she was a child prodigy who became famous as a flute soloist.
Her flute-playing career began in 1751 at age eight, and she often performed during intermissions and at the end of theater programs, such as the one advertised above. Her family made a tour of Europe in the 1760s, where she would also perform duets with her father (who was also a flutist and probably her teacher). She transitioned to glass harmonica in 1762, and may have been the first European to play Benjamin Franklin’s invention.
Johanne Sophie Mudrich (1760 – ?)
“Mademoiselle Mudrich, who came from Russia via Göttingen, was heard here on the flute, the violin and the piano with enormous success. The abilities of this sixteen-year-old woman on all three instruments, but in particular the taste with which she plays the flute, are indeed worthy of admiration. She is now leaving for Hamburg, to then go to Holland, England, France and Italy.”Augspurgische Ordinari Postzeitung , July 9, 1776.
Johanne Mudrich was a multi-instrumentalist and child prodigy from a German family of musicians. Records show that she played at the Concert Spirituel in Paris on December 24, 1779 with a performance of a Stamitz flute concerto. She also made a second appearance on February 2, 1780, but the work that she performed is unknown.
Not much seems to be known about her life outside of records from her European tour – but the glowing reviews prove she was an incredible musician who was more than capable of holding her own onstage. It’s also important to note that she performed multiple times on the biggest stage in Paris – the Concert Spirituel was hosted at the Tuileries Palace. This was a little over a decade before the Paris Conservatoire was institutionalized and restricted women’s access to certain types of formal musical education. But audiences of the late 18th century didn’t seem to be as bothered by this as one might expect, given the dominant narrative from less than a century later.
MARGUERITE DE FOREST ANDERSEN
Marguerite de Forest Andersen was an American flutist and friend of Cécile Chaminade who toured Europe as a soloist during the early 1900s. Marguerite commissioned the orchestrated version of Chaminade’s Concertino for Flute, Op. 107, and premiered the orchestrated version during her tour on Nov 10, 1905, during her debut at the Queen’s Hall in London. Other than that, not much is known about her – she often appears as just a footnote or passing reference in sources that talk about the Concertino.
Maria Biancini (1835-1910)
“Finally a rarity on the big concert market: Signora Bianchini, a flute virtuoso.”Neue Freie Presse, 1880
Maria Biancini was a Venetian virtuoso flutist who toured Italy during the mid-late Romantic era. No records survive that document her youth, but she was known to have studied flute with Giulio Briccialdi.
Maria began performing at public venues a few decades before many other female flute virtuosos from this era. As a result, she received a lot of attention simply for being a woman in a time period when nearly all flutists were men.
Since this went against gender norms of the time, the vast majority of music critics focused on her appearance of “respectability” rather than her musicality in her performances. But despite the biases of her reviewers, she was known for playing with good embouchure, a strong tone, and fluent passage work. Surviving concert programs show her performing works that we still play today, including fantasies by Doppler & Demersseman, and Briccialdi’s Concerto in A flat Major.
Maria played a silver Böhm flute, and continued performing through the end of the 1880s.
“A graceful Venetian lady, Mrs. Bianchini, played pieces by Briccialdi on the flute with a pretty tone; it was the first time in Paris that one heard the flute played by a female artist, and the effect has been favorable”Le Ménestrel, 1881
Cora Cardigan (1860 – 1931)
“The queen of flute players”The Musical Herald, 1889
Cora Cardigan was the stage name of Hannah Rosetta Dinah Moulton. She was a British virtuoso soloist from the late Romantic era. Cora was best known for her piccolo playing, though she was also skilled at flute and violin. Cora grew up with her aunt and uncle in Essex and learned piccolo from her uncle, who was a flutist and music teacher (he actually started her on piccolo, since the flute was too big for her hands). Cora studied at the Guildhall School of Music, then went on to become a student of Richard Shepherd Rockstro.
Since it was unusual for women to perform as virtuoso soloists during this time, Cora was often treated as a novelty act. She spent most of her career touring music halls in Europe and the US, including performances at Oxford, Covent Garden, and the Royal Music Hall. She also toured with Lila Clay and her Musical and Dramatic Company of Ladies, and her playing was one of the highlights of their show.
However, being a novelty act didn’t stop the critics from giving her glowing reviews, including this one from a British newspaper:
“an accomplished flautist, and plays the piccolo like an angel. She gets a beautiful tone from the latter instrument, which is so much abused in our London orchestras. It is a genuine pleasure to hear this young lady execute difficult variations on either instrument without flaw or fault of any kind. She glides over most arduous passages with an ease and certainty that can only come of steady, patient, persevering practice. She was deservedly recalled twice after a performance that proved one of the pleasantest experiences of the evening.”The Era, December 10, 1887
Sophie Angeline Greenhead (1847-1925)
Sophie Angeline Greenhead was a British flutist and pianist who studied with Robert Sidney Pratten. She made her solo debut in 1866, under the stage name “Sophie Angeline,” with a concert series at the Covent Garden Theater in London. Her performances were well received by critics, despite the novelty of a female soloist on flute. Sophie’s repertoire included Carnevale di Venezia, Op. 78 by Giulio Briccialdi and Variations sur un air tyrolien, Op. 20 by Theobald Böhm.
Although Sophie began performing as a soloist, she spent the majority of her career touring with her family’s orchestra, the Cremina Musical Union. When their family hit financial troubles in the 1860s, the eight Greenhead siblings (all musically talented) began touring together to help provide support. Beginning in spring 1870, their orchestra toured over 35 cities across Great Britain and Scotland. Sophie Angeline continued performing through the end of the 1880s.
“Considerable curiosity was manifested when Mdlle. Angeline came to perform her part. Her playing was excellent, and delighted her audience, by whom she was frequently applauded”The Hampshire Telegraph, December 11, 1867
“One of Europe’s most famous flute soloists”The Oregonian, January 1910
Panita was the stage name for German virtuoso soloist Erika von Klösterlein. She came from a musical family, and her father was a conductor who taught her music from a young age. After making her solo debut at age 12, Erika went on to study with Rudolf Tillimetz and Emil Prill. And in 1895, Erika toured Germany with her two sisters. The siblings played as a trio, with her sisters on harp and cello (the latter was also an unusual instrument for women musicians at that time).
Around the turn of the century, Erika played in variety shows. Although it was problematic that women soloists in this era were treated as novelty acts, the flip side was that they could make good money from musical theatre gigs. However, Erika continued to play “highbrow” music from the traditional classical canon even at those venues. It’s also notable that she continued to perform after her marriage in 1907 – which went against early 20th century norms.
Erika toured the US from 1909 – 1911, with stops including Kansas City, Portland, and Salt Lake City. She was hailed as “one of Europe’s most famous flute soloists” by the Oregonian during her stop in Portland in January 1910. A few recordings of her playing even exist, that were made in 1906 in Berlin of a couple flute arrangements written by Wilhelm Popp.
“The technical skill of Panita on the flute is truly admirable; but it is a peculiar sight to see a lady blowing runs, trills, and fioritures… The artistry, the impeccable approach to the tone, the skilful use of breath remain undisputed at these exhibitions and it must also be acknowledged that the young lady was a complete success with the public “Prager Tagblatt – October 3, 1906
Ruth Anderson (1928 – 2019)
While Ruth Anderson was a flutist, teacher, and orchestrator, she is best remembered for being a pioneer in the field of electronic music. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Washington, and continued her studies with two Fulbright awards that allowed her to study with Darius Milhaud, Nadia Boulanger, and Jean-Pierre Rampal in the 1950s.
Although she earned the position of principal flutist with the Boston Pops Orchestra early in her career, she changed her focus to composition soon after and became one of the first women admitted into Princeton’s graduate composition program in the ‘60s.
Her interest in electronic music was inspired by learning about tape manipulation during her graduate studies, and her pieces range from flute solos and chamber music to compositions for full orchestra and electronics. Recordings of many of her works were released on the label Opus One, and include SUM, a sonic collage, and I Come Out of Your Sleep, a sound poem that incorporates elements from a poem by Louise Bogan.
Frances Blaisdell (1912 – 2009)
“Every woman flute player in every major American orchestra, every little girl who plays the flute in a school band, has Frances Blaisdell to thank. She was first.”Chamber Music Magazine, 1992
Frances Blaisdell was one of the first female professional flutists in the US. Her teachers included Georges Barèrre, Marcel Moyse, and William Kincaid. However, Frances was only allowed to audition at Julliard thanks to a clerk mistakenly signing her up using the male version of her name. Her audition piece was Cécile Chaminade’s Concertino, Op. 107 – one of the most famous flute solos by a woman composer. After that audition, Frances became the first female wind player ever admitted to the Juilliard School of Music.
She performed with the Hour of Charm Orchestra from 1934-1937 and held several other orchestra positions throughout her career. Frances was the first woman to perform as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, and also replaced Barrère in the Barrère Trio after her teacher suffered from a stroke. She held many teaching positions throughout her career, including at Manhattan School of Music and Stanford University.
Doriot Anthony Dwyer (1922 – 2020)
“Woman Crashes Boston Symphony: Eyebrows Lifted as Miss Anthony sat at Famous Flutist’s Desk”Boston Globe, 1952
That was the newspaper headline after Doriot became one of the first female flutists to win a principal chair in a major US orchestra. Doriot learned the flute at age 8 from her mother, Edith Maurer Anthony (who was also an accomplished flutist!), then went on to study with Ernest Liegl and graduate from Eastman. After graduation, Doriot spent 2 years as 2nd flute with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC and several years with the LA Philharmonic.
When she auditioned for the Boston Symphony in 1952, the director had been unsatisfied with a round of men’s auditions and selected Doriot after a European candidate’s green card application fell through. With that audition, she replaced Georges Laurent as principal flute and held that post for 38 years. Like many orchestral musicians, she also held a few teaching positions – she was an Adjunct Professor at Boston University and also taught at the Boston Conservatory. The Boston Symphony commissioned & dedicated Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Flute Concerto to Doriot when she retired in 1989. (Fun fact – she was also the grand-niece of women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony!)
Jeanne A. Graybill (1891 – ?)
Jeanne was a saxophone soloist who also doubled on flute with Helen May Butler’s Military Band. She hailed from New Orleans, Louisiana, and according to information from the US Census in 1920, she also worked a day job as a bookkeeper for an export company. A postcard with her portrait is preserved in a collection of photos from the band, though apart from that and the Census info, little is known about her.
D. Antoinette Handy (1930-2002)
D. Antionette Handy was born in New Orleans, and began playing flute at a young age. She went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music, the Northwestern University School of Music, and the Paris Conservatoire. She was one of the first African-American members of the Richmond Symphony, where she played from 1966-1976. She was also a member of the Trio Pro Viva, an ensemble dedicated to the performance of works by Black composers.
Dr. Handy served as the director for the National Endowment of the Arts from 1990-1993, and her legacy lives on in several pieces of valuable literature that document the contributions of women and African-Americans in the field of music. Her publications include “Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras,” a book about The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and a directory of Black conductors.
Patricia Lynden (1934-2023)
Although Patricia Lynden grew up in a musical household, she was initially self-taught on the flute. She began lessons with Christopher Claudis as a teenager, then studied with Edward Walker at the Royal College of Music.
Patricia became principal flute at the English National Opera (originally Sadler’s Wells Orchestra) after graduation, then moved to the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in 1956.
She freelanced during the 1960s, wanting a more flexible schedule, and returned to an orchestral post in the early ‘70s with the Brighton Philharmonic. Although many view Patricia’s term with the Philharmonic as her biggest career highlight, she found it extremely stressful, and preferred to stay in one place instead of touring.
I find her freelancing era more interesting – in the ‘60s, Patricia was an active member of the Society of Women Musicians. She played in women’s chamber ensembles at the Arts Council of Great Britain, the Society’s Golden Jubilee, and a centennial concert honoring Ethel Smyth. And she wasn’t alone – other women flutists in the Society included Noreen Mason, Betty Mills, Hilary du Pré, and Cecily Haussmann.
Constance Pether (? – 1965)
In 1936, Constance Pether was appointed principal flute of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. She was the first woman principal flutist in an Australian orchestra, and may have been the first in a major orchestra worldwide. She held this position until 1950. When the ensemble expanded and became the South Australian Symphony Orchestra in 1949, Constance performed along with another woman flutist, June Lindsay (who later played with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s).
In addition to her orchestral posts, Constance taught private lessons and commissioned several pieces from Miriam Hyde. These include Hyde’s Trio for Flute, Clarinet, and Piano, which she premiered with Cleve Martin and Beryl Chinner in a broadcast for the Australian Broadcasting Commission.
Elaine Shaffer (1925 – 1973)
“Queen of the Flute”Time Magazine, 1973
Elaine Shaffer was the principal flutist of the Houston Symphony from 1948-1953. She left the symphony to pursue a solo career, and became a trailblazer for that career path for American women. At the height of her career, she was considered to be one of the world’s top concert flutists.
Elaine actually started as a timpanist – another instrument choice unusual for women of the time. She switched to flute in high school, finding the flute parts much more interesting in her school’s band music. Elaine was largely self-taught until college, when she auditioned for William Kincaid at the Curtis Institute and became one of his top students. After graduation, Elaine became 2nd flute in the Kansas City Philharmonic, but she had wanted to hold out for a better job. In 1948 her conductor, Efrem Kurtz, moved to Houston and began reorganizing the symphony there. He invited her to come with him during the move and promoted her to principal flute.
After Kincaid’s death, several of his students commissioned Aaron Copland’s Duo for Flute and Piano in his honor. He left Elaine his platinum flute, which she played in the premier of Copland’s work. Elaine is also associated with two other gems of flute repertoire – Bloch’s Suite Mondiale and Two Last Poems (Maybe…), which were both works she commissioned from the composer.
There’s so much more to the world of women’s music history than many of our textbooks and collections of Western classical music might suggest. To explore the world of flute music by women composers, check out my database of flute solos by women composers!
This list includes music from both historical and modern composers, so whether you’re looking for a substitute for CPE Bach’s sonatas or are curious about extended technique, I’ve got you covered. 🙂 Click the link above to check it out!
If you’ve come across this article while in the process of doing research for a music history or studio class, here’s a list of some sources that I’ve found helpful.
Mike Brubaker is a professional horn player with a large archive of old photographs that he shares via his blog. He’s got limited info on some of the musicians depicted, but this is a really cool resource!
Ford’s discussion of women flutists begins on page 67 of the PDF. Female flute players in Europe outside of Scotland begin on page 82, and include Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia; Alicia Astley, Lady Tankerville; Marianna Davies; and Johanne Sophie Mudrich.
This is an encyclopedic database with biographies of several European flutists from the 19th and 20th centuries. Many entries also include photographs and/or excerpts from reviews by music critics of these women’s performances. Articles are in German and French; view them in Chrome and use Google Translate to read them in a different language.
This resource is an absolute gold mine if you can read French – chapter 6 is dedicated exclusively to the history of women who practiced wind instruments in the 18th century!
Research guide with links and lists of 20th and 21st century African-American flutists and flute works by female African-American composers.