Margaret Ruthven Lang, ca 1912. Halftone. This image comes from an article by Ethel Syford, "Margaret Ruthven Lang," in New England Magazine n.s. 46-47 (March 1912): 22-23, reproduced on page 22. General Collections, Library of Congress. LC call number: AP2.N4
Margaret Ruthven Lang was born in Boston, Massachusetts on November 27, 1867. Her mother, Frances Morse Burrage Lang, was an amateur singer. Her father, Benjamin Johnson Lang, was a prominent musician who conducted the Apollo Club and the Cecilia Society and served as organist for the Handel and Haydn Society. He was a friend of Richard Wagner, and the Lang home entertained prominent guests such as Dvorák and Paderewski.
Margaret had her earliest training on piano and in composition with her father. She was twelve years old when she wrote her first works. After studying violin with Louis Schmidt in Boston. Margaret traveled to Munich in 1886 to study with Franz Drechsler and Ludwig Abel. There she also studied counterpoint with Victor Gluth but was denied admittance to the Munich Conservatory, since women were barred from counterpoint classes. Upon her return to America in 1887, she studied orchestration and composition with John Knowles Paine, J. C. D. Parker, and George Chadwick, leading members of the Second New England School.
In 1893, Lang broke new ground when the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arthur Nikisch, played her Dramatic Overture, op. 12. The event marked the first performance by that organization of a piece by a woman composer. In the same year, Theodore Thomas programmed another of her overtures, Witichis, op. 10, at the World' s Fair (Columbian Exposition) in Chicago. Prominent vocal recitalists frequently performed Lang's solo songs. Her song Ojalá brought her international attention following its performance at a concert of American works given at the Paris Exposition of 1889.
Lang was self critical of her works and frequently destroyed them. None of her orchestral works are extant. After her father's death in 1909, she became caretaker of her elderly mother. She stopped composing in 1919. A zealous Episcopalian, she published a series of devotional pamphlets titled "Messages from God" between 1927 and 1939. At her own expense, she printed and distributed 6,000 copies throughout the world. With her 91-year subscription to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, she set a record as the longest consecutive subscriber. In 1967 the Symphony performed a concert to celebrate Lang's 100th birthday. She died just six months short of her 105th birthday on May 29, 1972.