Women Composers – A Reflection on Cultural Expectation

Composer: A person who writes music especially as a professional occupation

The history of music is rich with composers, experimental, creative, daring, dashing, often with fascinating personal lives, and each still receiving regular concert billing. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, Ives, Britten – in 2015, music exam board Edexcel featured 63 such composers in its A-Level syllabus.

In 2015, however, it was also pointed out via a change.org petition set up by student Jessy McCabe, that the syllabus was notably missing the inclusion of a single female composer.

This is not an unusual admission. We are used to the same names recurring. Concert societies look for music that will draw audiences, preferring to stick with safe, in-budget programming of Mozart and Beethoven quartets, and composers we’ve all heard of.

Meanwhile double standards and censorship abound. In the wake of the #metoo campaign (which saw Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the Nymphs removed from display at the Manchester Art Gallery to supposedly prompt conversation about the way images of women’s bodies are displayed), singer R Kelly has been removed from Spotify playlists due to sexual abuse allegations (which the singer has denied). Spotify’s new ‘hate policy’ states that:

When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful, it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.

Meanwhile the music of Don Carlo Gesualdo is currently celebrated on the streaming platform. Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover, and allegedly also the baby, but it was 400 years ago after all, so we can enjoy articles about him that wittily talk about ‘killer harmonies’ and bow to the description ‘irrefutably badass’ given him by the BBC’s Clemency Burton-Hill without so much as a wince in the direction of gender politics, or perhaps taste.

Any gender issue tends to spark heated debate. Claims that resurfaced on social media recently that Bach’s wife may have written some of his work met with anger, particularly from men who are beginning, understandably, to feel a bit browbeaten by current events.

But it’s a genuine question. Where are all the female composers? Why do we not hear their work? Why are they not simply referred to as ‘composers’ in the neutral way that actresses have become ‘actors’ in modern parlance?

Notable women include Lili Boulanger, who was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome at the age of 19, (Debussy won the 1884 prize at the age of 21 or 22) but her output was limited by ill health and early death at the age of 24. Her older sister Nadia is often spoken of more by association with her male pupils. Nadia Boulanger taught composition to some of the 20th Century’s most prominent composers: including Astor Piazzolla, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Quincy Jones, John Eliot Gardiner, Elliott Carter, Dinu Lipatti, Igor Markevitch, Virgil Thomson, David Diamond, İdil Biret, Daniel Barenboim and Philip Glass. She was also the first woman to conduct many of the major orchestras in America and Europe, including the BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, Hallé, New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia orchestras, and conducted several world premieres, including works by Copland and Stravinsky.

Nadia Boulanger, Chanson:

Scottish born Thea Musgrave is one living female composer who is recognised for her incredible output, and actively celebrated. Her work saw significant premieres at the Proms and the Royal Festival Hall in London in the 1960s, since when she has continued to produce work on a large scale, including commissions for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a collaboration with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. She’s written a work called The Seasons that is rarely, if ever, mentioned in conversations comparing composers’ responses to nature that regularly site Vivaldi’s work of the same name.

Thea Musgrave, Winter from The Seasons:

 

It’s rather heartbreaking to read how Clara Schumann (1819-1896), who is generally spoken of in association with her more famous husband (generally just known as Schumann!), felt about the societal pressure placed upon her at a time when creative women were often suspected to be witches, or had to present as angelic to avoid implications of prostitution:

I once thought that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose — not one has been able to do it, and why should I expect to?

And Alexandra Coghlan writes in the Spectator,

It’s even more frustrating to learn that, nearly 100 years later, when Elizabeth Maconchy was denied a prestigious Royal College of Music scholarship, the excuse given was, ‘If we’d given it to you, you’d only have got married and never written another note!’

To return to Edexcel, the exam board initially countered complaints about their all-male syllabus saying that female composers were not prominent in the Western Classical Tradition. But as the Independent reported, while this is to some extent true, it should not go unremarked.

Students should be taught about the women whose music we have been denied, because they in their turn were denied the opportunities they needed to succeed….

Students should also be taught about the women who did succeed in reaching prominence in their own time, only to be subsequently forgotten… while there were of course fewer women who managed to beat the odds, the International Encyclopedia of Women Composers nevertheless has more than 6,000 entries.

Despite this surprising number, an attempt to redress the balance by Classic FM can offer a list of only 10 Female Composers You Should Know, and even this list rather gauchely describes Ruth Crawford Seeger as “a woman who could ‘sling dissonances like a man,’” a quote ascribed to critics in the 1920’s but presented out-of-context here as though it were a reasonable comment on Seeger’s work.

In the wake of the Edexcel complaint, publisher, Rhinegold, produced a guide to the new syllabus by David Ashworth, who explains in his introduction:

It’s important that we now build on this initial momentum by showcasing the work of even more women composers. The ones included by Edexcel and the other boards are only the tip of a very large iceberg.

However, in this resource I want to go beyond just raising awareness. I want to help teachers and students get ‘under the bonnet’ by looking at some of the rich and diverse composing approaches and strategies used by some these women composers, not only to understand these ideas but also to guide students into trying some of them out for themselves.

Emily E Hogstad sums it up in her satirical blog, In Which I Learn Why There Are No Great Women Composers:

I’m not saying to chuck out Beethoven and Brahms….But once in a while, the boys could be gentlemanly enough to slide over at the table and let the ladies sit down for a bit.

Programmers are beginning to listen. In a move prompted by another gender row, this time within the music world – acclaimed conductor Mariss Jansons’ ill-timed and ill-judged comment that “seeing a woman on the podium… well, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea” – the BBC has promised to gender-balance its Proms programming, pledging that half of all new commissions will go to women by 2020.

This plan builds a new balance for the future without trying to reinvent the past. Let’s hope it is viewed in a more positive light than the Tate’s current survey of 20th Century art, All Too Human, which was dismissed in the Financial Times as narrowing to gender politics with the inclusion of certain women artists in preference to male artists the writer considered to be more pivotal to art history.

Meanwhile Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance is promoting the importance of women composers with a new initiative, Venus Blazing. Venus Blazing represents an unprecedented commitment by a music college to the music of women composers. Trinity Laban will ensure that at least half of the music it chooses for the multitude of varied public performances it mounts on its landmark Greenwich campus and in venues across London in 2018/19 will be by women composers.

[Image: Gnissah]

This encompasses over 50 concerts and opera performances given each year by the conservatoire’s large-scale student performing groups, with a particular focus on 20th and 21st century British composers, including Trinity Laban students, alumni and staff.

Performances will include a new production of Thea Musgrave’s opera A Christmas Carol, symphonies by Louise Farrenc and Grace Williams performed by the Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra, an exploration of the music of Trinity Laban alumna Avril Coleridge-Taylor, and music by current Trinity Laban composition students and staff, including Errollyn Wallen, Soosan Lolavar, Laura Jurd and Deirdre Gribbin.

The title Venus Blazing is taken from the title of a violin concerto by composition professor Deirdre Gribbin, who also runs the Venus Blazing Charitable Trust.

Trinity’s Chair, Harriet Harman, says:

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance is strongly committed to diversity in all elements and it has a mission to constantly challenge the status quo. Venus Blazing is a great example of just how it can do this.

This celebration will encourage and inspire its students – many of whom will go on to shape the future of the performing arts – to engage with the historic issue of gender imbalance in music by women, and ensure that it does not continue into the next generation.

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