Earlier this week an ignorant, opinionated and badly-argued article appeared in ‘The Spectator’ stating that ‘There’s a good reason why there are no great female composers’. The basic premise of the author’s argument is that there are no good, let alone “genius”, women composers because what they wrote was boring or just plain rubbish when compared to the output of their male counterparts.
I’m not going to supply a link to this article as I feel it is mostly a cynical attempt to encourage clickbait. Personally, I found the contents of the article to be ill-informed, sexist and, frankly, pretty offensive that a man writing in the first quarter of the 21st century should still hold such unreconstructed views. It makes me wonder how far we have really progressed in the last 50 years.
The coverage – or lack thereof – of women composers on radio and tv broadcasts and in concerts is a continual preoccupation. Earlier this year, Radio Three devoted one day – yes, a whole day! (International Women’s Day in fact) – to music by women composers. To be fair, the station also ran features on living women composers as part of the Composer of the Week series, and there were other programmes to complement the broadcasts on 8th January. But tune in to the Radio Three Breakfast programme on any given day and you’ll be hard put to find many works by women on the playlist.
If women were considered equally as capable as men in work, the arts and everything outside of family life then there would be no need to have specific events to celebrate our achievements or validate our work. It depresses me write this, but sadly in 2015 this still is not the case.
In response to The Spectator article, the pianist Danny Driver, who has himself recently recorded music by Amy Beach (USA), Dorothy Howell (English) and Cécile Chaminade (France), suggested I compile a list of women composers, along the same lines as the list of British pianists I compiled earlier this year in response to another ignorant article. When I posted a call for suggestions on Facebook, I was deluged with names of women composers, living and dead, well-known and obscure, together with many comments, from men and women, declaring a passionate interest in this subject, and a total disdain for The Spectator article and its author.
Ultimately, of course, the gender of the composer shouldn’t matter and we should simply celebrate music and take pleasure in playing and sharing it. To this end, I’d like to quote from a post by a pianist colleague which expresses very eloquently how we should approach music:
We cannot change history and blaming our circumstances on it won’t change the present. Can we instead turn our attention towards inclusion, admiration and respect towards others instead of perpetuating a world of exclusion, comparison and separateness?
I choose the music I play and listen to not because of the person it was written by but because it improves my quality of life. It challenges me, brings me joy, makes me ask questions and allows me to discover something new about our world.
Can we change this conversation, which more often than not turns in to argument, to cultivation and continued celebration of human endeavor and joy?
Can we remind ourselves that music bypasses boundaries, walls, beliefs and opinions and can we allow it to connect humanity regardless of what gender? [EM]
Women composers – a very incomplete list:
Hildegard of Bingen, Clara Schumann, Cecile Chaminade, Germaine Tailleferre, Louise Farrenc, Amy Beach, Grażyna Bacewicz, Roxanna Panufnik, Anna Magdalena Bach, Fanny Mendelssohn, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Jenni Pinnock, Alison Wrenn, Judith Weir, Judith Bingham, Rebecca Saunders, Tansy Davies, Sally Beamish, Elizabeth Maconchy, Alissa Firsova, Kerry Andrew, Olga Neuwirth, Thea Musgrave, Elizabeth Lutyens, Sofia Gubaidulina, Betsy Jolas, Chaya Czernowin, Liza Lim, Kaija Saariaho, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, Galina Ustvolskaya, Lera Auerbach, Sadie Harrison, Karen Tanaka, Lili Boulanger, Jocelyn Pook, Imogen Holst, Ethel Smyth, Joan Trimble, Margaret Hubicki, Lilian Elkington, Ruth Byrchmore, Dobrinka Tabakova, Elizabeth Ogonek, Madeleine Dring, Mary Plumstead, Diana Burrell, Debbie Wiseman, Eleanor Daley, Angela Morley, Phyllis Tate, Elizabeth Poston, Grace Williams, Liza Lehmann, Cecilia MacDowall, Claude Arrieu, Rebecca Clarke, Pauline Viardot, Janet Graham, Lotta Wennäkoski, Helen Eugenia Hagan, Deidre Gibbin, Jennifer Higdon, Barbara Strozzi, Elo Masing, Litha Efthymiou, Helen Grime, Stef Conner, Nwando Ebizie, Rachel Porter, Joanna Marsh, Unsuk Chin, Freya Waley-Cohen, Eleanor Alberga, Sally Whitwell, Errollyn Wallen
In fact, this list only scratches the surface, and as a colleague of mine commented, “the list of accomplished women composers with international recognition is so long that to list some or even a lot is to leave out many”.
I am pleased to see works by women composers reasonably well represented in the Trinity College of Music graded piano exam syllabus.
For a different angle on this discussion, do read this most interesting article The ‘Woman Composer’ is dead