Now let us celebrate women composers

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.

Germaine Tailleferre

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


  1. The reaction to this article shows how in our politically correct times only certain opinions are acceptable. Neither naming the author of the Spectator article nor providing a link to it precludes any meaningful discussion: doing so, you do not allow your readers to reach their own conclusions and impose your own views, which cannot then be discussed. You simply dismiss the article and biased and badly-written.

    Having read the article I am inclined to agree with half of its title. No matter the amount of politically correct hype will change the fact that there is not a single lady composer who is great. Giving a list of composers might prove that women composers are not and have not been as rare as we are given to understand but it also proves that none have quite made the grade. Adding Anna Magdalena Bach is a disservice to the cause, as claims to her authorship of, say, the ‘cello suites, have been laughed to derision whole panels of Bach scholars.

    I would take issue, however, with the second part of the article’s title: the lack of a great woman composer has more to do with society up to the XX century than with the fact they were women and only discussing the work of three composers does not really help. Saying they are not great because they are boring is not so good an argument either.

    I have a considerable number of Cds by composers who happen to be women, including of the three mentioned above, and of many others who have not made it to your list, such as Amanda Meier, Elfrida Andrée, Anna Amalia of Prussia, Elisabeth Guerre and Laura Netzel.

    Clara Schumann (née Wieck) is well-known as a composer, though her abandoning of her career as a such might have something to do with her realisation her husband was the genius. I would not, however, dismiss her music as bad. I find some of her music to be quite enjoyable. I am thinking of her three Romances for violin and piano.

    The case of Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn-Bartholdy) is similar, but she gave up her career following family pressure, though this pressure did not prevent her brother from having some of her works published under his name. Come to think of it, was Felix a great composer?

    An interesting comparison might be between Joseph and Michael Haydn or Henry and Daniel Purcell. In this case, one was the brother of the other. The former great while the latter not quite so.

    Amy Beach’s Irish Symphony was well-thought of in her day, though, to me, she lacks in personality. The same, however, could be said of the majority of her American male contemporaries, with the exception of Arthur Foote.

    Maria Hester Reynolds (née Park), a pianist and composer, acquainted with and held in high esteem by Haydn, whom she met while during the latter’s English sojourns is not mentioned either. She has a couple of fine piano sonatas, in F and in C which could be passed off as Mozart’s with little difficulty. I am looking forward to playing these one day, if I ever come across the scores.

    Some women worked as composers. The Venetian Anna Bon had a career as a composer and has some fine harpsichord sonatas, while Francesca Caccini, the daughter of Giulio, was employed by the Grand-Dukes of Tuscany as a composer. Her songs are well worth listening to. I do not see either of them on your list.

    Other omissions are Maria Szymanowska, the early XIX century Polish precursor of Chopin, as well as Nadia Boulanger, sister of Lili, and the Brazilian Jocy de Oliveira.

    As for late XX and XXI century composers, placing so many on the list proves that many women are now composing, but is it not too early to judge which one (and I would include all composers) will be regarded as great by audiences in the XXII century? I write this even though I am an admirer of the music of Dobrinka Tabakova, who has written a superb ‘cello concerto as well as Dawn, a lovely piece for ‘cello and orchestra. She has made it to your list!

  2. My dear, you are, and your pretty little male head are sadly misguided in this issue. How does that feel? Women composers have had to operate in the shadow of their male relatives for generations purely because of attitudes like yours.
    The outcry when it was suggested that Anna Magdalena could have possibly written some of Bach’s compositions was testament to how ingrained sexism is in our community. As a female bass player, I have seen this seismic shift in attitudes which makes my working life easier every day.
    On to your frankly Victorian views pertaining to women composers. You say that there is no need for a day. You’re right. But as things stand, not a single female composer was listed on the A level syllabus. As we are 51% of the population, and as clearly stated on Fran’s page there are hundreds of wonderful female composers writing and working today, who are vastly under represented, as a musician, surely you’d want that diversity of work, that inclusion of the huge body of work that could influence and inspire us all as musicians. I don’t understand your position, which comes across as exclusive in the purest sense of the word- to exclude the expression of half of our population.

  3. Why do we need to specifically celebrate women composers? Why don’t we have a special day to celebrate men composers?! Why do we need anything special for women? I find any of this extremely sexist! If women cannot stand on their own merit and require special recognition based on solely their gender they don’t deserve anything else! Why aren’t men given the same recognition based on solely their gender?!!!!!!

    • Where to begin with responding to this anguished outpouring of beleaguered angst? The recognition of the works of women composers is not a sexist practice at all. To recognise the artistic ability and creativity of women is to do simply that: acknowledge the output and contribution of composers who also happen to be women, and who (due to the vast swathe of history makers and social structures not being exactly what might be viewed as being supportive of female achievement) are often overlooked amidst the much larger number of male composers. To do so ought not threaten the bold masculinity of even the most devout misogynist.

      It is for much the same reasons that there is no need for men to be “given the same recognition based solely on their gender.” As matters stand, the achievements of men are constantly and continuously lauded and held as the baseline standard to measure against, with the overriding, archetypical image of a composer (or creative artist) being an intense, white haired, male. For male composers to be given the *same* recognition as their female counterparts would in fact require male composers to be reduced to near anonymity and aprobration and denigration of their talents and creativity.

      As for the final piece of febrile, testicular-shrinking wailing, the women in question aren’t requiring special recognition based solely on their gender. They already know they are women after all. Rather it is *specifically* their merits and achievements and abilities that are being acknowledged. To insist that women composers ought not be recognised as women as well as composers, is to insist that the only way in which women can be deserving of acknowledgement is to renounce their identity and gender – something which is not asked or required of their male counterparts.

      Surely, the only people who would in any way find this threatening are those whose abilities and capabilities match their stunted emotional growth and personal sense of self worth.

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