Female composers and conductors – scoring for gender equality

Let us be frank with one another and avoid pretension. Most of you probably consider yourself artistically enlightened; you regularly attend and read about visual and performing arts events. Your liberal minded soul embraces equal opportunity of choice for everyone, regardless of a person’s gender, sexual preference, colour, race or religion. No biases poison your heart.

Still, although undoubtedly you could name quite a number of contemporary male classical music composers and conductors, you might struggle to recall just a few contemporary female classical music composers and conductors; and, even if you’re avowedly religious, you could be at a loss to suggest living female composers noted for writing liturgical music. Don’t feel embarrassed if you are now fumbling with the Internet. Indeed, in The Guardian’s 100 Most Inspiring Women of 2011, marking the 100th International Women’s Day, not one composer was listed. The one conductor noted was Marin Alsop.

Admittedly, you would be able to mention names effortlessly if you are working in the classical music business industry, or engaged as a performer, conductor or composer. Moreover, you’re probably acutely aware of gender imbalance in the classical music milieu, and that this issue does not cause as much alarm as it deserves to within this world and among members of the public.

I became conscious of my ignorance – perhaps oblivion – when I went to a talk last year about a book called Sounds and Sweet Airs, which was presented by the author Anna Beer. The evening was organised by the UK Friends of the National Museum for Women in the Arts (of which I’m a steering committee member). The book focuses on eight historic female composers: Francesca Caccini (1587-1640), Barbara Strozzi (1619-1664), Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1675-1729), Marianna Martines (1744-1812), Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn (1805-1847), Clara Schumann (1819-1896), Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) and Elizabeth Maconchy, (1907-1994).

Beer was inspired to write the book because many historic women composers have been dismissed (‘surely a man must have written this’), overlooked, forgotten and undocumented. (Is this because most musical historians are men?) She wanted to reclaim these women from history.

Social structure and cultural mores prevented many musically talented women in the past from seriously studying music, and, even if they could engage in musical scholarship leading to composition and conducting, they were denied the space, whether this be in a castle, cathedral, or concert hall, the authority and the opportunity to publish. Beer’s work is a means of enlightenment. There was no hint of anger in her presentation; she means to pay homage to historic female composers and explore the circumstances enabling them to flourish. Beer makes us feel ashamedly conscious of the fact that many of us have never asked questions about why there is such a paucity of women composers on historical record.

My conscience was also pricked when I began copy editing the far from dry, verging on the whimsical, and educative musical notes for the church I attend in central London. The writer, Nicholas Riddle, a music scholar – who chooses the compositions in collaboration with the Director of Music (DOM), Rupert Gough – happens to be at the head of a highly successful classical music publishing company (Edition Peters). Neither Nicholas nor the DOM seem sexist; yet rarely does a mass setting or related work by a female composer appear in the church music diary; obviously, it’s not within the music diarists’ consciences to address this situation, and, even if the church chose to only include mass settings by women, the choice is limited, as there are far fewer female historical and contemporary liturgical music composers than male. Moreover, the nature of the Anglo-Catholic liturgy and the liturgical season also thin the repertoire. Still, there’s room for a change in direction.

The Christian church has never been a harbinger of feminism; historically, men filled the choirs, played the organ, directed the music and led the services. One could have found a harpsichord or clavichord in the drawing room, for the women to play, but never an organ. A woman would have to venture out of the domestic sphere to learn to play and practise the organ; inevitably the instructor would be male. Would her family encourage this endeavour?

Composer and Director of Music at Clare College, Cambridge, Graham Ross, notes that the “addition of female singers to our cathedral choirs and clergy is a (somewhat embarrassingly) recent phenomenon. In England, there has only really been a rebalancing of gender intake in the last 50 years in the Oxbridge Colleges, where perhaps a good proportion (thought not certainly all) of today’s liturgical composers have been educated”. In 2016, Ross appointed Eleanor Carter as Clare College’s first ever female organ scholar in its 700-year history. Of the 31 colleges at Cambridge, only seven have female DOMs.

Ideally, one would like to discover a published compilation of mass settings, liturgical and sacred music composed by women. This would increase the breadth of female role models in worship. There are an increasing number of women clerics ‘at the helm’; why not enable more compositions by women to be part of worship? Regardless, in a wider context, religious and secular, there are quite a number of widely acknowledged tomes noting women composers. (See below.)

Focusing on the ‘shortage’ of female role models in the educational and professional milieu of classical music composition and conducting reveals the extent to which women are under represented. The choice of reliable statistics is overwhelming. Visible role models are especially important to younger women who often lack the confidence to forge ahead against the odds.

According to a report by the Performing Rights Society (PRS) Foundation Women Make Music – Evaluation 2011-2016, “there are no compositions at any level in the music curriculum by women”. (The situation is meant to change.) At the Julliard School, of the five members of the composition faculty, one, Melinda Wagner, is female. At the Royal Academy of Music, out of eighteen members of the composition faculty, the one female is Tansy Davies, an Honorary Fellow. The head of conducting is a woman, Sian Edwards; another female staff member, out of seven, is Ruth Byrchmore. At the Royal College of Music, there are seventeen composition faculty members, only three of whom are female: Errolyn Wallen, the first black woman to have a work performed at the Proms, Alison Kaye and Enrica Sciandone. At the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, there are no women listed on the seven member composition faculty list. At the Conservatoire national supèrieur de musique et de danse de Paris (CNSNDP), out of thirty faculty members in the ‘joint’ composition and conducting department, there are three female members: Catherine Briere, Coralie Fayolle and Marie-Jeanne Serero, the latter two are composers.

Each year, since 1989, the organisation Women in Music has carried out a BBC Proms Survey. (The Proms is the largest music festival in the world.) One wishes one could find the figures incredulous. For example, this year, 7.5 % of the living composers whose work is featured are women. Of the conductors, 11 % are women. In 2006, the Proms didn’t include any women composers or women conductors. At a recent conference of the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) in January, James Murphy, the managing director of the Southbank Sinfonia, gave a speech exploring why there are so few women conductors on show. He notes that of 61 full member orchestras in the ABO, collectively having over 100 titled roles for conductors, four of these positions are held by women. Just over five per cent of the British artist managers with five or more conductors on their books are women. Last year the Southbank Sinfonia invited an equal number of male and female conductors to conduct. Why can’t other major orchestras follow its lead?

What fuels bias against women composers and conductors coming to the fore are unyielding perceptions about the natures of men and women. A woman may grow up in a bias free home, but once she steps across the threshold, bias strikes as fast as a throbbing pulse. Riddle eloquently expresses this reality:

“People often see the composer as male by default, and so use male pronouns in general discussions about the art of music. It’s a battle still only half won, but ground is gradually being claimed. The same applies to conductors and directors of music. The world of music is still at the stage that companies were some years ago, when the unspoken thesis was that women would be too ‘weak’ as managers, or would lack ambition, or drive, or the capacity to take difficult decisions. Many aspects of musical performance are still obsessed with the fact that a composer, a conductor, or a director of music is in some sense ‘in control’, and unconsciously feel it’s somehow unwomanly to be exerting such control, or – for those with real problems in this area – some men just can’t reconcile the idea that they might from time to time be subservient in any sense to a woman and, as long as there are more of these men in charge, they consciously or unconsciously militate against this.”

In light of Riddle’s comments, I think of a Women’s Conducting Masterclass with Marin Alsop, which took place in January. Those attending had the chance to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra in varied repertoire and conduct in a public performance. One of the participants, Natalia Raspopova, Assistant Conductor with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, reputedly commented, “generally speaking, women need to think much more about projecting power – perhaps that’s more natural to men”. In the past, notes the Guardian newspaper, Marin Alsop has suggested, “the challenges for women seem to be projecting strength unapologetically. Society interprets women’s gestures very differently, so that if women are exuding an aura of extreme confidence that can be deemed off putting, whereas it’s desirous for men”.

Unfortunately, it seems as though women need to feel entitled to take power. A composition has a kind of silent power, for conductors, musicians and singers are compelled to follow its direction, and still there are people all over the world, including women, who feel uneasy about women leading. Can we learn to be ‘gender neutral’ in the realm of classical music composing and conducting?

Initiatives encouraging women composers and conductors to come to and stay at the fore are very much a twenty first century phenomenon. In 2015 the Dallas Opera launched the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors, an annual programme for six selected participants of a week long schedule of classes and coaching with renowned conductors, seminars about advancing one’s career prospects and opportunities to conduct the Dallas Opera Orchestra, and participate in a public concert. Women Conductors@Morley was founded in 2014 to offer courses for young women, aged 16-19, and full time students who wish to begin training, and also courses for female conductors to help them develop their technique. The Taki Concordia Fellowship, founded by Alsop in 2002, aims to “promote, present, and encourage talented women conductors at the beginning of their careers”. In 2016, the London Oriana Choir launched a venture for promoting British female composers called five15. This program involves commissioning five works from five emerging women composers over five years, which the choir will perform in the UK and abroad. A festival, competition, anthology, album and workshops are also part of the initiative.

Humankind has been creating music for centuries; how we direct and play with sound is part of people’s cultural, political and social identity. If the “custodians of classical music”, to use Murphy’s words, don’t give women the same opportunities bestowed upon men to conduct and compose for the public, to enhance our civilized identity, frankly, we’re “going to look like cave men”. Amen.






http://www.prsformusicfoundation.com/funding/women-make-music-2/, supports projects by women songwriters, composers, artists, bands and performers who are writing their own music.

For reference – Aaron Cohen’s International Encyclopaedia of Women Composers (1987), noting over 6000 women; The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers (1994), in which there are 875 listings; The Pandora Guide to Women Composers: Britain and the United States, 1629 to the Present by Sophie Fuller (1995); Women Composers: Music Through the Ages, volume 1 and volumes following, Martha F Schleifer and Sylvia Glickman, G K Hall and Company, 1996 onwards.

Names, for a brief start:

Historic female composers – before 1700 many of the women who published music were nuns living in convents such as Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) and Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana (1590-1662). Other names to note are Louise Farrenc (1804-75), Cécille Chaminade (1857-1944), Ethel Smyth (1858-1844), Amy Beach (1867-1944), Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-53), Imogen Holst (1907-1984), and Minna Keal (1909-1999), who was 80 years old when her first orchestral work was performed at the Proms in 1889.

Projects highlighting historic women composers: http://www.abo.org.uk/developing/sirens.aspx, http://www.ambachecharitabletrust.org/

Contemporary female classical music composers, who also write liturgical music – Kerry Andrew (b. 1978), Sally Beamish (b. 1956), Judith Bingham (b.1952), Charlotte Bray (b. 1982), Maija Einfelde (b.1939), Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980), Jennifer Higdon (b.1962), Hanna Kendall (b.1984), Joanna Marsh (b.1970), Cecilia McDowall (b.1951), Roxanna Panufnik (b.1968), Karin Rehnqvist (b.1957), Agneta Sköld (b.1947), Judith Weir (b.1954), Ellen Taafe Zwilich (b. 1939).

Contemporary female conductorsElim Chan (b.1986), Han-Na Chang (b.1982), Sian Edwards (b.1959), Laurence Equilbey (b.1962), JoAnn Faletta (b.1954), Alice Farnham (b.1939), Jane Glover (b.1949), Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (b.1986), Susanna Mälkki (b.1969), Odaline de la Martinez (b.1949), Alondra de la Parra (b.1980), Simone Young (b. 1961).