Are We Writing Great Female Composers Out Of History?

You deserve to know these names, and deserve to hear their music

A year ago, I gave a speech at the Association of British Orchestras’ Conference, remarking how rarely we see female conductors on the podium, asking colleagues what we could do nationwide to address this.

Days before the presentation, I sat seeking a knockout way to conclude the speech, to illustrate why this really mattered, and why there was no time to lose.

Then the world spoke. Thousands of people took to the streets worldwide for the historic women’s marches, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. In recent times we’ve not seen anything like it. The message: what we do we want? Equality. When do we want it? Now.

And that was the start of an extraordinary year. At every turn, we have found ourselves gripped, exhilarated and often overwhelmed as bold, inspiring women have taken the spotlight and told their stories. How had the world not heard what they each had to say before? Why had we not been listening?

All told, it wasn’t the start of an extraordinary year. As Oprah Winfrey said in summation at the Golden Globe Awards this month: ‘a new day is on the horizon’. What we’ve witnessed in 2017 is the overture to an extraordinary new era.

All this – more than my humble speech – has propelled colleagues in classical music to think hard and fast about gender equality on our own turf. I’ve found myself talking to people I’d never previously spoken to across my profession, and we find ourselves unified and energised about what we can do to contend a colossal historic gender imbalance.

In the Spring, someone said to me ‘it’s great what you’re doing for female conductors, but what are you doing for female composers?’

A good question. At my orchestra, I’d always programme a couple of pieces annually by female composers, but it’s hard given how relentlessly male the history of classical music is: for centuries, as in so many walks of life, all the gigs went to the guys, and you can count on one hand the women who, in days past, managed to make a mark anything like Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Wagner and so many other guys.

Or is that the story we tell ourselves…?

I decided to challenge my preconceptions. My first pit-stop was BBC Radio 3 where two remarkable producers – Edwina Wolstencroft and Olwen Fisher – have, since 2015, been asking themselves how they might better represent female composers on air.

They ambitiously filled 24 hours with music by women on International Women’s Day in 2015, which has now become an annual custom (listen out for it on 8 March). From this, the number of female composers heard daily on BBC Radio 3 has continually grown too: no mean feat, when history has recorded relatively few works by women.

Roused by Edwina and Olwen’s progress, I spent every spare minute this summer googling composers they’d programmed whom I’d never heard. Other resources proved invaluable: Diana Ambache, a tireless ambassador for women in classical music, has a great website worth visiting, as does the PRS Foundation which prioritises certain funds to help women make their mark.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Daily I was discovering composers whose music dazzled me. There are too many names to share here, but let me tell you about three:

Dorothy Howell. 1898 – 1982. Hailed as ‘the English Strauss’ and pursued by paparazzi, one of her works was programmed five times in the 1919 Proms. Yet she’s only been performed there once in the last fifty years.

Grazyna Bacewicz. 1909 – 1969. You’ll find lots of her music on Spotify or YouTube, but why she isn’t heard monthly in our concert halls bewilders me. She never committed an idle crotchet to paper: every piece I’ve heard is like a quiver of arrows vibrantly striking their target.

Doreen Carwithen. 1922 – 2003. Her music teems with drama; it’s little wonder she found some luck as a film composer. It would sell her short to say she sounds like William Walton, as one suspects she sometimes outshines him. In a parallel timeline, she could have become a national treasure. With our help, she might yet.

You deserve to know these names, and deserve to hear their music. And if space permitted, I’d tell you about many more.

This month, I return to the Association of British Orchestras’ Conference. In preparation, I’ve looked at how many female composers its members (83 orchestras and classical music organisations nationwide) are collectively performing this month.

In January 2018, we’ve programmed composers 333 times. In only five of these instances are the composers female. That’s 1.5%. In the world of the women’s marches and #TimesUp and even a female Doctor Who, how can any of us accept that status quo?

My own orchestra’s 2018 season gets underway in February. I’m proud to say, inspired by all that has occurred in 2017, Southbank Sinfonia will this year perform music by 23 female composers… and counting.

I could have programmed twice that many. But there’s always next year. After all, I’m keen to convey that this is no token gesture. We need to make this the new normal.

I worry that if we only programme men over and over and over again, we become complicit in a rewrite of history, writing out the women.

It’s risky for many orchestras to programme composers their audiences don’t know. Here you can help: if you’ve been moved by the events of the last year and are curious to hear more works by women, please write to your local orchestra and tell them. Give them the assurance that you will come and listen.

I promise you will be enlivened by what you hear.


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