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Celebrating Women Composers on International Women's Day

Here's a question: can you name me five female writers from history? Of course you can: Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf... OK, next question. Can you name me five female composers?

Here's a question: can you name me five female writers from history? Of course you can: Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf...

OK, next question. Can you name me five female composers?

Not so easy, right? Because it turns out that the history of classical music is populated entirely by dead white men.

Actually, let's qualify that. The history of classical music is populated almost entirely by dead white men. There are a couple of dead black men in there, and according to research, there are as many as 6,000 dead white women who wrote music too (we'll come to them in a moment). But the point is that the story of classical music, as we tell it, is entirely white and male. It's what we proudly call "the canon".

So why are women entirely absent from the story of music, and not so much from the story of literature?

The reason is simple: writers can be private, but composers have to be public. To write a novel, you need pen, paper and publisher. You can do the whole thing without anyone ever seeing your face. For most of the history of Western civilisation, women weren't permitted autonomous roles in public society, which is why the Brontë sisters published their early works under masculine pen names.

But to be a composer, you need money, and you need other people. You can't just sit there in a garret scribbling on manuscript paper. Someone has to print the parts, hire the hall and pay the musicians. You need to know your musicians so you can write appropriately for them. You also need to meet your patrons face to face, and for a long time those patrons - church, royalty or aristocracy - would have paid you to be in residence, performing your music as well as writing it.

So you can see how, until the 20th Century, women were pretty much written out of being composers.

The few exceptions (who number among the 6,000) were born into rich families, but their stories are stunted, like Barbara Strozzi, who became one of Italy's most prolific published Baroque composers but had to deal with people calling her a hooker, or the prodigiously talented Fanny Mendelssohn, who had to give up composing because her brother Felix liked writing music too.

Clara Schumann also suffered from the one-composer-per-household rule: when she married Robert, he suggested she stop composing and focus instead on her piano playing and, you know, being a wife. She ended up as the most celebrated concert pianist of her day, but unfortunately she's dead now and we can't hear her play. We can, however, hear her husband's music because it got printed.

Luckily, these women did leave some music behind, and you'll be able to hear it if you turn on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday, 8th March, International Women's Day. In response to what can only be described as the gender catastrophe in classical music, BBC Radio 3 is going to dedicate a whole day of programming to music written and chosen by women.

In the context of two weeks' complementary programming, it promises to be a fantastic celebration and affirmation of female creativity, paving the way for Radio 3 boss Alan Davey's commitment to seeing a greater range of composers across the network on a regular basis.

The day will introduce you some of the unsung 6,000 - as well as Fanny, Clara and Barbara, you'll meet Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Germaine Tailleferre and Ethel Smyth. You'll not only hear their music, you'll hear about their lives, stories of resilience and nobility in the face of gut-wrenching prejudice.

So you might well ask, if there are all these amazing women from the past writing great music, why don't we just take Radio 3's International Women's Day as a starting point and re-write the story of music, this time including the women?

The problem with re-writing the canon is that, while these women wrote good music and their stories need to be told, they mostly didn't write masterpieces. If you're going to re-write the canon, you need to be able to furnish it with works that are as magnificent and life-changing as those written by Bach, Beethoven and the boys.

The awful thing about Fanny and Clara is that although they both showed astonishing talent, it never got a chance to flourish. Ask any composer and they'll tell you it's not just about talent - it's hard work writing music, and you need to learn and practice and get better. Compare the trifling minuets Mozart wrote when he was a child genius with The Marriage of Figaro and you'll see what I mean - it took time and it took practice for him to get that good.

So as much as I'd love it, it's no use rifling through history to re-write the canon of masterpieces to include women on an equal level with men. We definitely shouldn't forget or neglect them, but really, the quality of music simply isn't there in a way that represents the potential that was never realised.

Luckily, today's landscape is a different matter. For me, the really exciting part of BBC Radio 3's International Women's Day celebrations is the focus on today's female composers. I'll be presenting a special edition of The Choir with a world premiere by Rhiannon Randle, and the following week, Composer of the Week shines the spotlight on five young women: Anna Clyne, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Hannah Kendall Dobrinka Tabakova and Charlotte Bray (who I recently interviewed here).

It turns out that women are just as capable of writing exceptional, ravishing, moving, challenging, beautiful and profound music as men. Genius isn't gendered. And now that we don't have such a big problem with women having, you know, jobs, there are loads of fantastic women composers around. All you have to do is switch on the radio to find them.