Sunday, June 24, 2018

Women Composers

The Guardian has a cluster of articles on women composers that is worth a look: Women composers: why are so many voices still silent?
Classical music is still a man’s world. Female performers in the entertainment industry learn this early. As a soprano, my career has been defined by playing muses – roles such as Cleopatra (in Handel’s Giulio Cesare), Susanna (in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro) and Rosina (in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville) that were clearly adored by the male composers who created them. Performing them came naturally – after all this is what I had been trained to do. But where was my voice, where was the female perspective? The answer was simple, by and large there’s isn’t one. Almost every portrayal of a woman in the entire regularly performed opera repertoire is constructed through male eyes. The dominance of male composers is, today especially, staggering.
Last week’s Donne – Women in Music report expressed this in stark statistics. Across Europe, 97.6% of classical and contemporary classical music performed in the last three seasons was written by men, leaving a paltry 2.3% written by women.
But why? Is the patriarchy of the music business, the crushing influence of their husbands, or society at large to blame for such a skewed situation?
The writer is soprano Danielle de Niese and the question is a fair one. While I have always argued against quotas and the social engineering of women composers into places of prominence, I have never had anything against women composers. When I was an undergraduate there were always student women composers, though not as many as men. The same in graduate school where I was often in the company of fine young composers, quite a few of whom were women. Right now I am still posting on my most recent discovery, Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina and I recently put up a post on her slightly older contemporary Galina Ustvolskaya.

The very next paragraph in the Guardian piece is on British composer Elizabeth Maconchy, about whom I have written here. De Niese notes that
[Maconchy's] favourite form was the string quartet, of which she wrote 13. In 1942, a Royal Albert Hall concert featured her work alongside that of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, and in 1952 she won a competition to compose the Coronation Overture. The piece, Proud Thames, was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall in London to critical acclaim. She was the first woman to chair the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, and she carried on composing until she was nearly 80. And yet her work is almost never heard today and she is little known. Why?
That's a very good question! In the cases of Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler, she offers evidence that Robert and Gustav were oppressive figures. Women composers seem to have just lacked any kind of genuine social support and tended to be denied scholarships and other opportunities provided to male composers.
The mechanisms of the classical music industry have long been a patriarchy. Music is a living thing, and any composer lives via the oxygen of performance, on stage, over the airwaves and through publishing. Did all those concert promoters, opera directors, orchestra managers and radio controllers simply forget to provide platforms for women? Without a platform, music as a living art form dies.
This may well have been the case for much of music history, but I'm not sure it has been so over the last forty or fifty years. I really can't speak to bias in musical institutions in Great Britain which seems to have been widespread. But they also treated guitarists with equal disdain, at least according to Julian Bream, up into the 1950s at least. In my own experience in music schools and other institutions since the 1970s, there really didn't seem to be any bias and women composers got as much attention as men. Mind you, both men and women classical composers are pretty much ignored in the wider world. But it is astonishing to hear that only 2.3% of classical and contemporary classical music performed in the last three seasons was by women composers. Wait, I think I see the hidden factor. This statistic was for ALL classical and contemporary music. So it includes all the regular concert seasons with Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky and so on. If we just looked at contemporary music concerts I'm sure the numbers would be quite different. Why didn't they mention that statistic? Looking at the Bachtrack numbers, the closest I can find is this:
Top female contemporary composers
14. Sofia Gubaidulina 16. Kaija Saariaho 26. Sally Beamish
That is not quite as bad: out of the top 26 contemporary composers, three are women. Another article in The Guardian looks into this: Female composers largely ignored by concert line-ups. They have some numbers to back that up. If we are talking just contemporary music, then one would not expect a very significant difference. The article ends with comments from two orchestral managers:
The LSO’s managing director, Kathryn McDowell, said the orchestra championed the work of women. “Of the 12 young composers on our programmes this season six are women, and while entry to them is based purely on merit, we have seen a 50/50 gender split emerge for the past two years, signalling that the best composers writing in Britain today are just as likely to be women as they are men, which is exactly as it should be.”
Timothy Walker, chief executive and artistic director of the LPO, said the orchestra did “not make artistic choices based on issues of gender, religion or ethnicity” but was “strongly committed to supporting female musicians and composers”.
That kind of policy sounds exactly right. You can't just force a quota on musical organizations, but the search for composers of merit should not exclude women or any other group.

Let's listen to some music by Elizabeth Maconchy, particularly known for her string quartets. This is the Signum Quartet playing Elizabeth Maconchy's 3rd Quartet at Cadogan Hall during the BBC Proms 2013.


Steven Watson said...

A few months ago I was at a concert and heard 'Out of the Mist' by Lilian Elkington. She was a pianist and composer, I think in the interwar period. I was very moved by the work -- a short but rich orchestral piece (you can listen here). I remember wondering why I'd never heard of such a good composer, and looked her up to find that only a small handful of her works survived, most having been disposed of, and that those that did survive were only discovered by accident in a bookshop. It turns out she gave up composing and performance after getting married, and astonishingly her daughter did not even know she was once a composer. I know many people may easily hear this story and think, what a tragedy, what a loss (and perhaps how the patriarchy oppresses women etc.) And in part that's quite true; I wish we had more of her music. But it's equally possible to think that she was very noble and selfless in her decision, and that raising a family may well be (it probably is) more important than composing. Invariably, however, more women will make this choice than men. (One can of course do both composing and raising children, it goes without saying, but it is, I imagine, rather a challenge.) All things being equal, all things won't be equal: natural disparities will emerge in the choices and inclinations of the sexes, as of course Dr Peterson, who I know you admire, likes to point out.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks very much, Steven, for this wise comment. I refrained from mentioning Jordan Peterson, because I refer to him so much. But I think that in this case his views are a propos. That is a lovely, elegiac piece by Lilian Elkington (your link is incorrect, though!)--but with only 475 views! Yes, there are things more important than composing. One has to ask oneself, if there is something more important one could be doing. I suspect that for a lot of people (and perhaps more women than men), the answer is yes. It is a quality perhaps slightly more predominant in men to devote themselves obsessively to something so abstract.