No women composers? Pah!

// 18 October 2007

Hot on the heels of Jess’ furious post criticising the latest tidal wave of misogyny from the Daily Mail, I have something of my own to contribute. As a music graduate, a former professional musician and a current music journalist, I was particularly amused by their description of Dame Ethel Smyth as a “slightly risible old lesbian” seeing as she is regarded in musical circles as very underrated and well respected. You may be interested to learn that one of the reasons why she isn’t better known is the fact that she dedicated herself to the suffrage movement so wholeheartedly that it left little time for composition.

I wouldn’t call being a pupil of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, composing music that is still performed to this day, being an instrumental part of the suffrage movement and being sentenced to two months in prison for smashing the windows of anti-suffrage politicians “slightly risible”. I would call it admirable, astounding, respectable and humbling.

If I was slightly amused by The Mail’s turn of phrase in describing Dame Ethel, I was enraged by the assertion that there exists no music by women to match the works of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms or Shostakovich and the use of this fact as evidence of male superiority. Of course there have been fewer women composers throughout history, for the same reason that there have been fewer scientists and engineers: men have had a several hundred year head start. Composition is an intellectual activity requiring considerable training and education, which very few women benefitted from until within the last hundred years.

That’s not to say women composers didn’t exist at all. Hildegard of Bingen was composing oratorios before JS Bach was even in short trousers. Not content with that, she was also an abbess, artist, author, counsellor, linguist, naturalist, scientist, philosopher, physician, herbalist, poet, activist and visionary – an indisputible genius and a polymath with a scope of expertise to rival that of Leonardo da Vinci. It seems that The Mail has conveniently overlooked her. The Mail has also chosen not to post my comment drawing their attention to her, but that might be because I also told them to “stick that up your jacksie and smoke it”.

Then there was Clara Schumann, wife of Robert, hugely respected as a concert pianist and composer even in her day, and whose works are gaining greater recognition today. Whilst Robert spent much of his days confined to a lunatic asylum suffering from the effects of syphilis, Clara was the sole breadwinner for their seven children.

Nowadays it’s been a while since women began to enjoy greatly improved educational opportunities, and they are beginning to break into the hitherto male-dominated world of composition. In fact, they’re not having to break in at all. They are being welcomed with open arms.

When I’m not busy busting the balls of the patriarchy, I write for Classical Music magazine. CM do this rather geeky column entitled “Premiere of the Fortnight”, to which I regularly contribute. This involves interviewing both established and up-and-coming composers about their works. I can tell you that without any skewing towards political correctness whatsoever, there is pretty much a 50/50 split between men and women. When I interview women composers, I never ask them about issues relating to their gender. Not because I think it’s wrong to do so but because it really is a geniune irrelevance.

The fantabulous BBC Proms got into a spot of bother in 2006 when they failed to include a single work by a woman composer during the whole of their season. Although I’m not exactly toeing the feminist line here, I can easily see how this happened and in my opinion, they received undue criticism for it. All of the really famous Romantic and Classical composers who pull the punters in are male. Women composers have only begun to assume equal status very recently, and so unless the programme included a great deal of contemporary music, it’s easy to see how women got left out.

However, the Proms did up their game for this year, and one of the works by women composers featured was a premiere by the Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave. Musgrave has a hugely established relationship with the Proms that goes right back to the 60s, having had a huge number of her works performed during the festival. When I interviewed her back in August, I asked her for her thoughts on the previous year’s “no women composers at the Proms” scandal:

Of course it is important to include women composers. However I don’t think works should be chosen necessarily as a ‘category’, but as examples of individual excellence. I realize that concert givers have many considerations to balance and this choice cannot always be an easy one. I would doubt that last year’s omission was deliberate.

Women composers do not need positive discrimination. Their work speaks for itself. Musgrave’s piece, a concerto for oboe and percussion, was fantastic and every bit as deserving of a Proms premiere as any work by a male composer. This really shouldn’t need pointing out given her illustrious career.

To the Daily Mail, I say, just you wait. Wait another hundred years and see how many works by women composers have stood the test of time and assumed lofty positions in the Western canon or even, dare I say it, the Classic FM playlist. It’s going to be a while before women are as established as men in any intellectual field, but progress is definitely being made.

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