Quote of the Day

A deep longing swelled in all his heart to rise with that clear music out of the dirt and dust of that low life that held him prisoned and befouled. If he could only live up in the free air where birds sang and setting suns had no touch of blood.
The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois

Women composers: lack of opportunity or institutional amnesia?

The erasure of women’s work touches a nerve with me as I am a raging and unreasonable feminist (it could also be due to the fact that I am a woman who works in this patriarchal late-capitalist hellscape ;P). Women’s compositions are very rarely performed by professional orchestras, and very rarely studied in the course of a student’s musical education. I first began considering the absence of women in our classical canon when Ulysses’ Classical published a playlist on Spotify titled “1200 years of women composers“. When Pianodao published a guest post on female representation in LCM Examinations by David Duncan, I thought it might be a good time to chime in.

Alma Mahler, 1902.

Duncan’s piece covers the sad statistics when it comes to piano repertoire, but of course the problem extends much farther than score books. Most people, even those who are deeply involved in classical music, would only be able to name one or two women composers. Of course the situation becomes even more dire when you bring in other intersecting identities. This brings up the question, is this lack of diversity due to a lack of opportunities in the composer’s lifetime? Or is it because over the years the contributions of women have been less valued and, in time, forgotten?

The first explanation argues that the responsibility does not lie in the lap of our generation, but that we suffer from “shallow bench” syndrome. Our options of repertoire are limited because there are too few female composers throughout history due to lack of training and performing opportunities, and finding pieces that keep with a specific standard is difficult due to the very small number of women composers who had found that level of success in their own lifetimes.

The other option is that women’s work has been undervalued posthumously and music historians working from the time of the composer’s career till now have been selectively promoting the works of male composers over female due to any number of societal biases. In this situation, the lack of diversity in programing would be due to a lack of scholarship and reference to women’s work, even if the composer had been fairly well regarded in their own time. Academics and cultural “watchers” tend to shy away from this explanation – everyone wants to think that they have arrived at their tastes and opinions organically, through the merit of the art itself. However, we are all reliant on cultural shorthand to sort the gems from the rocks. Historians and critics of previous eras act as a sort of beacon, leading us towards art of special merit and technical brilliance. They can also narrow our view of the field through their now antiquated biases.

Of course these different modes of erasure, both before and after the fact of creation, are very much intertwined. An 18th century composer could write bucketloads of pieces in the privacy of her own home and not be discovered (and therefore of course, remembered) due to a lack of performance opportunities. Similarly, if she is known as a composer but her pieces are performed at a lower rate than that of her male peers, both during her lifetime and posthumously, that will start the slow process of forgetting. Historians looking back on an era, going through programs and historical scores, might assume her work was merely some vanity project. If fewer scores are floating around, it is less likely that a musical historian will find them. In this way, amnesia can be a byproduct of a lack of opportunity during the composer’s lifetime.

Of course institutional amnesia (or perhaps more accurately, erasure) can and has taken a much more active form. For many years the status quo has been to say why perform Clara Schumann when you can perform Robert? Why perform Alma Mahler when you can perform Gustav? The idea that promoting diverse voices in classical composition has only recently hit the main stream, and there is still plenty of inertia amongst older generations (who make up the vast majority of classical audiences) and established institutions.

If you prescribe to the “shallow bench” theory, just know thatnot much is being done to rectify the situation. Even now, the way most composers are able to practice their craft and increase their reputations is through commissioned pieces. In the UK, only 21% of commissioned works were by women in 2015. 6% of commissions were completed by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) folk. The same study found that most commissioners don’t have any sort of diversity policy, indicating that these issues are not being monitored at all. If we complain that there are too few pieces to choose from when trying to promote more diverse programing, we have to be working a lot harder to deepen the bench.

When I took early western music history we did spend a lot of time studying Hildegard von Bingen – but of course, I went to a women’s college. Were women composers taught in your courses? Have you ever been to a classical concert promoting women’s music?

Recommended: Purple Rain


I am so about this Purple Rain mood board right now – even though, like the song, it doesn’t necessarily contain vast literary depths. But maybe that’s the point. I always get a bit of a nihilistic sound-and-fury vibe off of Prince. It’s about sex, but it’s about sex in a rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light kind of way. It’s about touch, but it’s about touch in a let-me-feel-something-in-this-pointless-reality kind of way.

Purple Rain is about release when there isn’t a place to put that pressure. But you release anyway. And the feelings you have are only of Hallelujah.

Hey, I think it’s ok to get melodramatic about Prince. RIP.