On #IWD2015, Let’s See The Women Composers Problem For What It Is

Credit where it’s due. Last year, BBC Radio 3 disappointed with their lack of any significant coverage for International Women’s Day – see my blog post here – but they’ve really gone for it this time around. They’ve not only dedicated IWD to music by women, but have been giving special focus to women composers and musicians throughout the week too. It’s great to see and has been fascinating to listen to.

But what happens next? A day dedicated to women’s music is very much overdue, but as Jessica Duchen reported in this excellent article:

The composer Judith Bingham keeps tallies of how many pieces by women the station plays each week, trawling through listings in the Radio Times. “If you’re lucky there may be one; sometimes there’s nothing,” she says. “It’s like women just don’t exist.”

In the same piece, Radio 3 Editor Edwina Wolstencroft says “I think we’re going to continue the momentum” after IWD. She explains:

People are becoming more vocal about the neglect of women’s voices in all parts of life, and there seems to be a huge boost to women expressing themselves creatively and politically. We have to lift the lid on women composers who have been neglected in many, many respects and shine light on them.

I couldn’t agree more. And I really hope the momentum is continued. However, I can already sense an attempt to downplay expectations. Here’s Edwina again on her Radio 3 blog about IWD:

We as a station can’t solve the imbalances of the classical music industry – which inevitably reflect historic societal attitudes to women generally – but it’s very important to take the time to explore the issues.

If we want a more balanced repertoire – if we really want one – we can do more than explore the issues, essential though that is.

So how far does Radio 3 want to go? Presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch’s blog in the Huffington Post spends a good deal of time justifying why the estimated 6000 female composers throughout history are currently excluded from ‘the canon’. And while she makes some good points about the barriers that prevented women getting elite musical education and building a career, she then drops this disappointing generalisation:

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.

Of course Sara has not listened to every piece by those 6000 composers: nobody has. But in any case, the ‘canon of masterpieces’ idea is problematic. The Berlin Philharmonic’s recent Sibelius cycle in London is a case in point: he was a composer who was once considered beyond the pale in Germany. Even Bach needed a revival in the 19th century. And I don’t know about you, but some of my most-loved pieces of music are not ‘canonical’ at all, and may well never be. The whole point in starting this blog was a desire to share fantastic, interesting music that is barely played, with the view that we badly need a repertoire that is richer and more varied in all sorts of ways. A repertoire not based around a received idea of ‘quality’, but qualities.

Radio 3 is lucky that, being funded through the license fee, it doesn’t rely on performing familiar names to get revenue. If the momentum is to be continued, then it can – and hopefully will – ensure that some music written by women is played every day. Perhaps it could even have a minimum quota of pieces by women. It wouldn’t have to be an ambitious number to be an improvement on the current situation. 6000 composers after all, before we get to the contemporary ones: there’s clearly no lack of material, the only limit is how much will there is.

And that question must call on everyone who loves classical music. Do we resign ourselves to the overwhelming maleness of the current repertoire? Do we explain it away, and hope contemporary women composers will gradually fill the gap? Or do we re-frame it not as a regrettable result of history, but as an unjustifiable continuing neglect? Something that can, and must, be changed?

That re-framing is scary for a conservative art form that, more than most, labours under the weight of tradition. For those who have spent their lives embedded in the industry, the human reflex to rationalise the status quo is understandable. But once this shift happens, it opens up new possibilities. Imagine a future where playing classical music written by both women and men was the norm, not the exception. You would look back on what was being performed in 2015 and marvel that the near-total dominance of music by men persisted into the 21st century. And yet: here we are.

As I recently wrote, I have embarked on a self-education spree to overcome my embarrassing ignorance of female composers. It’s incredibly easy to start – check out these YouTube playlists for example. For me the results were immediately revelatory, making it clear that there is plenty of fantastic music out there by women from history that I’d never heard of. I had simply never thought to look before, and that is precisely the problem.

Because the historic circumstances that held women back are only part of the story. Ignorance, unconscious bias, and sometimes outright sexism continue to ensure they remain in obscurity. By acknowledging this, we can all play a part in encouraging a more rounded, richer repertoire. That’s why I’ve resolved that, as I delve deeper into the works of women composers – living and dead – I will feature them regularly on this blog.

I couldn’t resist leaving you with March of the Women by Ethel Smyth. If you’re unfamiliar with Smyth, read about her extraordinary life, including being imprisoned for her role in the suffragette movement here. And on that note of optimistic determination, I wish you all a very happy International Women’s Day.