A little less Shostakovich, a little Maconchy please

Last March, I was stuck in a boring temp job that gave me little work to do. One morning, having made my coffee and logged in, I went on to twitter (where I spent much of my time on this job) and saw that Radio 3 were promoting their newest saturation gimmick: a whole day of Ravel. At least, I thought, it’s only a day, unlike their other gorging sessions for Bach and Mozart. For those of us who like variety in their listening, these stunts are an invitation to switch off.


It was a mild irritation, nothing more. Then I also noticed tweets about the upcoming International Women’s Day (#IWD). Remembering the previous year’s IWD, a lot of journalists, activists, charities and other organisations tweeted using #IWD to promote causes relating to gender equality. So I checked Radio 3’s schedule – were special programmes being laid on? Nope. No doubt some token music by women would be scheduled somewhere, but Ravel Day was the big splash that week.

Now I have plenty of Radio 3 bugbears. They’re always playing Lieder – surely even the Germans don’t play as much Lieder – and they often don’t translate foreign titles, which is unhelpful at best, elitist at worst. But this juxtaposition of #IWD soon spreading all over twitter while Radio 3 indulged us all in a day of Ravel, whether we liked it or not – this made something click. Maybe it was a coffee too many, but the complacent absurdity of it all was suddenly too much. Surely Radio 3 can do better than this? I felt compelled to express myself, so I sent an email to then head of Radio 3, Roger Wright.


Not surprisingly, I didn’t get a response. On twitter, I tried to engage with several female classical music writers, to gain their thoughts. Few responded, one who did was sympathetic but didn’t sound overly concerned.

I also made a ranty facebook status (truly I was wired that morning) which eventually received a lot of ‘likes’. Only later did I realise a disproportionate number were from non-muso female friends. Not so many of my muso friends, male or female, bothered to express agreement. It’s hardly a scientific study, but I think it’s interesting. Can those who haven’t been through the instrumental exams, the music degree, who haven’t been conditioned that’s this is The Way Things Are, perhaps more easily see fundamental problems than those whose lives have been closely bound up with the repertoire? There’s a theory in social psychology called System Justification, which describes the human tendency to defend the status quo in order to provide stability, even in the face of good arguments against it. But if you’re not particularly interested in classical music, and don’t listen to Radio 3, you won’t feel much loyalty to that status quo.

On the other hand, if you’re a classical music writer on twitter: well you have a job writing about classical music, that’s a lucky job to have. You might not feel a temptation to ask more fundamental questions.

In truth, I hadn’t thought a great deal about the overwhelming maleness of the classical repertoire before either – I thought it was unfortunate, but put it down to historic gender biases, since the repertoire is mostly various shades of way-back-when. If like me you go through the classical music education system – Grade 8 exams and a degree at a conservative university music faculty (Cambridge) – you may never encounter a challenge to the fact that this is just The Way Things Are (and you’re too busy writing that fugue to notice anyway). I have never studied at a conservatoire, but I imagine it’s similar. The repertoire is white and male like the sky is blue. Both my piano teachers were female, and neither of them (as far as I can remember) ever got me to learn anything written by a woman. And why would they? Where is the repertoire?

Well, that’s an interesting question. Interesting, because I so rarely hear it asked. Admittedly, I’ve spent most of my time as a classical music fan preoccupied by the neglect of music I love by less familiar Dead White Men. Hence starting this blog, with its name taken from the title of a movement in Edmund Rubbra’s Piano Concerto (more on him in a blog soon!). But shouldn’t we be asking? Where is the repertoire?

On twitter, I follow a lot of people writing about gender, privilege, bias, and the way these all shape our view of the world. The great thing about twitter is that it allows people who don’t have a voice in the mainstream media to ask, about any issue that affects them: why is this just The Way Things Are? For all its detractors, it is probably the most powerful platform for challenging mainstream opinion that has yet existed (even as it also enables the spread of misinformation and prejudice), and I’ve learned a huge amount by using it.

Then, while I was thinking about classical music and IWD, I had a moment of shame. I realised that I could name a few female composers, but there was only really one piece among them – one! – which I could honestly say I knew and liked: Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. A lovely piece, quite popular too, but one small choral work? For a music graduate?! Shameful. More shameful than the fact I’ve never heard a Wagner opera live, or that I still haven’t listened to all of Mahler’s symphonies (look, it’s not my fault they’re all so long).

Inevitably #IWD passed, #RavelDay passed, and I went on with life. But these issues continued to brew away in the back of my mind. Then, a couple of months ago, I realised I could do something. I made a resolution: to challenge myself to find classical music written by women, historic and contemporary, and share it both here and on twitter. If there is less music written by women for historic reasons, then that’s an argument to make sure we find as much as we can. And listen to it. Some might be dull and uninspiring, but some might be overlooked gems – you won’t know if you don’t look. I want the performed classical repertoire to be more diverse in all sorts of ways, but its current marginalisation of half of society is its most grotesque flaw. It’s a shameful situation, and spreading the word about great music written by women is one small step anyone can take towards rectifying it.

After all, if you’re serious about classical music, there’s no excuse not to. The internet enables us to easily access practically the whole history of recorded music, and many scores too. So ask again, where is the repertoire by female composers? Is it there but there isn’t much worth listening to? Or is there maybe more good music there than we know, but because of historic biases, we don’t think to look for it? Either way, the answer is surely: get looking.

I’m aware there’s a risk here of sounding like a Equalities and Diversity Officer from a joyless Local Authority office. Some will argue that there’s no problem, so long as we have great music to listen to, and the repertoire has served us well up until now. My view is that if you don’t think there’s a problem, then that’s part of the problem. Have some imagination, for crying out loud. There is a massive opportunity here. The relevance of classical music as an art-form to wider society can only be increased by taking action to include more female voices. It can only be made more rich, more rounded, more universal, if it includes a greater contribution by women. It can only encourage more newcomers – male and female – to think: this is an inclusive art-form that reflects my modern values.

As a side-note, Tom Service has just published an article in the Guardian: ‘Classical music in 2014 – still dominated by dead white men’s music performed by living white men’. Do have a read, it’s good to see some attention being paid to this issue in the mainstream media.

I hope that by making this resolution I will find enough music written by women that I can regularly feature their works on this blog in the future, works that I genuinely rate for their musical qualities. In the meantime, I’m happy to say that I have already discovered one composer who definitely deserves further exploring: Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-94), who wrote, alongside orchestral and choral works, 13 compelling string quartets which have been a revelation to me.  I’ll leave you with the first movement of her fourth quartet. In the future, let’s have a little less Shostakovich, a little Maconchy, please?