WOMEN COMPOSERS TODAY...
I have undergone a thorough investigation to gain insight into the reasons that it appears that women composers continue to be marginalized, and attempt to gather and provide statistics and evidence which might further this insight, as well as solutions that might help remedy this. The marginalization of women in classical music is certainly not an isolated incident/phenomena, and to go into outside patriarchal systems would be extensive and relevant, but for the purposes of this project and in order to further promote the level playing field specifically for composers, I have chosen to focus on only the musical realm.
Until relatively recent decades, women have had severely limited opportunities within the arts, especially music and composition. One of the reasons that there were so few female composers during the previous centuries of classical music is that composers careers depend on performing musicians and ensembles to play their works, and until relatively recent times, musicians, ensembles and musical institutions were overwhelmingly male.
A celebrated pianist of the 19th century, Clara Schumann, was also a gifted composer who wrote mostly compositions that she and her circle of musician friends could perform, such as piano pieces, vocal pieces, and chamber works. Had she tried to compose larger works which required the championing by male orchestras and opera companies the works would have likely been left unperformed during her lifetime. In 1839, Clara Schumann wrote in her diary: “I once thought that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—not one has been able to do it, and why should I expect to? It would be arrogance, though indeed, my father led me into it in earlier days.”
Part of the struggle for women in the arts came from the prejudice that stemmed from the male chauvinism of Western culture and the expected role of females. Mozart’s older sister, Nannerl, was an accomplished prodigy who initially went on showcase tours with her brother. Once she grew old enough, she was guided down a path toward marriage and settled down. If the conditions for women had been more favorable Nannerl might have continued with music and become a professional instead of settling down.
Corona Schröter, an 18th-century German singer and composer wrote in 1786: “I have had to overcome much hesitation before I seriously made the decision to publish a collection of short poems that I have provided with melodies. A certain feeling towards propriety and morality is stamped upon our sex, which does not allow us to appear alone in public, and without an escort: Thus, how can I otherwise present this, my musical work to the public, than with timidity? For the complimentary opinions and the encouragement of a few persons...can easily be biased out of pity.”
Further evidence the prejudice which stemmed from the male chauvinism comes from more recent decades from composer Aaron Copland. “As recently as 1978, Aaron Copland suggested that women had an innate block against creating large-scale musical structures.” Aaron Copland comments in his book, Copland on Music: “Everyone knows that the high achievement of women musicians as vocalists and instrumentalists has no counterpart in the field of musical composition. This historically poor showing has puzzled more than one observer. It is even more inexplicable when one considers the reputation of women novelists and poets, of painters and designers. Is it possible that there is a mysterious element in the nature of musical creativity that runs counter to the nature of the feminine mind? And yet there are more women composers than ever writing today, writing, moreover, music worth playing.”
Considering the significant struggle for women composers in history, it’s understandable that they are, even now, underrepresented in the classical music realm. However, many ensembles are becoming more progressive and working towards gender equality in their programming.
In a small study done to determine the ratio of programming female to male composers, composer and author David Smooke found that even amongst five of the more progressive programming ensembles, the percentages were still discouraging for women:
“I only included artists for whom I have the utmost respect and who I believe care about working towards gender equality in their programming. If I took the time to check other groups, I strongly believe that the ones listed below would remain among the most equal in their gender distribution. This makes the data that much less encouraging.
Bang on a Can displayed the most equality among the ones I counted. Their ratio of 13 works by women compared to 47 by men composers counts as the highest percentage of women among those surveyed. Other of my favorite new music groups all showed gender distributions with more than four men represented for every woman. The incredible JACK Quartet lists 100 pieces in their repertoire, of which 12 are by women. According to their website, Eighth Blackbird has been responsible for the creation of an astonishing 100 commissions, of which 18 are by women. Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente, prints event listings that show that they have programmed 75 works this concert season... 7 of which are by women. The current repertoire list of Alarm Will Sound names 65 different works, of which four are exclusively by women... I believe each of the ensembles I cite above has artistic directors that keep the goal of gender equity in mind when they determine their concert repertoire. It seems that we still have to travel far in order to achieve true equality.”
Smooke’s study determined that new music ensembles are programming 8–22% composers that are female, and composer Amy Beth Kirsten writes in an article titled “The ‘Woman Composer’ is Dead," “I simply must point out that fifteen years ago this number would probably have been 0–3%.”
Despite smaller, more progressive ensembles working towards fair representation for female composers in their programming, the older institutions, orchestras, and opera companies seem to be failing to follow in these footsteps. The Metropolitan Opera House in New York City has performed only two operas by women: Ethel Smyth’s “Der Wald,” in 1903, and Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin” in 2016. On Operabase’s 2012 list of the hundred most frequently performed opera composers, Saariaho is the only female, in ninety-sixth place. A study by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra found that during the 2015–2016 season, the top 89 orchestras in the USA dedicated just 2% of their programs to music composed by women.
The average orchestra plays, at most, one or two works by women each year, but often it is because there are only a few slots for new pieces allotted each season, and these go to safely familiar male composers which bring in the habitual and reliable audience members. The problem would perhaps diminish if more new music were played. Kirsten writes, “Perhaps if we are going to fixate on equality in programming it should be to balance out the division between living composers and dead ones.”
Despite less than encouraging statistics by established American institutions, in recent years, many women have made great strides in composition. Since 1983, seven Pulitzer Prizes for Music Composition have gone to female composers, including Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Shulamit Ran, Jennifer Higdon, Melinda Wagner, Caroline Shaw, Julia Wolfe, and Du Yun. Kaija Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon, and Unsuk Chin are among the first to be commissioned by major opera companies. Chen Yi received the Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Joan Tower, Libby Larsen, Augusta Read Thomas, Jennifer Higdon, and Anna Clyne became composers-in- residence for some of America’s leading orchestras. Jennifer Higdon and Joan Tower won Grammy Awards for Classical Composition. Jennifer Higdon, Augusta Read Thomas, and Joan Tower are included in the League of American Orchestras’ list of the twenty most popular living American composers.
The performance space National Sawdust in Brooklyn has created a competition for emerging female composers, and many other institutions are also providing more opportunities for women composers, although the opportunities are not always taken advantage of. Opera America’s Women Composers Readings and Commissions program awards $15,000 grants to women composers, and the League of American Orchestras now offers discovery and commissioning grants to female composers of $15,000 and $50,000. Both of these initiatives are supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation and Alexander Sanger, a trustee of the foundation, said that after offering seven leading American orchestras a chance at a $50,000 grant for a new work by an emerging female composer, only three of the orchestras bothered to apply.
It is notable that often when women are in leadership positions, gender equity is more often a consideration and women composers are therefore represented more fairly. In New York’s new-music series Composer Portraits at Miller Theatre, directed by Melissa Smey, three of the eight portraits in the 2013 season were devoted to women: Gubaidulina, Olga Neuwirth, and Rebecca Saunders. Also during the 2013 season, another of New York’s new-music series, the Ecstatic Music Festival, curated by Judd Greenstein, presented ten concerts at Merkin Hall, featuring as many women as men. Francesca Zambello has made gender and race equity a priority as artistic director of The Washington National Opera, and the WNO is a national leader in hiring women and artists of color. In January 2018, WNO will be presenting the opera “Proving Up” by Missy Mazzoli, a beneficiary of an Opera America grant. Perhaps as more women are taking leadership positions, female composers will be better represented.
It seems that a core problem of underrepresentation stems from the lack of females applying themselves to become composers in the first place. Composer Laura Kaminsky, head of composition at the conservatory at the State University of New York at Purchase said, “when I get the applicant pool and see three-quarters of the applications are male, I get depressed.”
In an article written for New Music Box in 2011, composer Alexandra Gardner writes, “The number of female composers who graduate with advanced degrees is far lower than the number of males, as is the percentage of submissions to composer competitions by women, etc. I spent a couple of years teaching computer music at a community music school in Washington, D.C., and over ninety percent of my students were male. Similarly, when I gave a presentation to a composition seminar at a university last year, there was only one female in a group of almost thirty composers.”
Gardner goes on to write that the answer comes in the form of role models and incorporating the music of female composers in our classrooms: “Show them people writing music who are cool, so they can see that composing is a viable option for them. I know I would not have stuck with it had Annea Lockwood and Pauline Oliveros not been mentors during my college years, and it was the music of Laurie Anderson, Julia Wolfe, Meredith Monk, and many others that truly served as the inspiration that kept me on track... I hope that the music teachers and college professors out there will continue to expand their listening choices to include larger numbers of [non-white male composers], and that they will share that music with their students by incorporating it into their teaching. More than that though, the [non-white male] composers out there need to speak up and make yourselves heard as best you know how...”
Only in the last fifty years, and especially the past few decades, have there been expanding opportunities for women in music. Many orchestras are overwhelmingly female, and in most conservatories, female students make up a fair percentage of the population these days. This alone will create more opportunities for women in the field of composition.
After thorough research into the marginalization of women composers, solutions present themselves clearly. It seems clear that if more female composers play a more active part in the system as role models, if teachers incorporate the music of female composers in our classrooms, if more women gain leadership positions, and if ensembles and institutions program more music by living composers and become more conscious of progressive programming, we might begin to see a world in which women composers are represented more fairly. With this project I hope I have also contributed to the available inspirational output and provided another platform for living women composers that will assist in furthering their careers. I chose this as the topic of my doctoral dissertation with the objective that it might also assist the younger generation of girls in giving them greater conviction in the possibilities available to them. My intention was to provide a service, however significant, not only to these extraordinary women and their works, but to the music world, and to the movement of gender equality.
There aren’t enough people or organizations consciously attempting to fairly represent women composers on the concert stage. I understand that it’s slow to move social views and stereotypes but I plan to continue with this objective, and know that I’m not alone in my mission. The consciousness has started to shift in the art world, and most are in favor of fair programming. I will continue with my effort to this end until the term ‘women composers’ is no longer a necessity and can be retired.