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Five Takeaways from the Conversation on Female Composers

Five Takeaways from the Conversation on Female Composers

shocked computer kid

In case you were lucky enough to miss it, on September 16 The Spectator ran a bizarre, demeaning article entitled “There’s A Good Reason Why There Are No Great Female Composers.” Not surprisingly, lots of people had lots to say about that. I wrote a sarcastic blog entry examining it (“In Which I Learn Why There Are No Great Women Composers“). Over the weekend, both The Spectator and my blog, Song of the Lark, accrued hundreds of passionate comments, thousands of Facebook shares, and thousands upon thousands of page views.

comment count

Now more than ever, the music world is talking about women—and especially female composers. Consider all the recent headlines. Late last year, the field was rocked by allegations and then denials that Anna Magdalena Bach wrote the six cello suites. (One wonders: would an allegation that Bach’s son had written the suites have been met with such incredulity?) Last fall, the Baltimore Symphony released a series of infographs exploring trends behind 21 major American orchestras’ 2014-15 seasons. A disappointing, disconcerting 1.8% of the pieces programmed were written by women, and only 14.8% of the pieces by living composers were. Most recently, 17-year-old Jessie McCabe seized headlines after creating a petition asking the directors of the Edexcel A-Level Music syllabus to include the work of at least one woman in their 2016 edition. Two weeks ago, McCabe received an assurance from the managing director of Pearson UK that the absence of female composers “will change.”

This is clearly an ongoing conversation, and it appears to be one that is gaining steam. Here are five big takeaways from my marathon weekend of writing, reading, and responding:

1) Lots of people have lots of ideas why there are no female composers in the pantheon of immortals. I’m struck by how wildly divergent our explanations for the phenomenon are. It’s women’s fault! (Women are not biologically suited to write great music! Women can perform but can’t create!) It’s society’s fault! (The game is rigged! Women were expected to stay home and make babies!) The subject of gender in music even leads to the subject of genius in music. (It’s the pantheon’s fault! There were great female composers; they just aren’t recognized!) And here’s one of the most striking suggestions I read: there are so few great female composers because there are so few great female critics. At that, one can’t help but glance at the genders of the current crop of classical music critics and wonder.

Some of those justifications make sense, but I doubt that any one of them alone is sufficient to explain the near total absence of music written by women, especially in orchestra halls. The conversation needs to continue. Hopefully with time we can come to a greater consensus about why women’s compositions are so often marginalized. Then surely it will become easier to change the status quo. (Or at least make the decision not to.)

2) When we’re discussing the absence or presence of female composers, we’re not just talking about female composers. Rather, we’ve moved on to even bigger questions about how a culture creates a canon. As one of my readers, Tim Rutherford-Johnson, noted in a comment on my blog: “Including Clara Schumann, Amy Beach, etc. on the syllabus is a great way to tie in many wider questions, like the way canons are constructed, how power relates to definitions of value, the place of music within 19th/20th/21st-century societies, and so on.” Clearly one of the main reasons this topic upsets and excites so many people is that it forces us to question the very foundations of our canon. If the criteria that labeled Beethoven great are fundamentally flawed, then what do we have left?

Sometimes I play mind games with myself, imagining wild alternative musical histories. Granted, this scenario has its limitations, but imagine: what if the entirety of Mozart’s oeuvre had somehow been lost for two hundred years and was only resurrected today? Imagine the press conference: “We’ve uncovered the work of the famous child prodigy!” How would we treat this new old music? Would Mozart instantly be recognized as the genius we know him as today? Or is part of our modern culture’s affinity for—indeed, deification of—Mozart partially based in that culture’s sheer familiarity with Mozart?

Another alternative history… Maddalena Laura Sirmen’s six violin concertos (one of which was actually praised by Leopold Mozart) were in print for quite some time after their publication. What if Sirmen’s six violin concertos—dating from the 1760s—had been played and analyzed and discussed and debated and, most importantly, performed, while Wolfgang Mozart’s set of five—dating from the 1770s—was only just being discovered today? How would our musical world be different? How would it be the same?

In other words, putting aside questions of gender, how much of a handicap is sheer obscurity? I don’t claim to have particularly satisfying answers to that question. But the thought experiments are exhilarating, unsettling, and even a little bit scary. And that’s one reason this is all so interesting: the discussion about female composers is never, ever just about female composers.

Spectator screenshot

3) Clickbait is affecting the cultural discussion in very weird ways. I refuse to believe that an entire team of professional writers and editors at The Spectator found their article’s argument compelling, intelligent, or well-crafted. Full stop. They’re never going to admit it, but their rhetorical laziness is clearly canniness in disguise. Presumably the primary goal was to rack up clicks, rather than to advance meaningful or actionable ideas, and by that measure, the article was a roaring success.

Based on the reactions I’ve read, though, I’m willing to bet that a considerable percentage of the 2000 Facebook shares actually consisted of people saying, “Can you believe this bullshit?” Which brings up the mind-bending question: does that mean that articles like these actually advance the opposite of their stated or implied agenda? Do they actually contribute to the discussion by encouraging widespread and ultimately productive backlashes? Is The Spectator aware of this? Does it care? (Should it?)

4) People who want to hear more new music and people who want to hear more music by women are fighting similar battles. What are the two big reasons why obscure pieces aren’t programmed? Say them aloud with me: people don’t know them, and therefore they won’t buy tickets to hear them performed. It’s a hard process to add new music to a canon, to catch ears, to persuade performers and then audiences…especially if we’re working within the confines of one of the big institutions.

So I propose we all compare notes. If people who specialize in new music have methods that have expanded their audience, I think there’s a chance that those same techniques might also work to expand the audience for music by women, and vice versa. What works? Pre-concert discussions? New media? Unique performance spaces? Particular performers? New ensembles? Or should the dissemination of knowledge occur in another format altogether? Let’s have that discussion. I think it would be very interesting.

But the greatest takeaway from this weekend was…

5) People find the subject of women in music to be fascinating. And why wouldn’t we? We all have an instant connection to the topic. We all have experiences with either being a woman or caring deeply for women. These discussions aren’t theoretical like so many musical debates; they are intensely real and personal.

Given that truth, I’m flummoxed. Why are the roles that women have played in our art as composers, performers, and muses not more celebrated in our modern culture?

Attention, performers, ensembles, writers, administrators, artistic directors: there is intense interest here. Classical music especially loves to panic over its imminent irrelevancy and demise. So I would think that everyone who loves it would be racing to embrace new angles that people show interest in. This may mean deliberately spotlighting the contributions of any number of fabulously accomplished women from throughout music history.

The ultimate disrespect to the topic of women in music would be to say relatively little about it, as has happened for far too long. But I have hope that that is changing. The hubbub around the subject is an intensely hopeful sign.


Emily E. Hogstad

Emily E. Hogstad

Emily E. Hogstad is the 26-year-old writer of the widely read blog Song of the Lark, which first came to international prominence for its coverage of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout of 2012-2014. She has appeared on or in MinnPost, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota Public Radio, National Public Radio, WQXR, Performance Today, and The New York Times to offer thoughts on topics as diverse as the Minnesota Orchestra’s historic 2015 trip to Cuba, what it means to be a music nerd, and social media activism in the orchestra world. Her great passion is researching the history of women in music, especially the great forgotten female violinists of the past. She currently makes her home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, with a violin, a viola, a laptop named after Lili Boulanger, and two rescue cats, Gwendolyn and Genevieve.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

7 thoughts on “Five Takeaways from the Conversation on Female Composers

  1. Bill Slobotski

    I am now listening to Fanny Mendelssohn’s G Minor Sonata after reading the Spectator author’s quote: “Fanny Mendelssohn sister of Felix, has also been suggested for the new syllabus. She, too, wrote a G minor Piano Sonata and it’s bloody awful.”

    I would like to thank the author for bringing this piece to my attention! It is beautiful and resembles the style of many pieces coming out of that era.

  2. Kyle Gann

    Well thought-out response. The canon issue is crucial. The classical-music world clings pathetically to this anachronistic, 19th-century, Germanic idea of “the Great Composers,” still trying to locate the new ones today, while the other arts have all evolved toward a more dignified and realistic view of history. It’s inexplicable.

  3. Jon

    “One wonders: would an allegation that Bach’s son had written the suites have been met with such incredulity?”

    Most probably, given that by the time the suites were written, J.S. Bach’s eldest son would not have been 13 at most. I don’t think that particular media flurry had much to do with gender, more the composer in question (and the lack of factual credibility in the claim itself).

    1. Emily E. Hogstad

      Fair enough. It was meant to be a rhetorical question. I do disagree with you, though; I think a big part of that story was gender. But how does a person construct an experiment to find out for sure? You can’t.

  4. Pingback: women composers | Thoughtful Gestures

  5. Pingback: Can American Orchestras Do Better At Including Women Composers? | Song of the Lark

  6. shimzaemon shimada

    Contemporary music finds itself squeezed like a 1957 chevy in a car-crushing machine twixt two irreconcilable views of the canon. View #1 says we can work out absolute value judgments about art and then rank them. View #2 says all aesthetic judgments are relativistic fields, and depend on context.
    This has big consequence, because the beaucoup bucks paid for a college education and for concert tickets depend on view #1. People drop a quarter mil on a music PhD at least implicitly because they figure it gives them inside dope on the down-low skinny of “real” “serious” music. View #1 leads to the equation cash = credibility. If you want to play (in the big-time arena of haute culture), ya gotta pay. Elite institutions like Juilliard can only command a big pricetag if they claim special insights into excellence you can’t get elsewhere. Elite venues like Lincoln Center only command that $120-per-ticket pricetag if the consumer has some expectation of getting aesthetic excellence for their scudi If, however, all music is equally good depending on context, why bother to go to Juilliard? If all aesthetic value is relative, then the Jonas Brothers are potentially as excellent as Beethoven, so why not just boogie down to pop radio and avoid paying those big bucks to listen Lincoln Center concerts?
    Supporting View #1 we have the fact that certain composers remain perennially popular among all listeners. Bach keeps getting played, ditto Josquin DePrez, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Purcell, and so on. We have a two-hundred-plus year baseline for evaluating, and audiences in each generation keep coming up with similar judgments of excellence.
    Against View #1 we have the reality that lists of “the great composers” have changed drastically in the last 150 years. If you look at the consensus of who counter as a Great Composer in 1950, you found people like Meyerbeer Maeterlinck and Weber, who don’t figure prominently today. Handel ranks much higher than he does today. Figures like Thomas Tallis and Giovanni Gabrieli and Orlando Gibbons are missing then, yet highly valued today. So clearly the canon has changed. This presents problems for the “absolute standard of aesthetic value” position. We also have the problem that approaches to music have changed so drastically since 1900 that it becomes reasonable to ask in what sense a completely computer-composed piece of computer music is more or less beautiful than an Ockeghem mass. This raises many of the same aesthetic conundra brought up by Bruce Sterling in his TeDX talk “Alien aesthetics.”
    Some computer music and electroacoustic music or glitch music proves so alien to traditional musical metrics of quality that we really have to ask how we can maintain any kind of relative value judgments twixt the two. How do you measure whether Henri Poisseur’s “Trois Visages de la Liege” is better or worse music than Johannes Ockeghem’s “Missa Prolationem”? What kind of critical strategy lets us meaningfully compare the sonic cadaver exquis compositions allowed in certain Eurorack synthesis modules
    or the emergent patterns generated by live coding of a MAX MSP patch like “little glitch machine”
    or generative ambient music in MAX MSP
    with traditional paper-score compositions like Bach’s Brandenburg concerti, or Prokofiev’s Second Symphony?
    In favor of View #2 we have the blunt fact of radical change in contemporary music over the last 100 years. Starting around 1900, we have music that still sounds controversial — some listeners find it ugly, others praise it wildly. This tends to militate against an absolute value for aesthetics. After a hundred years, if the issues were merely audience familiarity, this issue should have sorted itself out. But a lot of listeners still consider Erwartung unlistenable crap, while others contend it’s a masterpiece. A hundred years should have resolved this issue, if absolute value judgements were viable in contemporary music.
    Against View #2 we have the problem that total aesthetic relativism violently contradicts our everyday experience. Everyone knows a good performance when they hear it. Ask any musician in a college class who the best trombone player is, and they all point to the same person. Moreover, the truly infantile examples of verbal calisthenics churned out by trolls like the Coin-Flipping Kook (author of “Silence”) just hit reality in the face with a baseball bat and bounce right off. If the random sounds in an auditorium when some guy isn’t playing a piano (but just sitting there) really _were_ just as musical as a perform, then why would we need concert halls? People would just set up concert seating in empty lots, charge admission, the audience would spend an hour listening to random noises, and everyone would applaud and go home happy. But nobody does that. EVER. No one anywhere. It just never happens, period.
    So clearly the extreme aesthetic relativist stance is just smoke getting blown up our asses — it’s a word game, and the behavior of concertgoers prove it. People persist in paying money to listen to live performances because, at the level of blunt reality, everyone recognizes at the end of the day that random street noises sound boring and trivial, while sounds produced by expert musicians from carefully composed scores, provide a vividly memorable musical experience.

    Musical academia in America and Europe has still not reconciled these two conflicting views of current music. As a result, we get a strange mix of the view perspectives. Music gets taught using “rules” and a canon that implicitly subscribes to View #1 — excellence can be defined, measured, and ranked, and done so objectively and more or less permanently. The various awards and prize committees also subscribe to the viewpoint.
    Yet the teaching, performance and criticism of 20th century music suddenly shifts into View #2 — different modes of composition (computer music as opposed to chamber music) are recognized as basically incommensurable, and different aesthetics (glitch music, homebrew instruments, microtonality, chance music, algorithmic music, emergent music, 3-hour-long drones a la Eliane Radigue or Phill Niblock) get acknowledged as fundamentally different from, yet not worse than, more traditional modes of composition (Aaron Jay Kernis’ Symphony In Waves, or Joan Tower’s Silver Ladders, or Ann Cleare’s Dorchadas).
    So critics and composers and the audience haven’t yet dealt with the consequences of Leonard B. Meyer’s prescient prediction in his 1967 book “Music, The Arts and Ideas”:

    “Though a spectrum of styles will coexist in what is essentially a steady-state, this does not mean that in a given art all methods and idioms will be equally favored at ap articular time. In music, for exaple, one or possibly two of the stylistic options available to composers may for a number of years prove especially attractive; and activity will be most intense in those parts of the stylistic spectrum. But this will not indicate that other traditions and idioms are no longer viable or are declining. For subsequently, fascinated by different problems or swayed by different attitudes, composers will, by and large, turn to other traditions and other styles.
    Such a succession of wavelike fluctuations may make it appears as though one style has followed or replaced another. But what will in fact have happened is that one style – or perhaps a group of related styles — will, so to speak, have `crested,’ becoming for a time particularly conspicuous. And at the very time most composers are riding the crest of the stylistic wave, others will have continued to follow ways and procedures temporarily less popular.”


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