Classical Music: Where are all the women?

I was listening to the radio recently and it suddenly occurred to me that I have never, not once, in the past few months since I’ve been listening to it, heard one female composer’s music being played on Classic FM. Not once. This frankly strikes me as being bizarre, since women now have a large (not sure how large exactly, but anyway) presence in both art and literature, and also popular music, so why is there this huge discrepancy when it comes to classical?

Before I go any further with this, ย I wish to assure anyone reading that I am NOT a FemNazi and have no wish to be seen as such. I simply believe in equality, whether that involves male midwives or female footballers. I am almost 100% certain that women are just as capable of composing beautiful classical music as men and cannot think of any reason why this should not be the case, so there must be something else going on here. Whilst I was pondering on this and musing on the blog possibilities, I glanced at our copy of RT (the same publication that did that marvy interview with @stephenfry the week before – ha! knew I could get his name in somewhere! ;)) and noticed that there was a programme on BBC Radio 3 that VERY SAME afternoon on the American composer Amy Beach. Amy. A woman. Good grief, how do the BBC manage this?? It’s like they can read my thoughts! *looks over shoulder worriedly and checks room for bugs*

So I decided, in the interests of doing actual research for this blog rather than just rambling rants and excessive punctuation (“Where are all the WOMEN?!?!”), that I would listen to this programme and learn something about a woman who wrote music, in order to bring some solid facts and information into the picture. (The things I do for you lot, honestly! ;))ย I’ll go into more detail about Amy Beach later – she was a pretty remarkable lady by all accounts ๐Ÿ™‚

After having listened to (most of) this programme, I then went to the library and scanned through their music section to see if I could find anything about music composers. Had pretty much gone through all the bookshelves without success when I spied one entitled: “The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers”. After clutching at passing furniture in my astonishment at actually finding a book that was both relevant and useful, I had a quick flick through it, just to see sort of information could be gleaned. Then realised that when the authors included the word “dictionary” in the title, they weren’t kidding. It contains brief biographies of 900 female composers and apparently took two people five years to compile. The preface also offers some ideas as to why female composers have been rather neglected throughout history. Here are a few of these thoughts:

“…in the past, to compose, let alone to be heard, a woman has needed to conquer social restriction and taboo. While her domestic life has often limited practical opportunities for composing, even when she has managed to find the time and space for this activity, she has been far less able than her male peers to enjoy valuable interaction with orchestras…(a situation which bears many parallels to that of women painters, barred in the 19th century from life-drawing classes). ”

“…many women, pragmatically, have preferred to turn to smaller forms, which in the eyes of critics had been less prestigious…women have continued this tradition, excelling spectacularly in popular song forms”

“Women composers…have been acknowledged enthusiastically by their audiences and peers – in their own lifetimes. But posthumously their reputations have sunk into oblivion among the concert-going public. Very recently….forgotten women composers are becoming established again: Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), whose Viola Sonata now seems to be entering the canon, is a case in point.”

The last and most interesting (if slightly convoluted) point mentions how women’s music is perceived in terms of quality and how relative a term that can be:

“Some critics have asserted that women’s music has not survived because it is simply not good enough. the issue of “quality” in music can provide a convenient means of dismissing women’s music, both heard and unheard, particularly when the critic overlooks such vital issues as the fact that aesthetic judgements are never absolute and that criteria for musical quality are inextricably linked to the established repertoire in ย a way that constantly bypasses women composers.”

Basically, I think what they’re trying to say is that it’s difficult for women to get their music appreciated because it’s always judged against the male-dominated world of established composers. I think that’s it anyway. Let’s move away swiftly from this before my brain starts going mushy.

So we now know that there ARE in fact many female composers, some of whom were very popular during their lifetimes – they just haven’t managed to maintain the same posthumous recognition that many male composers have managed. I will now look at one or two of these women to see what their personal experiences were like.

Firstly we have the subject of the Radio 3 programme: Amy Beach (1867-1944). She was – as stated above – an American composer, who displayed obvious musical gifts from a very early age. Her mother was determined that Amy should not be a child prodigy and so her talents were not indulged or fawned upon (in fact, her mother used to deprive her of music as a punishment if she misbehaved) and she only ever had one full year of formal musical training. She was expected to teach herself through studying musical scores, and, showing remarkable grit and determination, she managed to succeed in this endeavour. When she married Henry H.A. Beach, he also imposed restrictions on her musical activities – although he was in fact in awe of her talent and encouraged her to compose, he said that she could only perform one solo recital a year and any fees gained would have to be donated to charity in case people should think that he couldn’t support her financially.

Her “big piece” was the Grand Mass in E Flat Major, which was positively received, although one critic declared himself “simply unable to explain how Beach was able to rise above her limitations as a woman” and compose such lovely music. I was trying to think of something wittily damning to say about this gentleman, but frankly am still speechless in the face of such ignorance. Feel free to come up with something suitably denigrating yourselves.

In 1910 Amy’s husband died and she set off in 1911 on a tour of Europe as a pianist, playing her own compositions. On her return to America she became virtual composer-in-residence at St Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York. In her lifetime, she was hailed as America’s top female composer. On 9th July 2000, the Boston Pops (whoever they are) added her name to the granite wall of the Shell (whatever that is). Out of 80-plus composers whose names are on the wall (including Bach, Handel, Chopin, Debussy and Beethoven) Amy Beach is the only woman.

Who else shall we look at? I will pick someone at random from dictionary….okay after asking Twitter for a number between 1 and 600, I went with the first answer which was @willharvie’s 428. Here we have (Dame) Ethel Smyth, an English composer and writer (1858-1944). Will do extremely condensed version of her life (sorry Ethel, no disrespect!) as follows:

Ethel started her formal musical training at the age of 17, but quickly grew dissatisfied with what she saw as the low standards at the Liepzig Conservatory and went to have private lessons with an Austrian composer, who introduced her to Brahms and Clara Schumann. She also met Dvorak, Grieg and Tchaikovsky, who were students at the conservatory. In 1891 she completed one of her most important works, the Mass in D, which was praised by the German conductor Hermann Levi, who insisted she have a bash at writing an opera. Her first opera, Fantasio, was not well received by the critics, but her second, Der Wald, was more successful. It was the first opera by a woman to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. Much of the libretto is indicative of German symbolism and in particular Wagnerism. In 1904 she wrote her third opera, The Wreckers, which many considered to be her masterpiece. The conductor Thomas Beecham included it in his debut season at Covent Garden in 1910, a year after he had conducted it’s first performance. He said it was “one of the three or four English operas of real musical merit and vitality.” The setting of the opera recalls Britten’s Peter Grimes, but the music is more in the Wagnerian style. She joined the women’s suffragette movement and composed their official anthem “March of the Women” (1911), which was sung at meetings, and even in prison, where she herself spent time for her role in fighting for the cause. She composed her fourth and most popular opera “The Boatswain’s Mate” in 1913 and around this time also discovered (ร  la Beethoven) that she was going deaf. As World War I put a stop to performances on the Continent, she turned to writing, producing 10 books and numerous essays. Her strong feelings about discrimination against women in music led her to campaign in newspapers and books to secure places for women in orchestras. She was an important pioneer, whose struggle for recognition went some way to changing the attitudes of society at that time.

It perhaps would have been more interesting to have two composers from different time periods, but I also wanted to be patriotic and have a British composer in there ๐Ÿ™‚ Anyway, there you have two female composers who were well-known and popular within their lifetimes, but little heard of today, which I think is a great shame, because they both sound like remarkable individuals and I liked the bits of Amy’s work they played on the radio very much. May try and find some of her stuff on YouTube later ๐Ÿ™‚

Of course, there are female composers writing today too, like the one my friend mentioned earlier who did the music for…I think it was “Chocolat”. And of course there have been women such as Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler who expressed their musical talents in conjunction with those of their husbands…but they aren’t really stand-alone composers, which I think is a shame – they tend to be tacked on as an addendum to biographies of their more famous spouses.

Hopefully this will start to change…although it is rather worrying that we are in the 21st century and there isn’t any real sign of this happening yet. I haven’t even commented yet on the lack of famous female conductors either. But one can hope ๐Ÿ™‚

Please do comment and feel free to let me know whether there are any female composers that I should actually have heard of – doubtless there are several that I have, in my ignorance, totally missed out on! ๐Ÿ˜‰

UPDATE: After receiving feedback from a lady called Rosa who suggested I try listening to Lili Boulanger’s “Pie Jesu”, I duly did so, and liked it so much that I will add the link in here for anyone else who wishes to have a listen:



“The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers” (1994) by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel.

“Composer of the Week – Amy Beach (1867-1944)” – BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iplayer until Monday 9th August).

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7 Responses to Classical Music: Where are all the women?

  1. Pingback: Women Composers - Page 2 - Classical Music Forums - Talk Classical

  2. ad_astra says:

    I finally found the time to read and comment on your excellent blog. In fact you have touched on a question Iโ€™ve been asking myself, too. Also thanks to your blog I finally listened to some of Amy Beachโ€™s music (I had heard her name but never paid much attention to her before – Shame on me ๐Ÿ˜‰ )
    Another interesting fact about women and the world of classical music that strikes me is the stunningly low number of women in famous and prestigious orchestras. Apparently statistics show that the more prestigious orchestras are and the better their musicians get paid, the fewer women are among them. Also many of them were exclusively male for a very long time. For example, the Berlin Philharmonic didnโ€™t allow any female musicians until 1983, and only in 1997 the Vienna Philharmonic accepted women into the orchestra.

    BTW Are you familiar with Cรฉcile Chaminade’s music? She wrote some (IMO) lovely pieces, the probably best-known is her Concertino for flute.

    • zanyzigzag says:

      thankyou for ur comment! Have not heard of Cecile Chaminade, will be looking her up now! ๐Ÿ™‚ I guessed there was probably the same issue with female musicians as well as composers…Vienna orchestra really is well behind the times, I mean 1997! WTF?

  3. Rachel says:

    Really enjoyed your post!

    Just one thing:

    “Before I go any further with this, I wish to assure anyone reading that I am NOT a FemNazi and have no wish to be seen as such.”

    I may be mistaking you here, but I do find a lot of women apologise, stressing that their view isn’t something feminist. I know you say ‘femnazi’ here to show you aren’t going to go on a mental rant, or start insisting people should live a certain way. But I also believe your views are feminist ones.

    “I simply believe in equality, whether that involves male midwives or female footballers. I am almost 100% certain that women are just as capable of composing beautiful classical music as men and cannot think of any reason why this should not be the case, so there must be something else going on here. ”

    And that those views shouldn’t be apologised for with a nazi prefix. Feminism seems to be a dirty word these days, which is a great shame.

    If I’m being silly and have taken this the wrong way then please correct me. I’m writing this hastily and it might read wrong.

    • zanyzigzag says:

      Hi Rachel. Thanks v much for your comment ๐Ÿ™‚ Having read and digested it, I’ve come to the conclusion that you are probably right and my insertion of the term “FemNazi” was unnecessary. To be honest…I was rather taken with the word when I first heard it as i thought it was quite a good way of describing people who are disturbingly fanatical in their feminist views and felt I could use it here. This is clearly not a good enough excuse for wanton use of highly-charged vocabulary, so thank you for correcting me and pointing it out, i will try not to do so again in the future.
      Guess I do have some feminist views after all ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. Rosa says:

    Thank you for this interesting post. One composer you should check out is Louise Farrenc. According to Jerry Dubins of Fanfare:

    “If any woman deserves to be recognized as the greatest female composer of the 19th century, it’s Louise Farrenc. But I will go even a step further and say that during the period in which she was active as a composer–roughly the mid 1820s through the late 1850s–few composers of any gender persuasion, save for Felix Mendelssohn–could hold a candle to her when it came to writing symphonies and large chamber-ensemble works.”

    I love her chamber music, and supposedly her 2nd symphony is really good. She had to take private lessons, because women were not allowed to study as regular pupils at the Conservatoire.

    I was surprised to read that the Berlin and Vienna Phil took so long to accept female musicians! I have to believe that treatment like this and stereotype threat has something to do with the relatively small number of female composers.

    You should also listen to Lili Boulanger, especially her beautiful piece “Pie Jesu”.

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