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Why should female composers play second fiddle?

Why should female composers play second fiddle?

December 07
08:06 2018

It’s not uncommon nowadays for somebody to remind us that women throughout history have written music. Out come the poster girls: Clara Schumann and Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn). If we’re really going to town, they’re joined by Elizabeth Maconchy, Ethel Smyth, maybe even Amy Beach. As far as most of the world is concerned, that’s all there is.

So it’s significant that London’s Kings Place is putting on a year-long festival devoted to the output of more than 140 women composers. Opening in January, Venus Unwrapped profiles the music of medieval nuns, before moving through the European courts of the 1500s and the drawing rooms of the 19th century, and leaves us with an overview of their present-day successors — and not just those, such as Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina or Finland’s Kaija Saariaho, representing contemporary classical music. Jazz musicians such as Laura Jurd sit alongside artists from the worlds of folk and electronica. Then there are those who straddle genres, not least British composer Anna Meredith.

For Helen Wallace, programme director at Kings Place, curating this event has been a long-held ambition: in her previous career as a critic, she built up a vast catalogue of recorded women’s music that she loved but had never heard performed live. “The recording industry is ahead of live concert programming in this respect,” she explains.

One trigger was an article Wallace read in 2015, insisting that there were no great female comp­osers. “The argument was that we shouldn’t expect the small number of women who composed in the past to be geniuses, because if you look at the general history of music there will always be a tide of mediocrity, by men and women alike,” she says. “But I would respond that any women’s music that has survived must be worth hearing, because women had such a hard fight to have any legacy at all.”

It’s a fight that has been fought for several hundred years — although certain eras lent themselves more readily to success. Until the 18th century, women of exceptional musical talent were able to flourish within a system that saw composers more as servants of court or church than as self-expressive artists. That’s why the medieval German abbess Hildegard von Bingen found a niche, composing music for use in liturgy. It’s why Francesca Caccini could make her name in 1620s Tuscany, and even find a platform for her own opera, La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, as a servant composer at the Medici court.

17th-century Italian composer Barbara Strozzi

And it’s why Barbara Strozzi could carve out a reputation as the most prolific composer of secular vocal music in 17th-century Venice. The illegitimate or adopted daughter of poet Giulio Strozzi, she studied with composer Francesco Cavalli, and wrote music that stood out for its sensuality. All of which was encouraged by her father, who was probably grooming her to be a courtesan.

But with the late 18th century came a change of attitude. “There was a new rigidity to musical programming that became linked with the idea of the brave male maestro,” says cultural historian Anna Beer, whose 2016 book Sounds and Sweet Airs profiles the forgotten women of classical music. “[It came to be seen as] a physical impossibility for a woman, even an exceptional woman, to produce music that was as good as a man’s. That was the killer, because once you’ve got women themselves believing that and once you’ve got a society policing that, the challenge becomes so much harder.”

It was in this climate that Fanny Hensel capitulated to her famous younger brother Felix, when he discouraged her from publishing, and Clara Schumann cut short her own composing career to support that of her husband Robert.

One might assume such narratives of victimhood have by now run their course, at least in the UK, where even the current Master of the Queen’s Music is a woman. Yet across 15 of the world’s top orchestral programmes in the 2018-19 season, 97.7 per cent of the music being performed is by men — an imbalance, according to jazz writer Jane Cornwell, that is not specific to classical music. “Although it seems like there are a lot more women in jazz around now­adays, what we’re seeing is the same women all the time.”

Trumpeter Laura Jurd

Part of that, she says, might be down to the venues where jazz is produced. “What you have is a very testosterone-filled environment: the lifestyle, the jamming and, although it sounds like a cliché, what goes with it is that very male late-night drinking culture.”

Cornwell is encouraged by the work of educational organisation Tomorrow’s Warriors in nurturing younger gener­ations of female jazz artists. Yet even at an educational level, imbalances remain. “When I was at music college, the percentage of female students on the jazz programme was very small,” says composer and trumpeter Laura Jurd, who will appear at Kings Place in March. She believes this might be partly due to associ­ation: “There are aspects of jazz that are often considered to be quite masculine: the power and the strength of brass instruments, and the confidence you connect with the genre.”

So is there something essentially masculine about certain types of composition, or indeed, composition in general? Wallace admits that the 19th-century classical musical canon — the core of the symphonic repertoire — has no “Jane Austen figure”, no female composer of the stature as the greatest women in literature. In her opinion, though, that is down to environmental factors. “As Virginia Woolf said, in order to write fiction, you need a room of your own and an income. But with music you need a community, you need a stage, you need an audience, you need a whole host of networks. And those women who were in the drawing room composing songs in the 19th century didn’t have that.”

Ruth Crawford Seeger (centre) with husband Charles Louis Seeger and Pete Seeger, aged two, in 1921 © Eyevine

Nor, she says, should we buy into the stereotype of groundbreaking music being the man’s preserve. “Look at the 20th-century composer Ruth Crawford Seeger: she wrote incredibly avant-garde music. Look at Lili Boulanger: she’s often portrayed as a French salon composer, but she clearly had massive ambition — her big psalms are extremely grand works and very much in her own voice.”

Wallace voices frustration at what she calls “the sort of concerts you used to get on International Women’s Day, where there might be a few little pieces of chamber music and it was like a box was being ticked. It didn’t feel like the music was punching above its weight. It felt like an apology, it felt worthy, and it didn’t serve women composers at all.”

She understands why, in the face of financial constraints, many venues might be averse to unconventional programming. Still, she is hopeful that Venus Unwrapped will play its part in “nudging some works and composers over the line, so that when someone is thinking about programming a whole series on something unrelated — on Paris, or New York, say — those names are in the frame.”

Venus Unwrapped runs from January 10,

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