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Lily Harper delves into the world of female classical composers.
The world of western art music, commonly known as classical music, is often seen as stuffy, traditional, and dominated by white males, with a few exceptions. It is very difficult to find concerts that showcase more than one female composer. However, having multiple male composers featured in a concert lineup is the norm (unless you are doing a special concert featuring the music of women, say, for International Women’s Day or similar).
This may give the impression that it is hard to find examples of women involved in the creative process of classical music. Unsurprisingly, this impression is false.
An often uncelebrated but extremely important figure in 20th century musical pedagogy was Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979); a French teacher, conductor and composer of art music to a generation of very highly regarded musicians. These included, but were not limited to: Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Daniel Barenboim, and, surprisingly enough, Quincy Jones (who is probably best known as co-producer of the Michael Jackson albums Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982), and Bad (1987)). Her influence is well-known to those who have studied classical music, but since she did not write any major performance works, her name is not widely recognised outside of the industry.
Nadia Boulanger stopped composing in her early thirties, after her younger sister Lili passed away in 1918. Lili herself was an incredibly prolific and sophisticated composer, especially for such a short time on earth. Her death caused Nadia to concentrate more on musical analysis and more fully embrace her ample teaching skills; a career she began at the age of 16.
Nadia also had an impressive conducting resume, being the first woman to conduct a number of symphonic institutions including the London Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and New York Philharmonic.
Yet it is her pupils, her male pupils, who are much more widely recognised than herself.
And it is the works of her male colleagues (Stravinsky, Copland) that she was known for conducting.
This is the case with several women buried in the history of classical music: instead of being known as great musicians, they are better known for their connection to a more famous male musician. For example, Clara Wieck is far better known by her married name, Schumann, and Imogen Holst is dwarfed by the shadow of her father.
One might think that things would have changed with the start of the 21st century, but successful female composers, especially historical ones, still seem to have this air of anomaly around them. The reason places like ABC Classic have a Festival of Female Composers (held for IWD) is because these female composers are generally not heard regularly in their normal programming.
Even I, a staunch feminist since the age of 12, am not immune to the conditioned attitude that good female composers are rare. I am still often surprised (and pleased) when I come across programming of musical works written by women before the 19th century who I am not already familiar with (as with Pinchgut Opera’s recent opera-film A Delicate Fire, featuring music written by Barbara Strozzi).
And more locally, when I consider the prominent figures in my own musical education, there tends to be a lack of gender diversity here too. The vast majority of my music lecturers and tutors at university have been male.
While I highly doubt that this was deliberately done by the university, it does make me question what implicit values my peers and I have had impressed upon us in our formative undergraduate years.
I suppose the question becomes then, how do we move forward? If one’s goal is to more thoroughly integrate the voices of women in the world of classical music composition and analysis, how can this be achieved?
Is relying off the prominence of events such as International Women’s Day the way to do it? Or would it be better to just program music written by women to make up 50% of an organisation’s output; a mandatory quota?
My instinct is to reject the idea of quotas: an artist’s merits should negate the need for a quota and allow them to achieve success. And yet, the clear neglect that very worthwhile artists of all genders, colours and creeds have suffered demonstrates to me that we do not, and probably have never, lived in a meritocracy.
Perhaps it is better to tackle this issue from an educational standpoint, and actively re-evaluate the language that is used to teach music history and composition? For instance, instead of viewing Clara Schumann as a great female composer, can she not just be a great composer? One who is evaluated to the same criteria as her male peers?
I then come back to the question which inspired me to write this article in the first place; what kind of role does someone like Nadia Boulanger play in this? Prominent musical pedagogues are sadly not usually very famous in their own right, yet Boulanger’s influence can no doubt be seen in the musical Zeitgeist of the later-20th century because of the sheer prominence and diversity of her students. I find it astounding that the composer of Akhnaten (1984) and the creative mind behind Thriller were taught by the same person. Much of the classical music that was produced in the last 70 years would have been influenced by her in some way, shape or form.
But one can make the argument that several superb artists have been robbed of their much deserved fame, not just women, and not just in classical music.
With services like YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music available, we the audience now have more power as individuals than ever before to seek out music not traditionally heard in concert halls or on the radio. It is time we used it.