Two days ago, Musical America announced its 2019 Award Winners and writer Susan Elliot’s language regarding Julia Wolfe, 2019 Composer of the Year, spurred some criticism. Radio host Brian Lauritzen called out the language on Twitter, highlighting the phrase that women composers are currently “in vogue.” To its credit, Musical America has since changed their phrasing to say “before women composers were being recognized as they are today.”
This idea that women are “suddenly” a topic of interest is pervasive in the United States in general, as evidenced by the incorrect assumption that #MeToo is indicative of a new problem and/or a women’s only movement. In the classical music field in particular, this idea is exacerbated by the sudden flush of Women Composer Concerts and women-centric performances to celebrate the upcoming centenary of Women’s Suffrage. There’s also been an influx of articles addressing the lack of female composers’ works programmed by major orchestras.
While this is an inherently positive trend, since women’s music should be programmed and celebrated, it’s also a smoke screen for the real issue. As in all fields, women composers have faced barriers to entry and stymied success due to systemic sexism, racism, ableism, and other types of oppression. Many of those barriers still exist, as evidenced by the fact that in the 2016–17 orchestral season, only 1.3% of all the music performed by major orchestras in America was written by women. Among the living composers performed, 10.3% of them were women. This is better, but there’s still work to be done.
To say that women composers are “in vogue” makes it seem as though attention to gender equity in classical music is a specific moment in time, following a fad or fashion when in fact, the only reason female composers are being trained, programmed, and performed today is because of the hard work of many people, both in the past and currently. Change only comes through deliberate, hard-won action. Instead of marveling over the sudden “discovery” of women composers, it is a pivotal time to examine who has been most responsible for the advancement of women composers in classical music.
Unsung Women Composers
Throughout music history, even women who did compose, such as Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, were often discouraged to continue or were out-right forbidden to study further. Sometimes, their music was attributed to a male family member. Even if women were lucky enough to compose, have their work performed, and have their music survive past their lifetimes, very little of it has entered the modern canon.
Francesca Caccini was an early Baroque composer who held her own with her contemporaries, Jacobo Peri and Claudio Monteverdi. She created drama through unexpected harmonies and the range of her style. Most notably, she wrote a comedy-ballet on the story of Ruggiero on Alcina’s island and an entire book of songs. Despite her prolific output, very little of her music is performed or known in the current time.
Florence Beatrice Price was the first African-American woman to have a composition played by a major orchestra. She spent her time as a college music department head, studying various languages and liberal arts at numerous schools, and, at one point, was an organist for silent film screenings. She moved from Little Rock to Chicago, where she made history with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing her Symphony in E Minor after it won a Wanamaker Foundation Award.
The heavy lifters of equity often operate in the background. For example, Donna Walker-Kuhne, a master of community engagement in the arts, is responsible for the national tour of The Public Theater’s Bring in ‘da noise, Bring in ‘da Funk: a Broadway musical which earned composer and lyricist Ann Duquesnay a Tony Award and a Grammy nomination.
Another example is the Women Composers Reading and Commission Program, which is a program created by The League of American Orchestras, facilitated by American Composers Orchestra, and funded by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. The program commissions three female composers each year, securing them world premieres with professional orchestras across the United States. The program expanded this year when the Philadelphia Orchestra reached out to host a showcase for six female orchestral composers. ACO identified the composers from its past EarShot residencies, Underwood New Music Readings, and Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute, and then worked with the administrators of the Philadelphia Orchestra to put together the event. At the showcase, the Philadelphia Orchestra President and CEO Matiás Tarnopolsky announced that all six composers will be commissioned by the orchestra for a new work.
How many others have worked behind the scenes to elevate, encourage, program, and advocate for women composers? How many have created programs and grants to help women in their composition careers? These are the people doing much of the work which changed the initial percentage of women composers programmed by major orchestras from 0% to 1.3%. We all have the power to continue to increase that percentage.
This is in no way to say that women need more help than anyone else. This is to point out the fact that when precedents exist for a long time, it takes work and deliberate effort to change those traditions. As with changing any habit, it requires constant and conscious work to override our socially-influenced, unconscious biases. Administrators work to correct trends so that women’s works can be heard on the national stage, as they should have been all along.
We’re able to look to the future with training institutes for young female composers such as the Luna Composition Lab, Harlem School of the Arts, and the new Young Women Composers Camp in Philadelphia. These programs won’t move the needle immediately, but they’re necessary to effect continued change.
As pop musician Maggie Rogers said in a recent performance at The Wing, “The first step is inclusion. The second step: my gender is no longer my genre.” In the same way, the goal is for women composers to be equally represented in programming, commissioning, and leadership to the point that their gender does not even merit mention. Then, this whole conversation about women composers can finally fade further and further into the background until it’s completely unnecessary.
Women composers are definitely not in vogue — they’re not a fad and they’re not a novelty, any more than women themselves are new and in fashion. With the continued hard work of many, women composers will only increase in numbers and in influence. They’ve been here, they’re still here, and they’re here to stay.
Unsung: A History of Women in American Music by Christina Ammer
Black women composers: a genesis by Mildred Denby Green
So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo
Opera: The Undoing of Women by Catherine Clément
Invitation to the Party by Donna Walker-Kuhne
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister