Off the top of my head I can name three female composers: Clara Schumann, Germaine Taillefeure and Nadia Boulanger. The thing is, that by naming three I think I’m doing quite well and two of them I thought of not by their own merit, but by associations. Clara Schumann had a short lived compositional career but is better remembered as the wife of Robert Schumann, and Boulanger springs to mind not because of her creative output but due to the impressive number of twentieth century composers that she taught, including Copland, Bernstein and Quincy Jones. All of this leaves me feeling slightly appalled at myself and my lack of knowledge about women working in composition except, I suspect, that I am not the only one displaying this level of ignorance.
Maybe it’s hard to think of female composers because there aren’t that many out there; at least that’s what the ‘Performing Right Society’ think. According to the PRS, the society that is responsible for the licence for the performance of music in public places, 14% of their ‘writer’ members are women and only 4.1% of the composers featured in the 2010 Proms were female.
The statistics for Proms 2010, however, are slightly misleading. The programme that year consisted mainly of pre-twentieth century composers. Women accounted for 13.2% of living composers included in the programme and three out of 14 commissions made by the BBC, which, despite being similar to the proportion of female PRS members, is still surprisingly low.
To combat this under-representation of female composers the PRS launched ‘Women Make Music’, a scheme aimed at funding and encouraging women who want to create music of any genre. The project offers grants, not only to women so that they can fund projects that they’re working on, but also to organisations to give them the encouragement to commission female composers. Although I fully support this fantastic scheme I feel that it does not address the full issue which is that women composers are still considered a rarity; rare enough for Wikipedia to feel the need to have an article which lists female composers, but not an equivalent for men. There are deeply ingrained attitudes that need to be changed before women can move forward in music, similar to the way that the majority of attitudes towards women in business are being addressed.
In the case of music there is one killer question: ‘yeah, but can you name a truly great female composer?’.
This is what makes the perception of women in music hard to move past. Throughout history, business was evolving but commerce has rarely created monumental names such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. All these historical figures that musicians are taught about from a young age are invariably men. This is through nobody’s fault – it’s just the way that society was during earlier periods of music. But society has evolved since then, and attitudes to women in music should have as well. We do not know if a truly great composer, male or female, has been produced in the past fifty years; we’re too close to that part of history to be able to tell. The greats are not determined until a sufficient amount of time has passed to be able to tell which composers have endured and which were just part of the fashions of the time. In this case, there is still a chance that the past century did create a truly great female composer, we just don’t know it yet.
What I find difficult about this issue is that in terms of composition, women and men are not being classed as equals. Had a music foundation created a series of grants just for male composers there would have been uproar. This is not an anti-feminist attitude, it’s just something that troubles me. In the 21st century should women need a foundation to encourage them to create music or should they just be judged on the merit of what they create? In music the ‘glass ceiling’ still exists and the only way to break through it is to stop allowing it to be there and fight to be heard. Female composers need to think of themselves as equals to be thought of as equals. Composers weren’t flocking to Paris to be taught by Boulanger because she was a novelty; they were travelling thousands of miles because she was one of the best and they knew it, her track record proved it.
Looking at the statistics given by the PRS it’s easy to get disheartened about equality in music, but the situation is improving, even if it is at a snail’s pace. A look at the website for Women in Music shows a small rise in the number of female composers being commissioned by the BBC and included in the Proms. Whether programmes such as Women Make Music will be able to boost these numbers remains to be seen, but they can’t hurt. And, on a more positive note, I’ve managed to remember the names of about five more female composers in the process of writing this article.