Should women start boycotting classical music concerts?

Come on ladies, we’ve all been thinking the same thing. Why should we continue to support orchestras and festivals that constantly, consistently and systematically exclude us. We’re half the f***ing population and we women composers make up less than 5% of classical orchestral programming??

Last week the Donne – Woman In Music project combined with Drama Musica published their findings. They surveyed 15 large orchestras around the world and found that for the coming 2018-2019 season containing 1,446 classical concerts around the world, only 76 include at least one work by a woman. That is just 5% of concerts containing at least one female composer. The Guardian newspaper published an article on it, see the link here.

“The figures, compiled by the Donne – Women in Music project and Drama Musica, also show that a total of 3,524 musical works will be performed at those concerts, and, of those, 3,442 (97.6%) were written by men and only 82 (2.3%) were written by women.”

9 months ago if I’d that seen that article I would have been annoyed but unfortunately not surprised. 9 months ago I thought there were only about 5 female composers in the world. I thought the lack of programming meant they don’t exist or weren’t very good. I’ve been going to see LSO, BBC Symphony, The Proms, Royal Festival Hall and various other classical concerts for nearly 30 years and I’ve never heard any female composers being performed so maybe they just don’t exist or are not good enough.

That was what I would have thought 9 months ago, I’m not the me I was back in March though.

In the past 9 months I have discovered that there are thousands of female composers, not just contemporary composers, born after 1950, but female composers throughout the whole history of Western classical music. And not just any female composers but amazing female composers, composers who write engaging and enthralling music, composers like Florence Price who have rekindled my passion for classical music, a passion that I’ve not felt in over a decade and which I was starting to think might be dead.

In the article it is stated that:

Some organisations have introduced measures to address the issue. The BBC Proms and the Aldeburgh Festival, for example, have pledged a 50/50 gender balance in commissions of contemporary composers by 2022.

That’s great but what about all the existing female composers that you’ve been ignoring for decades, centuries in some cases?

Early 20th Century American composer Florence Price? Whose Symphony No.1 in E Minor might be the most beautiful piece of music I’ve ever heard. What about Germaine Tailleferre? The only female member of Les Six, the Parisian group of composers who included Poulenc. Yeah, you’ve heard of Poulenc but the prolific and incredibly talented Germaine Tailleferre? Nope.  Or the English Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) – a composer who was so admired in her time that she was made a Dame in 1922, one of the biggest honours in the UK and the first female composer to receive the honour. What about Amy Beach, Lili Boulanger, Marianne Martines, Maria Szymanowska, Hildegard von Bingen, Barbara Strozzi, Francesca Caccini? Nope.

Don’t feel bad, I didn’t know any of those names either before March this year. And I studied piano and clarinet for over ten years, got two Grade 8 certificates in said instruments and studied at Guildhall School of Music Junior Department, I was in countless orchestras, bands and ensembles inside and outside school including the National Youth Wind Ensemble of Great Britain, plus most of my music teachers were women and I went to an all girls secondary school and I didn’t hear of any of those names until 2018, it’s infuriating is what it is.

Female composers have always been around. they haven’t just started composing music, they have always been there. Yes, the scene has always been male dominated like most art, Yes, there haven’t been as many women as men composing music. Yes, it’s been a terrible struggle to get published. Women have unquestionably faced more challenges than men of similar social backgrounds to getting their work out there, we’re talking bans on women composing, being admitted to certain schools, submitting work to certain competitions and more besides but women have always been there.

Got a great quote here from the article from the head of London Philharmonic Orchestra, resident at The Southbank Centre:

Timothy Walker, chief executive and artistic director of the LPO, said the orchestra did “not make artistic choices based on issues of gender, religion or ethnicity” but was “strongly committed to supporting female musicians and composers”.

This is coming from the director of an orchestra who in the 2018/2019 season are playing 32 concerts at The Southbank with just 2 of them featuring a work by a woman. The LPO are playing world premiere of Helen Grime’s Percussion Concerto on 16th January 2019, Grimes sharing the stage with 4 male composers. Then, on 27th February they’re playing Andante for Clarinet and Orchestra by Romantic composer Alice Mary Smith.  The piece, although absolutely gorgeous (listen here), takes up just 7 minutes of the concert. The lion’s share of time going to Weber’s Clarinet Concerto and Brahms Symphony No.2 because no-one’s ever heard those two pieces before.

Come on Tim, you’re not strongly committed to supporting female musicians and composers, and as for not making artistic choices based on gender! That’s just your sad justification to play the same old tired c**p we hear year after year and not bringing anything new and interesting (or old and interesting – note the list of awesome pre 1950 composers above) to the mix.

Soprano Gabriella Di Laccio, who spearheaded the whole project, has this to say:

“I don’t really understand it, we don’t have excuses any more. The idea that there might not be enough female composers or the music might not be good enough … this is all in the past.”

Tell them Gabriella!

This is why I stopped going to classical concerts, I don’t want to hear the same composers again and again, everywhere I go – nothing but Mozart, Beethoven and Bach plus the few others.

So yeah 50/50 gender splits in new commissions is great, please keep on doing that.

AND play lots more past women composers too.

From my research and the list complied by Gabriella Di Laccio it wouldn’t even be difficult to programme at least one work by a female composer in every concert. That’s how many female composers there are!

If you want a laugh, or a cry, or an excuse to take a boxing class (because you know that hitting your computer isn’t a good idea and going up to the artistic director of LPO and punching him will get you jail time) then read the comments to The Guardian article. Truly hilarious and horrific in their narrow mindedness.

the most relevant classical music, maybe for historical reasons, was written by men.

Most relevant? Relevant to whom? And how do you choose which is the most relevant?

But the fact remains that women DIDN’T write classical music, men did. So it’s completely understandable that the line-ups at classical concerts should be dominated by men.

I refer you to this list of over a thousand female composers throughout history put together by Gabriella Di Laccio and Donne: Women In Music Project.

There are female composers in every musical era – Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern and Contemporary.

I quite like my classical music, but I’m not aware of a single female composer. Not one.

Perhaps when female composers produce something so good that even people like me hear about it, we can start agitating to get them added to concert lists.

I played the clarinet and piano on a daily basis for 10 years to bloody Grade 8 standard and I never heard of any of these composers so it’s definitely not about being good. In addition the below symphony by Florence Price is my new favourite symphony of all time, which easily trumps anything and everything that Wolfgang Amadeus ever wrote:

Music, like all art is subjective and we have been subjected to over 300 years of straight white male, middle aged, upper/middle class viewpoint. It’s high time we change that.

Oh, I need to share one last hilarious comment.

But, by the sounds of it, didn’t provide any figures to support their case.

The orchestra programmes are listed online and in booklets for everyone to see, don’t take my word for it – just google LSO or LPO and look at their programmes. The results are already listed out there to support our case.

So, how do we change things in an industry that is conservative to the point of stagnation?

I’m not suggesting we completely discontinue playing Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 or Handel’s Messiah or Mendelssohn’s Violin. It’s always nice to hear old familiar music but we can’t just play it all the time.

Nor am I suggesting we do what Classic FM did last International Womens’ Day which is play a bunch of awesome forgotten female composers then play the same old boring stuff the other 364 days of the year. We need female composers being played consistently, in every concert, in every ensemble. We need to show everyone that women create music too, not just the few people that happened to catch that one concert or one broadcast but creating a consistent 50/50 gender split in all classical concerts so everyone can see.

Gabriella Di Laccio says:

she had heard of orchestras praising themselves for including music written by a woman. “But then it is a three-minute piece, while everything else is 20 or 40 [minutes] – and they only do it to cover themselves.”

Orchestral concerts usually have 3 or 4 pieces on average. So always include a familiar classic male composer. The concert by the LPO, except for the length of the piece, is a good idea. Weber’s Clarinet Concerto is a very well known piece, every clarinet player on the planet has played it at some point, usually studies it at Grade 5/6. The Andante for Clarinet and Orchestra is by Alice Mary Smith – another Romantic composer so you’re keeping the same vibe going. It’s very short though, as Di Laccio says it is important to be playing longer works for women.  It’s not just number of works but length of works that are important, women have been and are writing incredible symphonies and concertos too.  As an example Romantic composer Louise Farrenc wrote 3 gorgeous symphonies, Emilie Mayer wrote 8.

Check out my playlist here of just a few of the amazing symphonies composed by women that should be performed by major orchestras on a regular basis.

If you’re putting a programme together with Poulenc, play Poulenc then Germaine Tailleferre, the forgotten member of Les Six. Something familiar plus something not heard of but similar in style so it’s likely to be better received.

So what do we know?

  1. Women have always been composing classical music.
  2. 2. Women compose music of equal brilliance and splendour as men.
  3. 3. There have been enough female composers throughout history to programme music in every concert to suit everyone’s taste – Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern.
  4. Women do write symphonies and concertos too.
  5. There is no excuse any more to discriminate against female composers past and present.

Di Laccio says:

“The whole idea of doing this is not to make people angry but to raise awareness. I hope this will be a gentle wake-up call.”

I’m not angry, I moved past angry 9 months ago when I discovered that female composers actually do exist. Now I’m incensed, outraged, just downright p****d off.

I hope others do get angry because then we might actually change things.

I think we need to petition every major orchestra in the UK and abroad to include at least one work by a female composer in every concert.

I think we should boycott orchestras who don’t play female composers on a regular basis.

As consumers we have all the power, the money we pay to go to concerts funds these orchestras. We don’t pay, or only go to concerts with female composers then orchestras might receive the message.

I don’t have all the answers but it’s too important for 50% of the population to go on taking up 5% of the space. Let’s change it, now.

2 thoughts on “Should women start boycotting classical music concerts?

  • November 14, 2018 at 10:48 pm

    Personally, I think that if we (human people) really should boycott orchestras, then we should boycott orchestras who don’t play living composers, be they feminine or masculine. But I’m a male so my opinion doesn’t count, I guess.

    • November 15, 2018 at 10:58 am

      Firstly thank you for your input.

      Secondly, feminine or masculine are words used to describe particular sets of behaviours that are not necessarily contingent with the gender of a person.

      Thirdly what do you think of the statistics? Women living composers are just as marginalised as historical women composers. To give you an example there is one London Philharmonic Orchestra concert this year at the Royal Festival Hall dedicated to new composers. 5 composers are being played, 1 of which is a woman. That’s ridiculously biased. I take your point and I agree living composers are not being played enough, the classical music industry in general is very conservative. That being said it is still so much more difficult for a woman to get played. The small number of concerts playing living composers are heavily biased towards men, maybe not as much as historical composers but still very gender biased.

      Fourthly – just because you’re a male doesn’t mean your opinion doesn’t count. I’m a firm believer that nothing can be solved with an Us Against Them approach. We need people that are privileged to understand our point of view and to appreciate the different challenges we face and to help us balance things out.

      Thanks again for your comment.


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