What is ‘greatness’ in classical music?

Everyone’s got this image of all the ‘great’ composers. They’re all dead white men. British journalist Fiona Maddocks said in 2011:

“For all the many good, even excellent women composers, why has there not yet been a great one? Where is the possessed, wild eyed, crackpot female answer to Beethoven, who battled on through deafness, loneliness, financial worry and disease to create timeless masterpieces?”

What do we mean by greatness? And how do you define greatness?

Let’s have a look at one example: Dame Elizabeth Maconchy was denied the Mendelssohn scholarship by RCM director Sir Hugh Allen because she’d “only get married and never write another note.”

Maconchy tried to get her music published by musical powerhouse company Boosey & Hawkes but Boosey rejected it because:

‘they would not consider publishing orchestral music by a young lady, perhaps a few songs’

So, women are only allowed to write nice little songs and leave the symphonies to men? Maconchy went on to write several huge orchestral works including her symphony for double string orchestra.


Maconchy also wrote 13 of the most extraordinary string quartets in history. In total she wrote over 200 works over a 60 year career, became a CBE then a Dame. She also battled and triumphed against TB, a disease which had already claimed half her family.

These comments by Boosey are not unique, similar comments were made, and are still being made, to many female composers throughout history. Given so much rampant sexism and prejudice it’s a wonder any music by women exists at all.

Does greatness mean the courage to carry on and write music that you believe in despite what other people think? If so, surely Elizabeth Maconchy has to be one of the great composers?

Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) was the first woman ever to be appointed as Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire. She shared equal responsibility for the women’s piano divison with Henri Hertz. They did exactly the same job but because he was a man he got paid more, that is until Farrenc demanded equal pay.

Along with teaching Farrenc wrote 3 incredible symphonies and a bucketload of other incredible music including lots of piano music and chamber music.

Does greatness mean the courage to stand up and fight for your right to be treated the same as others for the same work? If so, surely Farrenc must also be a ‘great’ composer right?

Florence Price (1887-1953), in her own words, had ‘two handicaps, those of sex and race.’

Price was born in 1887 and grew up in suburban Arkansas during the harsh era of Jim Crow racist legislation, she saw incredible violence and racism, eventually moving to Chicago to escape. Despite being a prodigious talent and going to university at 14 it would be another 30 years before she was able to write her Symphony in E Minor and that was because she ‘had the good fortune to break her foot”. This was after becoming a single mother and sharing a tiny flat with her student Margaret Bonds. Her Symphony in E Minor was premiered in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Florence Price became the 1st African American woman to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra. She went on to write 3 more symphonies, a piano concerto, a violin concerto, a piano sonata and lots more music during a 20 year career that took off in middle age.

Does greatness mean knowing all the unfair obstacles that you face, holding your ground and not giving up, even after decades? If so, then surely Florence Price must be a great composer?

Why do we only associate greatness with this overly Romantic notion of deaf, half insane composers struggling away in leaky attics?

Let’s look now at Dame Ethel Smyth. Her uptight military Dad wouldn’t let her her study music so she locked herself in her room and refused to eat or come out until he allowed her to study music at Leipzig Conservatory. 14 years old Smyth was already a legend.

Smyth did go on to study music and she became a phenomenal composer but then she was constantly the victim of impossible double standards.

“On the one hand, when she composed powerful, rhythmically vital music, it was said that her work lacked feminine charm; on the other, when she produced delicate, melodious compositions, she was accused of not measuring up to the artistic standards of her male colleagues.”

This is a constant rhetoric for women who compose music. Only write delicate, pretty little music even though you’ll be judged for not writing huge power music that men write.

Ethel Smyth carried on regardless, she wrote several operas and numerous orchestral music plus a brilliant Mass in D.

Dame Ethel Smyth was the first woman composer to be knighted as a Dame and up until 2016 she was the first and only woman composer to have an opera performed by the Met Opera in New York.

In addition to being a phenomenal composer Smyth was a strong advocate for women’s right. She joined the Women’s Suffrage movement and worked with them for two years. Smyth also had numerous affairs with women, was apparently obsessed with the married Emmeline Pankhurst and fell into unrequited love with Virginia Woolf. Smyth was a badass alright.

Marianna Martines (1744-1812) wasn’t allowed to be paid as a professional composer because of her gender but she became the first woman to be admitted to the Accademia Philharmica, the same prestigious institution Mozart to which the ‘great’ composer Mozart was also admitted.

The Czech composer Vitezslava Kapralova (1915-1940) was exiled in Paris for the last 2 years of her life because of the war.

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was a brilliant composer and pedagogue who taught practically every major composer of the 20th century. She also became the 1st woman to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

All these women, and hundreds more, wrote lots of brilliant music. They were respected, even adored by their male peers, they won recognition in the form of commissions and prizes, Smyth and Maconchy were knighted. Despite all the veneration these women received during their life every one of these composers was obliterated from the canon after their death.

A frequent sexist argument against women composers being more well known is that their music just isn’t good enough. Nothing is further from the truth. In so many cases it’s not merely good enough, it’s better by far.

But I don’t want to make this a battle of the sexes over who composes better, more meaningful music. It’s not a fight to show women write music as well as men. They just do.

The only reason Louise Farrenc, Ethel Smyth, Florence Price, Elizabeth Maconchy, Marianna Martines, Barbara Strozzi, Amy Beach, Vitezslava Kapralova and all the hundreds of other women composers are not as equally regarded as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Britten and Tchaikovsky etc is because of their gender.

The fact that Dame Elizabeth Maconchy is a woman is the only reason her music is performed about 1/100th the amount of her contemporary Britten.

Centuries of deep institutional level prejudice and sexism is what is keeping the music of these women from concert programmes. Women have been systematically, consistently and constantly marginalised.

Again I ask, what is greatness?

Is it accolades? Maconchy and Smyth are Dames, Elisabeth Lutyens a CBE.

Number of symphonies written? Louise Farrenc wrote 3, Emilie Mayer wrote 7, Gloria Coates wrote 16.

Is greatness obstacles hurdled? Firsts achieved?

Is greatness staring bankruptcy in the face while battling syphillis in an attic in Vienna?

Or is greatness the ability to create and keep creating stunning music in spite of many people telling you that you can’t?

All women who compose music are great.

Florence Price once asked Sergei Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to judge her music not on the basis of her race or sex, but on musical merit alone. He never went on to programme any of her music, read into that what you will.

Let’s do what he seemingly couldn’t and judge women on the basis of musical merit alone.

Let us redefine what greatness means, rewrite history and create a more gender balanced future for the benefit of everyone.




6 thoughts on “What is ‘greatness’ in classical music?

  • February 23, 2019 at 7:46 pm

    Thank you for posting this superb essay. As a woman composer myself, I have learned that the niche for woman composers of orchestral music is to write short, unchallenging pieces that can be added a program of longer, heavier works by man composers. The orchestra can pat itself on the back for programming work by a woman, but doesn’t need to commit resources of time or attention to music outside the standard canon. Of course, the problem with this is that if one wants to write music that is challenging or longer, one is not likely to have it performed.

    Margery Goldstein

    P.S.: My third symphony is almost finished. The first two were performed in concert, so I have to start campaigning to have this one performed as well. (And even as a symphony, it is only 20 minutes long.) Meanwhile, I crank out chamber music. >

  • February 24, 2019 at 9:46 am

    Hey, thanks for the lovely comment, glad my essay resonates with you and really sorry you still experience marginalisation as a composer. Congrats on your symphonies though. The Daffodil Perspective is actually not just a website, it’s also a gender balanced radio show, I champion women composers and play equal amounts of men and women composers every week. See the Listen page for past shows. I would love to check out your work, maybe feature it if you’d be interested? If you are interested use the Contact page to privately message me and we can chat, I’d love to connect with you and hear more about your experiences.

  • Pingback: The “Great Music” Myth – Leah Broad

  • October 18, 2019 at 8:34 pm

    Hello! I just found your blog and have been reading through many posts, and I am so happy that you’re writing about all these problems in the classical music world. As a woman composer myself, I am highly aware of how problematic it is, and I want to do everything I can to support other women composers!

    I think I have a slightly different opinion though, on the subject of “greatness” in music. Although you mention a lot of women who did write large-scale works (personally, I’m a HUGE fan of Florence Price’s symphonic music!), their “nice little songs” are also worth listening to. I feel like part of the reason “nice little songs” aren’t considered “great” is that that’s what women composers were usually writing! There are many wonderful songs by Price out there, and I don’t think they’re any less “great” than her symphonies, they just don’t fit into the masculine-defined construct of “great music.”

    Anyways, I really do appreciate everything you’ve written in this essay! And I’ve also been listening to the radio show as I’ve been writing this comment 🙂

    • October 19, 2019 at 2:37 pm

      Hey Lili – lovely to hear from you and thanks for your support. I completely agree with you, my statement about ‘nice little songs’ was an attempt to point out what these men and our patriarchal society thinks of this type of art and the value they assigned. You are right, their art is incredibly valuable. Speaking of Florence Price – Christine Jobson’s new album Nearly Lost: Art Songs by Florence Price is amazing if you haven’t heard it, I highly recommend it.

      • October 19, 2019 at 3:20 pm

        Oh I see, that makes sense! I totally agree with you, it’s quite horrifying how our patriarchal society devalues such important music. And no, I haven’t heard of that album! I’ve been searching for more recordings of Price’s music for a while–I’ll go listen to it as soon as possible. Thanks!

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