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.

 

 

 

The Daffodil Perspective 12th February 2019

This show we’re going back to the Baroque with Francesca Caccini, in 1625 she became the first woman to write a full scale opera. We discover more about her life and career along with her friends at the Medici court Jacopo Peri and Marco da Gagliano. Plus two composers who collaborated with Langston Hughes, leader of the Harlem Renaissance – Florence Price and Kurt Weill.

Contemporary Corner – Joanna Ward

This week I’m showcasing a brand new piece by trailblazing young composer Joanna Ward. Cambridge student and committee member for the 1st ever Cambridge Female Composers Festival 2019.

Album Of The Week – Tasmin Little Plays: Clara Schumann, Dame Ethel Smyth and Amy Beach

Very excited to feature stunning new album by world class violinist Tasmin Little performing works by 3 incredible marginalised composers – Clara Schumann, Dame Ethel Smyth and Amy Beach.

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What’s the point? A brief look at one of the problems faced to get women composers noticed.

Say you’re a world famous violinist. There’s a great violin piece you’ve heard by a historical woman composer. You think it’s brilliant and want to record it, it’ll be a world premiere recording or at least only once or twice so it’s totally groundbreaking.  You spend hours convincing a pianist to accompany you and spend even longer convincing the hopelessly conservative record label you’re signed with to release it.

It finally gets the go-ahead, you tell all your friends and get it released on all the major sites – Amazon, iTunes, PrestoClassical, everything.  You put out videos on YouTube, record the album, you’re really pleased with it and blag about it all over social media.

It gets released and you’re so pleased but then it comes to the gatekeepers, those people on the music websites with their hot-or-not lists of the “coolest” new releases. Yours has to be a sure thing right? It’s so new, so unique and interesting plus it’s on a major label and you’re super famous so everything you do should be noticed and adored right?

Wrong, the new release list doesn’t mention your recording, or anybody else’s recordings featuring women composers. They talk about yet more recordings of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Bach and your brilliant, innovative labour of love is forgotten about quickly.

You think maybe I should have played it safe? Why bother playing the work of these amazing people at all if no-one will take notice, next time I’ll stick to the same, boring crap everybody’s heard a hundred times before. I’ll get the money and it won’t hurt if no-one picks it up.

You carry on with your career and the music of these women fades back into oblivion.

Sound familiar? We’re in the middle of this story right now. World famous violinist Tasmin Little OBE has just released a stunning new album of music by Clara Schumann, Dame Ethel Smyth and Amy Beach – 3 astonishing powerhouse badasses of the Romantic era. All three women venerated in their time. All three composers since obliterated from the white male dominated version of music history. All three composers hardly ever recorded or performed.

Little’s album was released last week on 1st February 2019 on major label Chandos records. Amongst the platforms it was released on was PrestoClassical. PrestoClassical’s new release round up didn’t even mention it. I’ll tell you what it did mention though – another recording of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, plus Schubert, Debussy, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky and recordings of a lot of other white male composers that are really well known.

Don’t take my word for it, see the link here.

So why is it that not even a world famous OBE musician on a major label playing women composers can make a dent on the stuffy, regressive release lists of these companies.

And why does it matter?

Well if a customer’s looking at the website and wondering what’s cool they’re not going to search through the whole 150 or so new releases this week. Part of the reason is just 150 is an overwhelming amount to scroll through, part of it is trust. The editorial teams behind PrestoClassical know more than the average listener about what’s coming out and what’s cool. If PrestoClassical give a nice short bite-sized list of 8 releases it’s much easier to digest.

This means if it’s not getting noticed by PrestoClassical editorial team it’s not get noticed by consumers, and if it’s not getting noticed by consumers it’s not getting bought.

If it doesn’t get bought the message clearly gets through to record labels and musicians that taking a chance doesn’t pay off, even if these composers are from the 19th century and playing music really similar to Brahms and Schumann et al, no-one wants to hear it so don’t spend money putting a release like this out there.

All this leads to women composers like Amy Beach not getting recorded again and we’ll go back to square one on the gender equality front in classical music.

This is why it’s so important for this not to happen. I grew up not knowing the names of these 3 women and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let another generation grow up without knowing the names of Clara Schumann, Amy Beach and Dame Ethel Smyth.

I love the album and I’m really excited to be playing the album on my show this week on Tuesday 12th February. 5pm on planetofsound.world plus it’ll be going out on Mixcloud later, more info to follow.

In the meantime here’s a sneak peek of this breathtaking album.

 

Please buy the album online from Presto, iTunes or Amazon or listen on Spotify. Mostly please tweet about it, Facebook link it and get people talking about this so the music doesn’t fade back into obscurity.

PrestoClassical are one of the worst culprits. This particular instance saw Tamsin Little’s album having major airtime on BBC and ClassicFM plus it featured on Spotify Classical New Releases Playlist.

Last week on Twitter I highlighted PrestoClassical’s failure to mention more releases of women composers on their January editor’s choice list. Out of 8 releases the only release of women composers was Florence Price’s new release by Naxos.

The CDs below were ones released in January that featured women composers.

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At the end of 2018 PrestoClassical published their list of 100 best releases of 2018. There was 1 woman composer release on the list.

This is a big music retailer. We need to hold them accountable for their influence on consumers and offer alternatives, there is a lot of music being created and while there are fewer releases of women composers there are actually quite a few releases coming out on a regular basis, both by major labels and smaller outfits too.

In the next few weeks there are several releases of women composers coming out. The ones below are available on PrestoClassical.

 

The Daffodil Perspective believes in positivity, there’s no point in just complaining, we like to show that there are positive alternatives that already exist to the white male dominated industry.

Change is possible and gender balance is not difficult to achieve.