Gatekeeping in the classical music industry

Post any article championing women or calling for diversity in classical music on one of the various classical music groups on Facebook and you’ll likely get a slew of sexist comments and narrow minded conversations.

One common sexist argument is that no-one is actively avoiding programming music by women.

The classical recording retailer Presto’s Recording of the Week is a brilliant example of an active, conscious decision to do exactly that.

Guess what Presto Classical’s recording of the week is?

Yet another recording of Beethoven complete symphonies!

Seriously, how can this pass for the most exciting recording this week?

James Longstaffe at Presto who chose the recording said:

“With a plethora of recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies currently available, any new performance that wishes to stand out from the crowd must have something pretty special to bring to the table.”

At this point the only way to make a recording of Beethoven symphonies in any way  pretty special is to have the flutes play the violin part, bassoon play the cello part, euphonium play the double bass part and vice versa.

Or screw it, why not just get the BBC Singers, divide them all up and get them to hum each part. At this point that is the only way you can get a recording of Beethoven’s complete symphonies worthy of being Recording of the Week.

Really James? You couldn’t find anything in the past decade, hell, even the past century that’s worth shouting about?

The Presto team also do a New Release Round up every week.  This week they have: Mahler’s 4th, Wagner, Schumann, Schutz and Cavalli. Basically nothing composed in the past 70 years and everything composed is by a well known, well recorded white male composer.

In picking the Recording of the Week James Falstaffe would have looked through the exciting new releases featuring women, the cool contemporary music and deliberately ignored them all to feature the most well known classical music on the planet.

And they do this every single week. Every week there is a deliberate choice between exciting and perpetual, new and old, diverse or patriarchal, change versus stagnation, heard or unheard.

The recordings that caught my eye on Presto this week were:

  1. Piano Miniatures by Female Composers – Viviane Goergen. A brilliant cross section of piano music from the past 150 years. Everything from Mel Bonis and Marie Jaell in the 19th century, Germaine Tailleferre and Vitezslava Kapralova in the early 20th century to living composer Alicia Terzian. All immensely talented composers and stunning performance from Viviane Goergen.
  2. Kaleidoskop: Works for Contrabassoon – Hans Agreda. Contrabassoon is one of these instruments lost in the sea of violin repertoire. It has a gorgeous sound and is not performed enough. So exciting to see a great musician showcasing works for this underrated instrument.

There have been over 60 recordings of exclusively women composers released on Presto so far this year (pales in comparison to the number recorded by men but still), there’s been at least one new recording every week, sometimes many more (see week of 8th March). Many of these releases were world premiere recordings and all are absolutely brilliant.  The only one Presto took any noice of was debut release by latest hotshot pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, she released a CD of Clara Schumann’s piano music.

There’s all this talk of classical music dying, orchestras getting shut down but what can we expect when the mainstream industry is entirely based on obsessively championing overplayed, over-recorded music from nearly 200 years ago?

There are legions of brilliant women composers from the past two centuries and more musicians than ever are championing these great women composers, creating many wonderful albums that are redefining our entire knowledge of classical music history.  All these recordings are being completely ignored by the classical music establishment. You can check out all the amazing recordings made this year alone here.

Then there are hundreds of really amazing contemporary composers creating new music all the time and some people are willing to put it out there. NMC Recordings have been putting out great recordings of British contemporary music for 30 years, plus record labels Navona Records and Divine Art are putting out high quality recordings of amazing contemporary music all the time.

But what is going to happen to all these recordings if they aren’t talked about?

What’s the incentive for new composers to keep creating when all the music industry wants to talk about is the same few composers from the 18th century?

Composer Stephen Hough wrote a recent article in the Evening Standard talking about the Proms saying:

“The composers whose works we play were often radicals and outsiders”

Note the past tense. It’s so common for people to think of classical music as past, all the music got created long ago and it doesn’t exist anymore.

Mozart and Beethoven together make up just over one third of all classical performances (statistics from Bachtrack here). Add the next 4 most played composers – Bach, Brahms Schubert, Tchaikovsky and they make up 78% of classical performances. Over 400 years and hundreds of amazing composers but nearly 80% of all performances are of just 6 white male composers that all died over a century ago?!

Is the past tense any wonder if that’s the only music being performed?

There’s a current call for more audience diversity, and talk of dwindling ticket sales, people saying they should do things to attract new audiences but what’s the message you are sending them? Come and hear the same 6 dead male composers at every concert. There are almost no women composers, no black composers, hardly any living composers. It’s an entirely monochromatic experience of a stagnant art form.

That’s what is currently being shouted at through current programming.

If you want to attract new audiences, new people from all walks of life you will have to change the message.

Classical music is not just written by a handful of dead, white male composers. It never has been but that is the message that people are being sent.

So how do we change this?

Do we either need to get through the current gatekeepers or do we need to create new gates?

 

Elizabeth de Brito

Producer of the The Daffodil Perspective.

The Daffodil Perspective is pleased to be completely gender equal. On the show this year I’ve played 16 of these new releases of women composers as well as playing contemporary music every week. Also in 8 months of doing the show I’ve played Beethoven once, Mozart twice.  Every week I make the choice to find as much exciting, varied, previously unheard music out there. Head to the Listen page to see the full tracklist. Classical music is alive and kicking on my show with a vibrant, diverse range of awesome music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2019 releases of women composers

Looking for new releases of women composers?

Check out this spreadsheet listing every 2019 recording featuring exclusively women composers. All with links to listen and buy!

There are so many amazing recordings out this year of contemporary women composers and historical women composers. (Although still a shamefully tiny fraction of the number recorded of male composers)

The purpose is:

  1. To provide information for anyone interested in discovering more music written by women
  2. To provide inspiration for anyone working in classical music to program a more diverse repertoire.

 

Spotted one that’s missing? Drop me a message on the Contact page and I’ll add it.

New Monthly Residency!

Excited to announce that The Daffodil Perspective is collaborating with Divine Art Recordings to bring you another monthly residency.

Every month on the album of the week section I’ll be featuring one of Divine Art Recordings fantastic albums of women composers.

It’ll be mostly contemporary music with a few historical composers as well. Including Nicola LeFanu, Galina Ustvolskaya, Helen Hobersham, Sadie Harrison and many more!

Fun starts 4th August!

https://divineartrecords.com

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Classic FM Hall of Fame 2019 – Where are all the women?

The Classic FM Hall of Fame is the biggest poll of classical music tastes in the UK but is it really listeners’ choice?  Where are all the women and why?

. These are the top 20:

  1. Ralph Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending
  2. Sergei Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 2
  3. Edward Elgar – Enigma Variations
  4. Ralph Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
  5. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – 1812 Overture
  6. Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 5 (‘Emperor’)
  7. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Swan Lake
  8. Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 (‘Choral’)
  9. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – The Nutcracker
  10. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Clarinet Concerto
  11. Samuel Barber – Adagio for Strings
  12. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Requiem
  13. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – The Magic Flute
  14. Jean Sibelius – Finlandia
  15. Gregorio Allegri – Miserere
  16. Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No. 7
  17. Ludwig van Beethoven – Moonlight Sonata
  18. Edward Elgar – Cello Concerto
  19. George Frideric Handel – Messiah
  20. Edvard Grieg – Peer Gynt

See the full list here.

Let’s be honest were there any real surprises here?

Why are these the most popular pieces every year?

Are these pieces really the most popular or just the pieces that Classic FM plays the most?

There’s a constant rhetoric that only the best gets voted into these types of polls.

No-ones arguing that any of these 20 pieces are anything less than stunning. Of course they are but if that is all listeners are exposed to then why expect them to pick anything else?

There were only 10 new additions to the list and none of these were in the top 100. The highest ranked was 163 so the most popular 100 pieces of music have barely changed in at least 1 year, the top 100 were definitely all in the Hall of Fame last year, probably the year before.

The only piece written by a woman was Debbie Wiseman’s The Glorious Garden, which just made it in at No. 287.

There are so many arguments about the lack of women in classical music. Women didn’t write any classical music, women didn’t write good classical music, women didn’t write music that ‘measures up to the ‘greats’.

All of this is wrong. There’s research that demonstrates that women have always been composing classical music and tons of recordings that show they have and are doing an first class job of it.

But for all this new information how many times in 2018 did Classic FM play Florence Price’s Symphony 1 or Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers or Galina Ustvolskaya’s Piano Sonata No. 6? Or any of the other thousands (and there are thousands) of exquisite, earth shattering, beautiful pieces of music written by women?

Maybe we could decide for ourselves what measures up to the greats if we actually heard some of it.

Research conducted by Donne Women In Music last year revealed that music by women features in just 2% of concerts across the world. Full stats here.

If that’s the international average and Classic FM are similar then that’s 98% of all music played on the station written by men.

How can we judge music fairly if we are not exposed to it?

Answer – we cannot. We cannot make judgements on music we don’t hear.

Don’t Classic FM (and the BBC, LPO, Wigmore Hall etc) have a responsibility to educate their listeners?

Is it just about playing the same pieces that the audience expect to hear or can they do more?

Surely part of the reason to listen to a radio station is to be educated, be inspired, be exposed to more music than the audience would usually hear.

Radio airplay has always been one of the biggest factors in determining the pop music charts. People would turn on Radio 1, listen to a song by Kylie or Spice Girls or Oasis, love it and immediately go out and buy it. Even in today’s age of digital music, YouTube, Spotify and iTunes there is still an element of this. Radio plays a smaller but still significant role, as well as these other mediums in promoting new, unknown music to the public and creating an audience.

Why can’t it work with classical music? Why can’t we turn on to Classic FM Drive and hear music we wouldn’t hear otherwise?

If Classic FM make decisions about what audiences want to hear based on these biased polls then nothing will ever change, which it hasn’t.

Also it can’t just be about ‘what the audiences want to hear’. We don’t always know what we want to hear. I had no idea I wanted to hear Elizabeth Maconchy’s String Quartet No. 6 until I heard it and it changed my world.

We listen to radio and go to concerts because we assume the people running them know more than us. They work in music, spending all their time listening and researching interesting music, paying attention to what’s hot right now so we don’t have to. We listen to have our minds blown by fantastic music. If Classic FM and other organisations don’t programme music by women how can we be expected to vote for it on these polls?

Classic FM is a big influencer of taste.

I was chatting to a current Guildhall School of Music student a few months ago and he didn’t agree with playing more women composers because we’d be ‘neglecting the men.’

Bachtrack stats says in 2017 there were 17,741 concert performances. Of those performances around 3000 performances were of each of the top (most performed) composers – Mozart, Beethoven and Bach.  So allowing for overlap that’s somewhere between 3,000 and 9,000 performances. 3000 performances – that’s around 15% of all concerts featuring one of just 3 composers, the likely statistic is somewhere between 15% and 52%. Either end of the scale that is a huge amount of performances for just 3 composers, given how much awesome classical music there is, to focus just on those 3 is incredibly limiting.

Let’s be clear here, even if Beethoven was played half the amount that he is now it would still not come anywhere near neglect. And of course it wouldn’t make his work any less awesome or popular, His Piano Concerto No. 5 will always be brilliant and I’ll always love it, as will many other people.

Why can’t a balance exist between playing the old, familiar classics and awesome, unfamiliar music. A mix of what we want to hear and music that we don’t know but Classic FM think we will like.

There is a ton of phenomenal music out there from the whole history of classical music and the internet has made it easier than ever before to find it. There are vast numbers of recordings of music by women that are easy to find on iTunes, PrestoClasssical, Amazon and Spotify. So many resources available for Classic FM to use.

So what now? Will Classic FM continue to justify playing nothing but the same music year after year by using biased data like these polls?

Or can Classic FM exert their power as a major influencer of taste, creating more balanced programming and exposing the massive amount of awesome classical music written by women?

Will the Hall of Fame 2020 tell a different story?