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:
- 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.
- 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.