Gender equality is for life, not just International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day is upon us again and like every year there are tons of events, concerts and festivals going on all over the world to celebrate it.

The IWD website says this for 2019:

The International Women’s Day 2019 campaign theme of #BalanceforBetter is a call-to-action for driving gender balance across the world.

But what does IWD really mean?

Does it drive towards a more gender balanced world?

Or has the work been corrupted to create more inequality and more imbalance?

The IWD website states:

International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.

IWD is full of events promoting equality. One example is Women of the World festival at the Southbank. WOW brings together thousands of people for talks, workshops, concerts and many other events about women. WOW also showcases dozens of amazing organisations working to promote equality all year round. Last year they had demonstrations from a women’s wrestling group, networking events for women and a camp for girls to study rock music.

So, IWD is not just about celebrating the achievements of women, it’s encouraging people to work on equality all year round.

Now let’s examine IWD in the classical music industry. In 2018:

BBC Radio 3 scheduled an entire day of music by women composers.

ABC Classic FM in Australia played an entire 24 hours of women composers.

Cadogan Hall scheduled a concert entirely of female composers.

In 2019:

BBC Radio 3 and ABC are again playing an entire day of music by women composers.

BBC National Orchestra of Wales is playing a concert of female composers.

International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.

So says the IWD website. It’s no doubt that BBC, ABC, Cadogan Hall and others do a great job doing the first part, celebrating the cultural achievements of women.

But what about the second part? Accelerating gender parity?

Let’s have a look at the rest of the year.

On ABC Classic FM music by women composers makes up 6% of all music played. (up from 2% in 2015.)

The official BBC stats are not published but the world average for radio programming and concert programming is 2%. That’s 2% of concerts a year featuring a woman composer. The BBC Proms stats for 2018 compiled by Women in Music show women composers made up 15% (21/133) of the number of composers. This is not number of works composed by women or total amount of performance time, which would both be undoubtedly much smaller percentages.

For example Sarah Walker’s Sunday Morning show on BBC Radio 3 plays 1 woman composer a week, out of at least 10 composers in a 3 hour show. Being optimistic means that’s 10% of music every week composed by a woman. (The number is probably lower and doesn’t account for actual airtime.)

Cadogan Hall are putting on about 100 concerts this year, at my count 3 of these concerts feature a woman composer.

Clearly these organisations fall short on the second part and do almost nothing the rest of the year to accelerate gender parity.

IWD should be a jumping off point to encourage more work on gender parity throughout the year. It shouldn’t be an excuse to shove all the women composers in one day and then continue marginalising them the rest of the year. That’s not gender equality.

Forbes magazine said last year:

BBC Radio 3 will spend International Women’s Day righting wrongs.

Radio 3 is slated to celebrate female composers excluded from the narrative of musical history.

Bearing in mind that the BBC are one of the organisations doing the excluding.

For example, BBC Proms has performed Dame Elizabeth Maconchy’s music 13 times while her contemporary Benjamin Britten’s music has been performed 94 times at the Proms.

Righting wrongs would be performing Dame Elizabeth Maconchy at least as much as Benjamin Britten all year round. Not playing her music once a year. Dame Maconchy and all the other hundreds of female composers have been and are being marginalised every day for decades, centuries in some cases. One day of programming is not righting this wrong. It is a step, and a very small one in the right direction but these organisations need to programme more women composers consistently throughout the year.

Also at what point on IWD do the BBC programme Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No 3 or Amanda Maier’s Violin Sonata and not think ‘Wow, this is amazing, we should play this more often’?

It’s the same with Black History Month. In classical music composers such as W.G. Still, Florence Price and Adolphus Hailstork should be played all year round. These composers are marginalised due to to deep institutional prejudice that can only be changed through constant and consistent programming, not a token performance once a year.

(Plus just pointing out black people invented blues, jazz, rock and roll, soul, disco, gospel, RnB and hip hop. Yet somehow the inventor of rock and roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, is only ever mentioned during BHM. Funny that.)

IWD started with a noble and worthy purpose of highlighting the achievements of women and encouraging increased dialogue on equality all year round. IWD itself promotes equality every day of the year and does amazing work.

However, too many other organisations seem to use IWD as an opportunity to put these groups in their boxes, only programme them on this one day and call it progress whilst contributing further to the inequality in the classical music industry.

Then the next year rolls around again and we’re celebrating the same ‘underrated and excluded’ composers again, brushing over the fact that they’re still excluded because the powers that be didn’t play them in the whole year in between. They wouldn’t be marginalised if they were performed more often all year round. And so the vicious cycle continues.

This IWD let’s remember this and work on creating gender parity every day of the year

The Daffodil Perspective radio show is pleased to play equal numbers of women and men composers, with equal airtime, every single week.

What can you do?

 

 

 

 

 

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 29th January 2019

This week we’re exploring the intersection between classical and jazz with mid 20th century composer Dana Suesse and friends Gerswhin and Shostakovich. Also on the show some festival music for wind band from Kenneth Hesketh and Julie Giroux.

Contemporary Corner – Rebecca Rowe

This week in Contemporary Corner British composer Rebecca Rowe and her piano piece Fantasie In Nomine.

Album Of The Week – This Day by Blossom St Choir

Phenomenal album celebrating 100 years of women’s right to vote from Blossom St Choir. 14 amazing women composers spanning these 100 years including Elizabeth Maconchy, Cecilia McDowall and Stef Connor.

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Gender parity is for life, not just for Christmas

This is a message for all those orchestras out there playing one concert of women composers then sitting back and patting themselves on the back thinking the job is done. It’s no good just playing music by women composers in one concert or even one season of women composers.  Gender parity, or the work towards creating gender parity in music needs to be consistent, a constant consideration in every programme, every concert, every season.

We can’t just play one concert full of women composers then forget about them the rest of the year. It’s not enough, one concert could be said to be tokenism. One concert to satisfy the raging masses, pretending that gender parity is a consideration, only to go back to the usual programme of mostly dead white males for the rest of the year.

2018 has been great, there have been lots of concerts with female composers including a major performance of Dame Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D at Southwark Cathedral. Having said that, I can’t help thinking that it’s not so much to do with genuine thought towards gender parity but more to do with the Vote 100 anniversary. It’s been 100 years since some women got the vote in the UK and lots of orchestras have celebrated that by playing a concert of women composers.

Everyone loves an anniversary or birthday. Peter Maxwell Davies got an entire Proms concert on his 70th, John Williams’ 85th was the same plus you have the birthdays of long dead composers being remembered with whole concerts or programmes dedicated to them.

In particular this year there have been a lot of performances of Dame Ethel Smyth, a composer and suffragette.  I also wonder if performances of her work are more because of her connections to the suffrage movement? She is known in both camps, classical music and feminism so playing her music makes sense.

And what about whole seasons of music by women composers? Are they any better? Trinity Laban’s Venus Blazing and Kings Place Venus Unwrapped seasons are both one year programmes playing music by women composers in every concert. But what about next year, will it just go back to the usual? Or will people have got used to hearing women composers in every concert that they will start clamouring for more of the same?

Then there are the orchestras themselves. The English Symphony Orchestra is playing two concerts in Venus Unwrapped at Kings Place next year, 2 out of 13 concerts next season. That being said these 2 concerts are the only concerts that contain works by women composers. Are they just jumping on the bandwagon, thinking being involved will make them look progressive or diverse when in fact the rest of the time they don’t have to bother with thought toward gender parity or don’t want to?

Lot of questions, lots of things to consider. Some of these decisions may not be as conscious as orchestras realise but it needs to be conscious. If we hope to change things we need to consciously think about the messages we send by the music we choose to play.

I hope this year is not just an anniversary year, I want this year to be a stepping stone towards a 2019 season that plays even more women composers. Let’s work on making that happen. Donne, Illuminate and Scordatura are just 3 of the amazing organisations committed to playing music by women composers plus I’m continuing with my weekly radio show playing women composers, listen to past shows here. We are not going anywhere, we are spreading the word.

Just a few thoughts I needed to express, I’ll be back with some more blogs on gender and music soon.