Where are the women when it comes to music?

Labour Party

As you will have already read on this blog, the excellent organisation Women in Music held an event on 12 September.  Margaret Lucy Wilkins, who acted as chair for the evening, has kindly provided this post which shows just how far women still have to go.

I would commend this piece to the newly appointed Shadow Minister for women and equalities,Gloria de Piero. Many congratulations to Gloria. I know women everywhere will congratulate Labour on making this a Shadow Cabinet position.

                                    Margaret Lucy Wilkins writes:

“There are no women composers, there never have been any and, possibly, there never will be.”

          Thus spake Sir Thomas Beecham a century ago. It sounds like one of his ‘jolly japes’, though it’s not known whether he said this before, or after, he got to know the music of Dame Ethel Smyth. Nevertheless, Thomas Beecham conducted the first English stage production of Smyth’s opera, The Wreckers, in his debut season at Covent Garden, in 1910. Altogether, Dame Ethel Smyth composed 5 operas, all of which were performed in her life time.

The tradition of British women composing operas continues. Between them, Thea Musgrave, Nicola Lefanu, Judith Weir and Errollyn Wallen have composed 40 operas. Thea Musgrave alone has composed 16 operas, all except one of which have been performed. This is Big Stuff! However, you’d never suspect this rich heritage if you look at the current schedule of operas to be performed this season at publicly-funded institutions such as:

  • The Royal Opera House (1 living woman composer/Elspeth Brooke; 8 living men composers … all in the Linbury Studio, none on the Main Stage);
  • the Colisseum    (1 living man composer/Philip Glass);
  • and the independently funded Glyndebourne (1 woman composer/Lynne Plowright; no living men composers!).

Another large-scale institution funded by the British tax payer, the BBC Proms (‘the largest music festival in the world’), fares little better. Composer, and Women in Music member, Jennifer Fowler has been compiling statistics on the proportional representation of men and women composers in the Proms, since 1992. Whilst the figures might be considered to be encouraging, the average of  c.15% of living women composers to 85% of men composers represented at the Proms concerts is not proportional to the actual numbers of living women to men composers. A conservative estimate of the proportion of living women composers in the UK is 30%, so an average of 15% is 50% below where it should be. Here, I’m speaking of proportional representation rather than ‘equal’ representation.

The data is roughly equal to that found in some other concert series, such as that promoted on the South Bank, 2013 – 2014 orchestral concerts series:

Living men composers:   27/ Living women composers:   5 (18.6%)

However, other concert series do even worse. The evidence is not difficult to find. Just looking through a random collection of current season programmes that have come my way reveal the following:

  • Barbican concerts, June – October 2013:

Living men composers:   15/ Living women composers:   7

  • City of London Festival, June – July 2013:

Living men composers:  34/ Living women composers:   0

  • Southend Classical Music Series, 2013 – 2014:

Living men composers:   0/ Living women composers:   0 …. equality at last!

  • Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, 2013 (described as being ‘the UK’s largest international festival of new and experimental music’)

Living men composers:   82/ Living women composers:   15

British women working in the field of music have been campaigning since the early 20th century for professional recognition. The Society of Women Musicians was founded in 1911 in order to fight discrimination against women in orchestras, and on the boards of examining bodies. By 1971, it was felt by members of the SWM that its objectives had been largely achieved, so the Society closed its mission with a sell-out Diamond Jubilee Concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, broadcast several times by the BBC. It was, however, always acknowledged that, whilst women performers had achieved parity, women composers still had not. Women in Music UK was founded in 1987 as a successor to the SWM. It is a membership organisation that celebrates women’s music -making in all genres of music, and is committed to championing living women composers and creators of music, in the UK.

During the last hundred years, scholars have rediscovered the history of Western women in music, from the 12th century Hildegard to the present day. Dictionaries and books have been published, as well as music scores. Performers have performed and recorded much music by women. Women composers and creators of music have proliferated so that the critical mass of music must surely have been reached by now. The teaching of composition in this country has improved beyond all recognition. Some individual women are taking advantage of their professional positions to promote the work of women in music. No longer is there an excuse for the ignorance of women in music that was expressed by Sir Thomas Beecham a century ago.

The social and cultural context in which composers work is critical to what they create. The great Canon of Western Classical Music consists of music that was produced by composers who had Patrons. In the West, these were either members of the aristocracy who loved the arts, or the Christian Church. From all this activity, women were excluded. The Church and the Court only employed men composers. Thus, women were denied the opportunity to contribute to the forming of what has become the great Musical Canon that we all know and love. What kind of a victory is it when half the potential players are excluded from the game? This is the reason that women have found it so difficult to gain a foothold as composers. Men have guarded, and some still do guard, what they consider to be their unique terrain.

SNP Pete Wishart MP, in his address to the BASCA  (British Society of Composers and Authors) AGM in July 2013, said this:

“The UK is an incredibly successful, creative nation. All over these isles it is just something we do well. Our creative industries contribute some £36 billion per year to our economy, each year – that is £70,000 every single minute for the UK economy. Our creative industries employ 1.5 million people in the UK, and around 8% of our gross domestic product is predicated in our creative industries. Internationally they account for around £1 in every £10 of the UK’s total exports. With the right support, they have the potential to bring even more benefits to our culture and economy ….. Outwith the United States, the United Kingdom is the second largest exporter of music worldwide. It is a huge, successful and fantastic industry, which has gone from strength to strength. Last year, we saw incredible success for UK artists, particularly in the US market …. We have been able to do that mainly because we have fantastic imagination, talent and creativity within the UK.”

It goes without saying that the talent and skills of women creators could also contribute to the wealth of the nation, both culturally and economically.