Women composers? Everyday business

It’s been an amazing year for the visibility of women in history. Not just the suffragettes, though of course they have been front and centre – various organisations, including several I work for, have taken the opportunity to showcase the lives and achievements of women across the whole of society, in a variety of different roles and subjects. It’s been inspiring, empowering, and in so many cases, much needed.


How, you might ask, could there possibly be a ‘but’? Well, in music, I think perhaps there is.

Because so many people have spent so much time and effort this year attempting to programme music by women composers of the past few hundred years, I have spent quite a lot of time researching programme notes for them. Mostly I’ve been writing about women composing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And there is one thing that a great many of them – almost all, in the nineteenth century, that I’ve looked at – have in common. When they are written about by contemporary critics, everyone feels the need to say, ‘and a woman! Well I never. We’ve never heard pieces by one of those before.’

This suggests a quite stupendous level of temporary amnesia amongst the critical fraternity of nineteenth-century Western Europe. But it also means that the ‘oddity’ factor never goes away. Clara Schumann wrote things. Gracious! A woman. And Louise Farrenc. What a thing! And then Alice Mary Smitth. Unheard of! And later still, Ethel Smyth. Who’d have thunk it?

Woman lying in park with her eyes closed listening on headphones

A great deal of extremely commendable work is being done at the moment to embed music by women into the general concert repertoire, exam boards, university syllabuses, and so on. This is crucial work, because it is about sharing knowledge we have on many excellent composers and performers and making the information readily available (and anthologised or catalogued) for easy use by educators and performers. I am full of admiration for those who are doing this work.

What is causing me to ‘but’ around this topic is a continuation of the nineteenth-century rhetoric of ‘Gracious! How exceptional! We have never heard of such a thing before!’. Because we have. Quite a lot. Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn are not unknown names to the vast majority of concert goers. So billing them as ‘little performed’ or ‘frequently neglected’, I would argue, is simply no longer helpful. It merely perpetuates the idea that this is still a hand-to-forehead shock within a concert programme. And it isn’t.

In fact, whilst there are certainly many women in music history whose stories are being shared more widely for the first time, and rightly so, there are also a small handful who are really not that unfamiliar at all as names. The hard work now needs doing to make sure that Schumann and Mendelssohn repertoire is properly incorporated not with any sense of tokenism, but simply because the music is good music and should be well-programmed and as familiar to us as the pieces of Robert and Felix, the other Schumann and Mendelssohn, from whom we hear rather more often in the concert hall.

So keep up the good work, every single person out there who is doing their utmost to catalogue, publish, anthologise, publicise the work of women in music. The work of these organisations is so very important. But just remember that losing a bit of the flash-bang-wallop of the rediscovery might also be pretty useful as well. Even those with whom we’re not so very familiar any more, but who are fantastic composers, do not need listing as ‘unjustly neglected’ or ‘sidelined by history’. Just play it. Programme it. Record it. Let us hear it. It’s music, after all. Let us listen. Let us play and sing. That’s how repertoires get changed.

Resources include: Women in Music Theory, the Sophie Drinker Institute, MUGI, Women in Music, and Trinity Laban’s new project Venus Blazing. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, obviously… do add your own recommendations in the comments below!

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