College bans men-only concert programmes

March 8, 2018 by norman lebrecht


Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance in east London has said it will ensure that at least half the music it performs in future will be by women composers, with a particular focus on ‘missing’ modern British women.

The Labour MP Harriet Harman, Trinity’s chair, said: ‘Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance will encourage and inspire its students – many of whom will go on to shape the future of the performing arts –to engage with the historic issue of gender imbalance in music by women, and ensure that it does not continue into the next generation. I welcome this bold initiative to raise awareness of the disparity that has long existed in music and shine a light on music that has so frequently been overlooked. I am also greatly looking forward to hearing some of the musical treasures by women I might not otherwise have had the chance to hear.’

Climate change or virtue signalling?

Time will tell.


Comments (62)

  1. Will Duffay says:

    I so want to support this, but isn’t one of the historical issues around women composers that they were prevented from continuing their studies (look at Alma Mahler) and so sufficient repertoire doesn’t exist across the centuries to justify a 50% split?

    Btw, Trinity isn’t really in ‘East London’ as people understand it. Greenwich is SE London.

  2. Gerhard says:

    What a terrific decision! I only hope that they really mean “half of the music”. It would be sad if they would stop at the mere number of pieces presented. Only if the duration and the numbers of notes played, as well as the performers themselves are taken into account, we will arrive at truly gender balanced concerts. No effort should be spared to persue this noble goal!

    1. Mike Schachter says:

      Surely no sarcasm here?

      1. Gerhard says:

        Sarcasm? With such an issue? Never!!

    2. anmarie says:

      I’m totally (50%) in agreement!

    3. John Borstlap says:

      The question is: WHICH half.

  3. Concernedcitizen says:

    I still see an imbalance here as this will mean that mostly music by white people is going to be performed. Where is the quota for black or asian composers ?
    And what about transgender ?

    1. John Borstlap says:

      Also there are not enough female Portugese composers, and black composers from Scandinavia. They have to be quickly educated and thrown-into music life to make-up for the imbalance. Another imbalance is the lack of good composers across the board. But how to repair that problem?

    2. The Voice from America says:

      For sure. It is an outrage!

  4. Ryan Palmer says:

    They haven’t banned “men-only” concerts at all. They’re simply programming 50% of their concerts to be music composed by women. Technically they could have an all-male orchestra but the music composed by a woman.

    1. norman lebrecht says:

      They have actually said they won’t have concerts with only male composers.

      1. Ryan says:

        Could you show me where? I can’t find anything that states this. I’m not saying your wrong, I just can’t find any mention of this in their announcement.

        1. norman lebrecht says:

          This was their headline: ‘Leading international music college moves to abolish all-male composer concerts’. No further detail is given.

          1. dc-reading says:

            This is a year long festival 18/19 – not an in perpetuity ban? It stokes resentments not to have researched this fully or to have written a more considered article

      2. Paul Wright says:

        This is what they actually say on their website

        Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance is proud to announce Venus Blazing, an unprecedented commitment to the music of women composers throughout the next academic year.
        Drawing on centuries of music past and present, Trinity Laban will ensure that at least half of the music it chooses for the multitude of varied public performances it mounts on its landmark Greenwich campus and in venues across London in 2018/19 will be by women composers

        In other words it promises a 50/50 split across the totality of the programming, not in each individual concert.

        1. Gerhard says:

          So once again we have been enjoying SD’s standards of journalism. On the other hand, this one didn’t seem all that unlikely given our recent social climate …

          1. Grüffalo says:

            Well, yes. It is Sound And Music’s policy, by the way.

  5. Tom Moore says:

    As we say in the American South, “bless their little hearts”. I will be interested to follow this. Will the pieces be recorded/live-streamed so that we can all enjoy the results?

    1. The Voice from America says:


  6. Willaert says:

    What about the quality of the music performed?
    Historically, there have been many more male composers than female composers, so probabilities mean there is a greater percentage of masterpieces written by male composers. The same happens at the music schools nowadays: if only 2 out of every 10 composing students are female (data taken from a UK College of Music), aiming for a 50/50 world is discriminative against quality.
    IMHO we should be encouraging many more women to desire to become conductors/composers/CEOs, etc. through education and through a social mentality of fairness and seek of quality, not by forcing percentages.

    1. Pizzarco says:

      Too true. We all surely want to get rid of sex, age or any other form of discrimination but this is starting to get a bit silly. The established composers whose works fill the standard repertoire were male because that’s how things were in the 18th/19th and even part of the 20th centuries. Attitudes to women were appalling by today’s standards in every facet of life of which musical composition was only one small part.
      This idea will rapidly give you a large number of second rate programmes along with the occasional rediscovered gem. It’s just the same with any relatively unknown male or female composer’s works suddenly getting an airing after years of neglect. You rapidly see why they were quietly shelved and forgotten about.
      The world is changing, not fast enough, but changing nevertheless. Soon composers, conductors or anything else will be just that and their gender will be neither here nor there. Till that day comes let’s keep working on the present and not try to correct the mistakes of the past.

      1. David says:

        You state

        “…It’s just the same with any relatively unknown male or female composer’s works suddenly getting an airing after years of neglect. You rapidly see why they were quietly shelved and forgotten about.”

        However, once upon a time, Johann Sebastian Bach was unearthed in good part by the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn…clearly demonstrating there were factors other than musical quality that resulted in Bach’s music being “quietly shelved and forgotten about.”

        Furthermore, had not this “correction” of past mistakes been undertaken by Mendelssohn (and presumably by others in the know), would we still enjoy and celebrate the music of J.S. Bach as we do today…or would his music still be forgotten and quietly shelved?

        The idea you share here regarding the reason for older works disappearing from the canon is the exact reason why it is important to unearth past gems (and yes, along with all the Schuberts unearthed there will be Hummels).

        As in the case of Bach, reasons other than issues of musical quality were often at play in the past as regards the music written by women. Nobody can say, if there are “great” women composers of the past whose music needs to be heard…if we do not NOW allow their music to be heard. If we simply say, “we know why they’re shelved and forgotten” then we will have chosen ignorance over the possibility that unearthed music by this woman or that may very well be amazing!

        You go on to state further

        “…Soon composers, conductors or anything else will be just that and their gender will be neither here nor there. Till that day comes let’s keep working on the present and not try to correct the mistakes of the past.”

        This other idea you share here regarding our need, now, to only be “working on the present” has another unseen consequence that has something to be shown by the example of J.S. Bach. He wrote constantly, and had weekly performances and I’m sure sometimes more – and that ability to hear the results of his compositional attempts surely must have resulted in better music, as he learned from listening to the results day by day and week by week.

        If we do not seek to provide that type of rich learning environment to today’s composers – men and women both – then we are depriving them of learning from listening to the results of their writing, and in so doing doom future music to potentially sub-standard levels of quality. This potential to contribute to the development of lower-quality music argues in favor of providing equal opportunity for women composers as well as men, to learn and therefore develop greater skill…instead of being relegated to the “doesn’t write good music” heap before even being given the chance to do better.

        Seems to me that by allowing both genders to share more equally in the training opportunities afforded by music schools, we right at least some of the wrongs of the past AND we work to ensure a higher-quality musical future. That’s a pretty good double return on a single investment of purpose.

        1. John Borstlap says:

          Wise words.

  7. Hilary says:

    How much research has been done by the likes of Sound and Music?
    For instance, if there’s a small number of first study female composers applying to study to universities and music colleges it suggests that *maybe* there are access issues which need to be addressed. The same study would ideally investigate state school as opposed public school etc.

  8. Greg Hlatky says:

    With Identity politics, anything that seems insane today will be mandatory tomorrow.

    1. The Voice from America says:


  9. Doug says:

    Mao is smiling from his prison cell in Hell. His legacy lives on in the soft brains of useful idiots.

  10. Robert Holmén says:

    “…with a particular focus on ‘missing’ modern British women.”

    I suppose the modern music by female composers can’t be any more hopeless than the modern music by male composers.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      That’s what I call true equality! But I have to insist that male bad music is much worse than bad female music…! In the end, it’s not the result which counts but the gesture, because the gesture connects us with each other, not some abstract quality thing. I always try to listen to female music with open ears and to male music with ear plugs. And then you will find that the male music is really worse, all those white dominating pieces… I’m glad that the stuff gets shelved, eventually. I just wonder: where do gay composers fall? Half-female or half-male? And in which half would they be performed?


      1. anmarie says:

        Your last point is particularly on target.

        Then again, I expect nothing less from our Sally.

  11. JoBe says:

    “Climate change or virtue signalling?”

    Virtue signalling. They just can’t change the sex of Bach (all the Bachs), Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven e tutti quanti. And they can’t drop them for inferior composers either, at least not systematically.

    1. JD says:

      Jesus Overly-Cynical Christ, are you serious?

  12. Alex Davies says:

    ‘Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance in east London …’

    For reasons derived from the historical development of London those portions of the city in the east and the west lying more or less contiguous to the river are privileged with the descriptions ‘east London’ and ‘west London’, respectively. The equivalent portions of the city lying south of the river, on the other hand, are always prefixed ‘south’. Therefore, while the Isle of Dogs, north of the river, is indeed in east London, Greenwich, on the opposite side of the river, is in southeast London. This fact is no doubt known to the author, but may be unknown to readers who are not local.

  13. Grüffalo says:

    I’d like to hear Feldman’s second quartet balanced with a piece of equal length by a female composer!

    1. David says:

      I look forward to a day when, because we program a wonderful piece of music by a woman composer, we no longer are made to listen to the work of a composer like Feldman.

      I realize that’s an entirely personal, subjective opinion on the matter, but there are some excellent women composers working today who, had they been enjoying equal opportunities during the period of Feldman, would now be performed and remembered instead of him…and deservedly so!

      1. Grüffalo says:

        It’s subjective, as you say, so I’ll let your crazy judgement (imho) about Feldman’s significance go unchallenged. But I’d like you to name some of these composers, just out of curiosity.

        1. David says:

          First let me say, if Feldman’s music is meaningful to you that is fantastic – that’s what music is supposed to be about. Not everyone is the same, so different composers’ music will move different people in different ways…so by all means, listen to those composers (of either gender) whose music makes your life richer.

          Now for my “crazy” opinions! 🙂

          My list encompasses women from a ways back to today, but here are a few whose music I find full of vivid imagination, structural integrity, color, polish, and more…in short, music that is meaningful to me…and music that deserves to be heard.

          Galina Ustvolskaya
          Lucia Dlugoszewski
          Ruth Crawford-Seeger
          Joan Tower
          Libby Larsen
          Elena Ruehr
          Laura Elise Schwendinger
          Lori Laitman
          Julia Wolfe
          Unsuk Chin
          Lera Auerbach
          Juliana Hall
          Gabriela Lena Frank
          Jennifer Higdon
          Clarice Assad
          Hilda Paredes
          Sheila Silver
          Florence Price
          Amy Beach
          Aleksandra Vrebalov
          Gwyneth Walker
          Vivian Fine
          Marta Ptaszynska
          Nancy Van de Vate
          Abbie Betinis
          Luna Pearl Woolf
          Chaya Czernowin

          1. Grüffalo says:

            For me, Feldman is one of those composers–like Stockhausen, like Stravinsky, like Beethoven–who totally revolutionised what music could be. I don’t regard him as “just another male composer”. His innovations in terms form put him above, say, Berio and Boulez in my estimation…

            Anyway. I admire some of the composers on your list. In my opinion (since we’re both allowing ourselves to be subjective) Unsuk Chin is the greatest female composer in history. She’d only have been in her mid twenties when Feldman died. She will be remembered as a truly great and significant composer in the future. You needn’t worry about that. And she’ll deserve it.

            The odd thing about your list, though, is that it appears to be more than a tad undiscriminating. By which I mean, it appears to resemble a very consciously assembled “collection” of names more than a genuine music lover’s playlist. Perhaps you really are that eclectic in your taste. For my money, anyone who admires both Jennifer Higdon and Unsuk Chin really can’t have a particularly deep understanding of Unsuk Chin’s music.

          2. David says:

            To GRÜFFALO and LEWES BIRD:

            The list is a real list of composers whose music I very much admire and enjoy. Not every piece, but then I don’t like every piece by Mozart either.

            It may seem “undiscriminating” to you, but I do have quite eclectic tastes…in the category of music by men, I include such favorites as:

            Stockhausen Helikopter Quartet
            Tippett Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli
            Beethoven Triple Concerto
            Berlioz Harold in Italy
            Monteverdi Madrigals of Love and War
            Uccellini Violin Sonatas
            Britten Charm of Lullabies
            Heinrich Isaac Dance Music
            Tishchenko Concerto for Cello, 17 Wind Instruments, Percussion, and Harmonium
            Biber Rosary Sonatas
            Crumb Black Angels
            Bach St. John Passion
            Ruders Bravura Studies on L’Homme Armé for Solo Cello
            Walton Viola Concerto
            Rameau Pygmalion Overture for Harpsichord, arr. by Balbâtre
            John Ireland Songs
            Hindemith English Horn Sonata
            Dvorak Bagatelles for String Trio and Harmonium
            Elliott Carter 1st String Quartet
            Pachelbel Organ Fugues
            Schubert E-flat Piano Trio
            16th Century Music from South America
            Webern Songs
            Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms


            Despite your thoughts, neither of these lists is cut and paste, and while it may appear “to resemble a very consciously assembled “collection” of names more than a genuine music lover’s playlist” the fact is that I’m a musician, and during my many years of school and 30 years following, I’ve collected nearly 2,000 CDs of all sorts of music that I’ve enjoyed AS A GENUINE MUSIC LOVER!

          3. David says:

            You must feel very important to say such insightful things…good for you!!!

          4. Grüffalo says:

            I guess what I’m saying in a nutshell is that good composers tend to admire other composers who do things they either couldn’t do themselves, or wouldn’t have thought of doing. I don’t think they admire other composers who do things that they themselves would simply have rejected as unworthy of their own talent/vision.

        2. David says:

          I was enjoying a nice conversation with GRÜFFALO…and you inserted yourself into it without consent…and you have added no value at all…just insults…and rudeness.

          You weren’t part of the conversation, and your comments don’t add to it…so please go away and be rude to someone else.

          1. Grüffalo says:

            Ok. I believe you. Your second list was equally zany 🙂

            The trouble is, some people who are extremely passionate about the cause of promoting female composers (and considerably less concerned about the actual music of those composers) do often make the mistake of cobbling together totally stupid lists. Many of the people on such lists would obviously despise each other’s music. I can’t say for certain, but I don’t imagine Chin would appreciate being lumped in with Higdon any more than, say, Beat Furrer would appreciate being lumped in with Eric Whitacre. Which gets to the core of the problem: with initiatives like this, a huge amount of attention is necessarily (and regrettably) drawn away from the composer as an individual. That’s all I wanted to say.

          2. David says:

            I don’t think of it as me lumping anyone in with anyone else…they are most certainly individuals, and I agree with you that Chin is truly outstanding.

            I’m not sure these composers would despise each other’s music. They may. Or they may simply realize they’re writing very different types of music and know they’re in somewhat different worlds.

            My answers reflect me perhaps more than the women on the list…I am able to appreciate such varied composers’ work for what that work is…I’m not thinking in terms of who’s better or worse…but just enjoying the unique voices they are.

            The music written by all the women on my list has such individual sound, in my view, and that’s really great…such variety of sounds, but all done very well in their respective styles.

          3. Grüffalo says:

            No, of course. I acknowledge that your list is a genuine one of composers whose music you genuinely admire.

            I’m gonna presumptuously guess that you’re a performer? Or a musicologist? Or a music teacher? Or perhaps more than one of those? Reason simply being that composers tend to be a lot more opinionated about each other’s music than you might think. The work of a composer involves making a whole lot of value judgements. To choose one note over another, you must establish in your mind a reason for thinking one note is better than another. In the case of the two composers we’re discussing, I personally find Chin’s harmony vibrant and nuanced, and her orchestration pretty much unmatched in its imagination and colour. I find higdon’s harmony downright unsophisticated and her orchestration hackneyed. There is a tiny possibility that Chin might admire Higdon’s music, but in choosing to write in the way she does, she’s importantly taking the decision to avoid almost everything Higdon does (or is capable of doing). Therefore, I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine she would have nothing but contempt for it.

            Of course, your attitude is very positive. And probably allows you to enjoy a much broader range of music than may of the people who write that music. So, yeah, I hope you continue you enjoy as much music as much as you do.

        3. David says:

          GRÜFFALO, I am indeed a performer, but have many friends who are composers and since my undergrad days I’ve focused on performing the music of living composers, so I have some idea how they operate…and, to be honest, my positive enjoyment of many styles probably does blind me to some degree to the reality that there is much judgment by composers on each others work…as we performers feel very strongly indeed about our performer “heros” and those whose playing we cannot stomach.

          You’re quite correct, as well, that the passion for the “cause” of promoting women composers (or any other group of composers) often does result in the loss of attention to the music itself as the passion for “progress” takes over – very good point, and I’ve seen this more often than I care to recall.

          We started with Feldman…and I don’t think I’ll ever be close to him…but I can see you love music, and if Feldman and Chin provide what you need, that’s excellent. It’s reassuring to see someone who loves what he’s doing.

          All in all, you have some very interesting and insightful observations…I’ve enjoyed hearing your views and thank you for the interesting conversation.

          1. Grüffalo says:

            I enjoyed it too. You probably already know the piece, but on the off chance that you don’t, I’d recommend listening to the first few minutes of Feldman’s “Piano and String Quartet”. Best thing he ever did imo. If you’re not hooked by then… I guess you really just don’t like Feldman 🙁

        4. David says:

          I’ll give it a listen…sometimes you just have to wait until you’re ready…maybe I’m ready for Feldman now…could be!

          And for your listening assignment, Galina Ustvolskaya’s “Grand Duet” for cello and piano – a true masterpiece.

          Best regards. 🙂

  14. Bruce says:

    I think the consternation regarding gender equality is partly due to the fact that it’s always been pretty damn difficult to make a career in music as a male, even when gender hasn’t been a factor (i.e. the whole history of music until the last few decades).

    Now we men (some of us anyway) are worried that not only is our talent and perseverance not going to be enough, but we usually don’t even have the option of having sex with conductors/ agents/ whoever, to get work. Women often do have this option (even though hardly any of them want it), so we figure they must be abusing it. How else to explain the sudden increase in numbers of female conductors etc.?

    Or the other explanation must be the “political correctness” option, where these women must have been hired primarily because they’re women, not primarily because they’re good.

    I think most of us know neither one of these is true — at least, no more true than it is for men. Think of how many male conductors get excoriated for their lack of technical/ interpretive skill, and they owe their career to their hair/ cheekbones/ media savvy/ foreign accent.

    My response is: let the pendulum swing the other way for a while. As it swings back and forth, the extremes will come closer together. (It will probably never stop swinging completely.)

    1. Bede Williams says:

      Good point well made.

  15. Luigi Nonono says:

    Once again, women are accommodated at the expense of men. There are not 50% of composers who are women, which means fewer men will get heard. Moreover, there are programs and ensembles that are female-only, and none that are deliberately male only. This is a false action that will fail as they prove unable to find enough composers worth featuring, if any at all!

    1. David says:

      “there are programs and ensembles that are female-only, and none that are deliberately male only”

      none that are deliberately male only?

      try all the American, British, and European orchestras from their beginnings up until as recently as just a few years ago…it has been a LONG period of male-only ensembles, which fortunately, hugely talented women have successfully joined and enriched by their musical gifts in recent years (and recent years only)

      men have enjoyed hundreds of years of “opportunity” – a bit of noblesse oblige is warranted, unless you’re worried that women’s talents will outshine men’s???

  16. Sue says:

    Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance. Phew; for a minute there I thought I read Trinity Labian Conservatoire of Music and Dance. In either case, surely it’s a world-leading arts organization which will propel its graduates into stellar career orbits!!

    1. Bruce says:

      *cue the jokes about “vaginaphone majors”

      1. Sue says:

        Sense of humour required.

  17. Alex Davies says:

    What puzzles me about this is the emphasis on “modern British women”. Surely it is in contemporary classical music that the bias in favour of male composers is in fact the least pronounced. Are the careers of Tansy Davies, Roxanna Panufnik, Sally Beamish,and Judith Weir really being hindered by gender bias? I am prepared to be genuinely appalled if they are, but I am not persuaded that this is the case. Is anybody able to explain to me what processes are at work to prevent performances of works by contemporary female composers? If anything, I should have thought that at the present moment in history female composers would in fact be offered disproportionately more opportunities than male composers precisely because of the need to redress historical biases.

    On the other hand, it surely could be genuinely very interesting and productive if Trinity Laban were to attempt to revive interest in female composers from further back in the history of music. I recently obtained a Naxos CD featuring violin concertos by three Swedish romantic composers, Franz Berwald, Wilhelm Stenhammar, and Tor Aulin (all of them men). I have to admit that I had never even heard of these composers, let alone heard any music by them. This confirms my belief that there exists a huge amount of wonderful music that is rarely, if ever, performed or recorded simply because the composers are no longer famous. No doubt there exists music of similarly high quality by female composers who have also been long since forgotten by all but the most careful scholars. Are Filipina Brzezińska’s organ preludes, for example, any good? Or Halina Krzyżanowska’s opera Magdusia? I have no idea, but there must be so much forgotten repertoire that could be profitably rediscovered.

    On the other hand, there are surely risks involved in programming works from outside the established repertoire. One may be forgiven for thinking that, historically, all of the greatest composer were, in fact, men. Does Ethel Smyth really deserve to be performed as often as Janáček, Elgar, Puccini, and Debussy? Or Amy Beach as often as Strauss and Sibelius? Elisabeth Lutyens as often as Shostakovich? Perhaps they do. I don’t know. I just suspect that for every Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Brahms, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Mahler, or Strauss there probably simply does not exist a body of work by a female composer of equal quality. Needless to say, this is not because women are inherently less talented, but because historical circumstances made it easier for a Chopin, a Dvořák, or a Sibelius to flourish than for any of their female contemporaries to reach their potential. But with contemporary composers I’m not sure why it ought to make a difference. Female composers such as Unsuk Chin appear to be meeting with at least as much success as any man.

  18. John Borstlap says:

    “Is anybody able to explain to me what processes are at work to prevent performances of works by contemporary female composers?”

    This is entirely impossible to know, because ALL processes which lead to performances of whatever contemporary music are entirely random and dependent upon circumstance, mental block, personal enthusiasm, hatred, ideology, innovation, courage, shallowness, connections, available money, laziness, memory impairment, taste, etc. etc. in short: the human condition. Once, an excellent soprano wanted to perform a (very tonal) song cycle of mine she liked very much but that item on her proposal programmes was rejected time and again, and the only outlet she could find was a German festival for music by female composers. So she proposed the cycle under a female pseudonym and it was immediately accepted, and performed, and considered a female highlight. I refrained from attending because I had to have to apply an elaborate disguise, with the risk of being found-out.

    1. Alex Davies says:

      I don’t even know whether you’re joking!

      1. John Borstlap says:

        No, it is not a joke… it really happened, to my amazement.

        It is one of these indications that what happens in the music world, is much more determined by prejudices, convention, and ignorance than by the awareness of musical qualities.

  19. Anthony Kershaw says:

    Trinity should concentrate on a few things other than this:

    1. Take back the original name.
    2. Move back to central London
    3. Improve standards.
    4. Stop with the social engineering

    Sounds like the (always good) Trinity PR team has bent busy, busy.

    1. Hilary says:

      ‘Move back to Central London’
      But Greenwich Naval College is an architectural gem.

      1. Grüffalo says:

        It’s a truly marvellous building. Nobody inside can play their instrument worth a damn of course, but it’s very nice to look at!

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