At last, a woman composer will be included in UK exams

At last, a woman composer will be included in UK exams


norman lebrecht

September 10, 2015

One of the leading British exam boards, Edexcel, has bowed to public pressure and agreed to include a woman composer in the A-level syllabus for school-leaving exams.

The campaign was started last month by a schoolgirl, Jessy McCabe, and gathered support from various media and educators. This week, Edexcel’s owners Pearson apologised to Jessy and agreed to consult on which woman composer to include next year. They are asking Judith Weir, the Queen’s musician.

Your suggestions for the best woman composer to be studied by 16-17 years olds?

Kaija Saariaho


  • Boring Fileclerk says:

    Sofia Gubaidulina and Thea Musgrave come to mind. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich is the the other possible choice.

    • Alexander says:

      I think Sofia Gubaidulina is one of few living composers, male or female, whose music will endure as an example of the culture of our time.

  • Furzwängler says:

    She doesn’t necessarily have to be modern. Fanny Mendelssohn or Clara Schumann spring to mind.

  • Scott Fields says:

    Anna Magdalena Bach, for her six cello suites if nothing else.

  • T. Manor says:

    Forget popularity, history, or any form of relevance. Just make it 50% women, 50% men. That’s probably the best thing to do, if not the fairest method.

    • Martin says:

      The fairest method is to choose the most suitable candidates regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, sex or if the like Minions or not.

  • Mark Winn says:

    Gubaidulina’s “Offertorium” a great piece!

  • Flossie says:

    Judith Bingham. Grace Williams, Dilys Elwyn Edwards, Morfydd Llwyn Owen. Elaine Hugh Jones.

  • David Boxwell says:

    Hey teach, 10 extra points for spelling “Kaija Saariaho” right, OK?

  • John Borstlap says:

    At the music faculty of Camford a research team has recently discovered that 3/4 of Judith Weir’s music was written by her brother.

    • Furzwängler says:

      But did you hear today’s really BIG news? : apparently Shakespeare’s complete plays were actually written by Anne Hathaway, his wife, with the one exception of Titus Andronicus, which was penned by him – apparently he had cannibalistic tendencies, which have only just become known.

  • herrera says:

    Which man is being replaced?

    • Alexander says:

      Possibly none of them. The original story was actually rather misleading. I think it was misreported that the work of 63 male composers was set. In fact, the total number of composers was much smaller, as the syllabus also includes a number of non-classical works (e.g. pop music and folk music, including the work of at least one female artist), and among the classical works several composers are represented by more than one work. So they may simply remove a work by Bach, for example rather than removing Bach himself.

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    Jessy – any relation to John?

  • Janis says:

    Hildegard of Bingen. No study of music is complete without her.

  • Alexander says:

    I think it has to be Sofia Gubaidulina.

  • Michael Hall says:

    So many good choices. There is no excuse not to have more on the list.
    Mara Gibson
    Marta Ptazynska
    Sarah Kirkland Snider
    Alexander Gardner
    Jennifer Higdon – Pulitzer Prize
    Shulamit Ran – Pulitzer Prize
    Mary Kouyoumdjian
    Stacy Garrop
    Augusta Read Thomas

  • Alexander says:

    I have to admit that I feel rather uneasy about the idea of an examination board adapting its syllabus in response to a demand from a student who conceived the idea as part of a programme to address issues of gender inequality, including stated aims of acknowledging women and providing role models. I do not in fact oppose the idea of the inclusion of a female composer, or even several, but it should be done purely on grounds of utility in the teaching of the history of music. If Sofia Gubaidulina, for example, were to be added to the syllabus, it would be because of her importance as a composer, not because she is a woman.

    Furthermore, the claim that 63 male composers were set was actually untrue. The total number of composers set is actually 38. Excluding examples of film and television music (which ranges from Bernstein, whom I would argue has earned a place in the canon of western art music, to the theme music from Morse), the total number is just 32, meaning that the original figure of 63 was an exaggeration by almost 100%.

    In fact, more worrying to me than the absence of female composers is the absence of some really important composers, such as Handel, Strauss, Mahler, Berg, Sibelius, Chopin, Liszt, Britten, Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Verdi, and Mendelssohn, among others.

    As for nationality, including film/tv music, but excluding jazz, pop, and world music, we have seven Americans, seven English, and one Australian (fifteen representatives of the Anglophone world in total), six Austrians and five Germans (eleven Austro-Germans), five French, four Italians, two Russians, and one Dutch. Notably absent are Poles (surely at least one of Chopin, Górecki, Lutosławski, Moniuszko, Paderewski, Panufnik, Penderecki, Szymanowski, or Wieniawski could have merited inclusion), Czechs (likewise Dvořák, Janáček, Martinů, Smetana, Suk), Hungarians (Bartók, Eötvös, Kodály, Kurtág, Lehár, Ligeti, Liszt), and any representatives of the Nordic and Baltic countries (even setting aside Grieg and Nielsen, and Pärt and Vasks, surely two of the greatest composers working today, it is absolutely baffling that anybody could be considered musically educated with no knowledge of Sibelius). Much more pressing, in fact, than the absence of women, is perhaps the fact of having a syllabus which is in fact the history of Anglo-Saxon, Austro-German, French, Italian, and Russian music (plus one Dutch work).

    • William Safford says:

      Shouldn’t it make one more uncomfortable to realize that it took the input of a child to point out and highlight such an omission?

      Kudos to TPTB to address this, even if in only a small way.

      • Alexander says:

        Sorry, but I still don’t see that it was really a problem which needed to be addressed. If we were looking at an English literature syllabus with no women that would, of course, be outrageous. One could hardly overestimate the importance of women in the history of English literature: Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontës, Elizabeth Gaskell, Virginia Woolf, Daphne du Maurier, etc. In the history of music, however, while there are good female composers, there are no female composers who are indispensable to the history of the art form.

        More problematic, surely, is, for example, the complete absence of Italian opera later than Monteverdi. There is no Rossini, no Donizetti, no Bellini, no Verdi, no Leoncavallo, no Puccini, no Mascagni. One of the most important areas of classical music has simply been written out of history. Similarly, as I said above, east of Germany and Austria, there is no music until we reach Russia! In fact, even Russia is represented by Stravinsky and Shostakovitch (worthy inclusions), no Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, or Glazunov. So, no music from the non-Austro-German countries of central Europe, no music from the Nordic or Baltic regions, no music from the Iberian peninsula or Latin America, that is, no Chopin, no Dvořák, no Bartók, no Sibelius, but the really pressing need is the inclusion of a female composer. Does anybody really believe students should be made to study Dilys Elwyn-Edwards (suggested above), but not Sibelius or any example of the long golden age of Italian opera?

        Honestly, I do not dislike women in any way at all. In the field of literature, one could well imagine a 50/50 split between men and women from the nineteenth century onwards, and it would be absolutely shocking not to include titanic figures such as those suggested above, or some of the towering examples of American literature, such as Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison. But in the field of music, it is a sad fact that until very recently most women just didn’t have the opportunity to compose. It is therefore an art form whose history, though not its present or future, is dominated by men.

      • Alexander says:

        PS. I just realised the Monteverdi isn’t even opera, so that is no Italian opera at all!

    • Tom says:

      This should have been reported at the time. But, of course, it’s much less of a story… Those are some very major figures to have been excluded.
      Female composer to be included – Wendy Carlos Williams…

  • Hugo says:

    Olga Neuwirth

  • Patrick John Gordon Shaw says:

    Only ONE mention of Dame Judith Weir and that one derrogatory – shame on the scribe! Her music is the most original from the Sceptred Isle since B.B. – AND equally impressive!

  • Jill Davies says:

    Kerry Andrew – she’s not just a composer (award-winning, commissioned and published) but also a performer, with juice vocal ensemble and Dollyman, she’s been picked by the British Council/PRS as one of 3 Musicians in Residence to go to China this season and she’s a very active music educator. Who better to inspire young people to love music?

  • Dave T says:

    How about a Syrian migrant woman composer? A two’fer!

  • Halldor says:

    Pretty certain Grace Williams *was* on the exam syllabus in Wales at one point.

  • DLowe says:

    Alexander is entirely right. Composers on their merits, not on their gender. Frankly, none of above women comes close to matching Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Strauss etc.