The only women composers to get heard are the living ones

The only women composers to get heard are the living ones


norman lebrecht

December 06, 2015

The Baltimore Symphony’s annual survey of US orchestral repertoire never fails to throw up a depressing statistic or few.

Try this: almost one-fifth of the music performed is by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.

Or this: Less than two percent of the music, 1.8% to be precise, is written by women.

All those women are presently alive. Dead women composers do not exist.

That rules out Bacewicz, Kapralova, Ustvolskaya (all three fascinating)…


… Any Beach, Ruth Seeger, Lizzie Lutyens, Ethel Smyth, Maconchy, Fanny Mendelssohn, Hildegard of Bingen, Clara Schumann, Rebecca Clarke, Vivian Fine and the putative Mrs Bach.

Not that the playing situation is much better anywhere else, as far as we can tell.

Dead women composers are always deader than men.


  • Pirkko says:

    “That rules out Amy Beach, Ruth Seeger, Bacewicz, Kapralova, Ustvolskaya (all three fascinating)…”

    Now which three of the named five are fascinating? ?

  • John Borstlap says:

    Nothing against Hildegard von Bingen, but I don’t think she wrote music for orchestra.

  • Backdesker says:

    Grace Williams’ substantial Missa Cambrensis gets an airing in Cardiff next March, its first for over 40 years. Rowan Williams narrates!

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Peggy Stuart Coolidge’s music, ‘Pioneer Dances’ gets occasional play, most recently with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lucas Richman. Apparently, there is a catalog of her works ready to be taken up by conductors and orchestras who would be able to take on such a recording project of her music. I believe Naxos does not yet have her music in their catalog. Her life spanned 1913-1981. —Conductors???

  • Ross says:

    Fine. Play some of it.
    But make sure half the program is devoted the Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, or the likes, or else I won’t come.
    It costs me two tickets, parking, and sometimes dinner/drinks. Not to mention a free evening. I’m not taking chances with that much at stake! I know what I like and can’t go through too much trouble for an evening full of stuff I probably will not like!

    • John Borstlap says:

      This innocent comment shows the core problem of orchestral performance culture.

      Contemporary music is overshadowed by top achievement from the past which remains contemporary, in the sense that it offers great musical experience that does not age (on the condition that it is performed really well). Also, the popular classics form the basis of performance technique: ensemble playing, balance, interrelationship.

      Before WW II, new works, also by unknown names, did in general NOT inspire the type of reaction as shown in the comment above. In contrary, if an unknown, new piece was part of the programme which otherwise included a couple of known classics, audiences were curious. A programme with a new piece by a composer even vaguely known at the time, like Prokofiev or Bartok, was an audience draw: ‘Premiere’-time and the best dress was pulled from the cupboard. In short: there had been a bond of trust between audiences, performers and composers, and goodwill on all sides. (Think of the excentric Mahler symphonies being unleashed upon traditional audiences around 1900: they were criticized but did not chase listeners away.) Only from the time that composers began to think of themselves as completely independent from musical performance culture, this bond of trust was broken, and ‘new music’ began to form its own, separate cultural context.

      So, the debate about female/male composers is part of this problem. And in the context of the general problem of contemporary music, a minor one, I think.

      • Ross says:

        I’m not going to think of anything Mr. Borstlap. I’m a customer paying for what I want to hear!
        I encountered some music for the first time and it spoke to my soul. Some other music has grown on me.
        I don’t care how Mahler’s work or Beethoven’s 130 was received at the time of it’s premiere. Both spoke to me the first time I heard them.
        I’ve been to big concerts in big halls and seen what the masses want to hear.
        I’ve also been to small concerts in niche venues, with empty seats all around, which have been warmly praised by the critics. I never go to those any more, because the dozen or so I went to were a complete waste of time.
        Don’t you see what is going on? Give people what they want to hear. Tell the critics who are praising all the concerts that very few people enjoy to stop trying to pressure already struggling big organizations from programming niche music.
        As I said before, I will not “take a chance”, lose $150 and a free evening, to go hear a bunch of music that sounds like ugly noise to me, and will sound like ugly noise next time I hear it, and doesn’t speak to me. Maybe I would have contributed a few thousand to such an organization if they played me my favorite Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms, Mozart, and Schubert Symphonies every year.

      • Ross says:

        And before you respond with “it’s too bad you feel that way”, consider that it’s too bad that thousands of classical music lovers, donors, and supporters all feel this way.
        Give us the music we want to hear, and we come. We’ll donate. We’ll volunteer. Constantly program a bunch of garbage (to our ears) and we won’t.
        Realize that there are thousands like me, and people with your attitude are alienating us from concert halls.

        • Eric says:

          How depressing… Can you not see that for the likes of Beethoven, Brahms etc to have risen to the surface in their time, there had to be an awful lot of other music (some good, some mediocre, some poor) performed alongside theirs to enable any sort of comparison to take place. How do you propose any contemporary composer (male or female) is going to have that same chance to stand the test of time if their music isn’t performed at all? This kind of attitude is just perpetuating a museum culture that will lead to classical music just withering and dying. Maybe that doesn’t bother you, though?

          • John Borstlap says:

            My first comment upon Ross’ comment was actually confirming the point he wanted to make: contemporary audiences in general don’t like contemporary music.

            Given the nature of the central performance culture, much contemporary music does not connect with this culture and the cause is the break with a tradition. While, for instance, contemporary literature does not create barriers with audiences, music is dependent upon a value framework to be able to be understood. For composers, connecting with contemporary music audiences requires accepting the cultural framework of the performance culture and the reluctance to see oneself as a member of a three-part cultural structure (composer, performer, listener) stems from the fear of being considered ‘conservative’ or ‘commercial’, notions fed by modernist ideologies.

            People like Beethoven stretched the musical language of their time but never overstepped the value framework of its musical culture. That only happened with Schoenberg.

    • Will Duffay says:

      Just out of interest, and I don’t mean this question to sound rude: do you expect music to be pretty and pleasant and soothing, and nothing else?

      • John Borstlap says:

        Are “Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, or the likes” merely “pretty and pleasant and soothing, and nothing else?” All three have profoundly disturbing episodes in their music, but always embedded in an overall harmonious context which ennobles them. (Examples: Mozart string quintet in G 1st and 2nd mvt, and 1st mvts of pf concerti in c and d, Beethoven IX 1st mvt, Brahms 1st pf concerto 1st mvt and symph IV 1st and last mvt).

    • MacroV says:

      The problem you encapsulate here isn’t that you know what you like; it’s that you like what you know. And you’re by no means alone there. And it’s not a problem limited to classical music; I submit there is probably no more conservative audience out there than for the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and all those old bands from the 60s and 70s, who will probably boo them off the stage if they don’t play their old hits.

      You’re making very broadsided comments about new music being a bunch of noise that you don’t want to shell out a lot of money to hear. Understood, but there’s a lot of great music out there – perfectly listenable – that people also walk out on. A lot of people won’t stay around even to listen to Nielsen symphonies, or other works on the fringes of the standard rep that would seem to offend nobody.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Good points!

      • Ross says:

        That’s all true and a very good post.
        You also mention that I’m by no means alone. Can you also admit that a large scale organization that depends on mass sales could eventually be devastated by programming that alienates such a large chunk of the audience?
        This large chunk of the audience doesn’t want to be educated. We know what nourishes our souls. We also know that certain new things have a 2% chance of nourishing our souls, and I, personally do not want to spend $150 and waste a free evening with such a risk. I will also send a check for $500-1000 every year if they give me what I want to hear on a regular basis.
        Critics are out of touch. “Oh…why are the Berliners playing Beethoven? Why are the New Yorkers playing Rachmaninoff?” Big problem here, and it’s too bad for the arts and audience members if they stop playing our music so often.
        And regarding museums, sure, I go and love spending time with great masterworks that have a personal style. Occasionally I go to modern exhibits; at least I can continue my walk if I don’t like something. No, I’m not going to stand in front of some twisted, unrecognizable mass, masquerading as sculpture, and no, I will never grow to like it. Oh, and it never costs me $150 and I can control the amount of time spent/wasted.

        • MacroV says:

          I think, though, that you are presenting a false choice. It’s not a matter of safe and familiar Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, etc., vs. something unfamiliar and awful. No matter how knowledgable any of us are about symphonic repertoire, chances are there are great pieces – even great composers – that we don’t know. Or that haven’t yet been compellingly presented.

          Where orchestras are failing, I believe, is that they haven’t built trust with their audiences. Great artists – and orchestras count – should be developing a relationship with their audience that says “we are playing music you may not know but that we, as musicians, really believe in, and we want to share it with you.” And get audiences to buy into this concept. Bernstein believed in Mahler and programmed it a lot (and Abravanel in Utah even before him!), trying to convince audiences of its greatness. Charles McKerras fell in love with Janacek and did heroic work to popularize his music (especially his operas) in the West. Neeme Jarvi’s brand became presenting all sorts of unfamiliar composers from Scandinavia, the Baltics and other former Soviet states (Tubin, etc.). Muti conducting the more neglected Verdi operas. And who would ever go to listen to Jordi Savall if they wanted to hear something familiar? His whole schtick is presenting music – from a certain era or place – that you almost certainly don’t know, but doing it in a way that you’ll never forget.

          I would mention that back in 1980 my youth orchestra played Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, and hardly any orchestra was playing it back then. This year six US orchestras are playing it (I didn’t count, but possibly more than are playing Heldenleben), and it can safely be called standard rep. There are many pieces out there awaiting the same transformation.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Good points. But it is true that since the beginning of the last century, increasingly composers did no longer want to ‘nourish the soul’ (which is a perfectly legitimate expression and not some bourgeois cliché) and concentrated either on superficial fun or pure sound. That is an impoverishment, and audiences do notice that of course. But to be able to ‘nourish the soul’ a composer must have one, and that substance has become more and more rare nowadays.

    • Magnus Still says:

      I have one serious problem with this debate.

      Ross argues as if we were dependent on his money. Do as I and my likes want and we will pay you. Otherwise you are dead (broke).

      This would mean we are dependent on you and the people with your taste to survive.

      I have worked with some 25-30 organizations and know that this is only partly true. The problem of survival doesn’t have so much to do with the market as it has with understanding the basic business dynamics of our sector.

      When you understand the business dynamics you build a solid base of subscribers to fixed performances. And yes, if you understand and accept the business dynamics of our sector and have some courage, discipline and patience you will find enough subscribers that want to support you and this gives you the freedom to be more adventurous in your programming.

      When you have this base, you can then add some extra concerts with really big hits for people like Ross. And other hits (starwar concerts or computer music concerts) for newcomers that are not closely as educated as Ross.

      Ross, you are absolutely welcome. Just like anyone else. But we don’t need to make this black and white and it makes no sense to start threatening each other.

      • John Borstlap says:

        All very reasonalbe points. But Ross touched a raw nerve: there is much music around, most of it of recent date, which is emotionally empty – whether it is new-tonal, cross-over, neo-romantic or modernist. The cultivation of interiority which has been a rich source for creating music, has become more difficult due to the modern world and its values and pressures. Classical music forms an island of interiority in the midst of the roaring of modernity, and new music which merely reflects this roaring, chases away audiences.

        There are many orchestras though, who can find the balance of trust with audiences and creating space in the programming for unknown items. Some examples that spring to mind: Orchestre de Paris, Wiener Symphoniker, NY Phil, Dallas Symphony, London Phil.

  • Anon says:

    How much orchestral work did Hildegard of Bingen write? or Fanny Mendelssohn? or Clara Schumann? (only two, I think). I doubt Maconchy is significantly underplayed in the context of those writing in a similar style at a similar time, regardless of gender; etc..

    Given the disparities shown in this report, is it more important to programme with gender in mind, or nationality? (66% of living composers are American from data in this report). Would changing one of these things have an interesting impact on the other – i.e. if music by dead composers was re-programmed so the largest contingent wasn’t German, would more female composers become included by default?

    • John Borstlap says:

      As far as my experience goes, orchestral programming everywhere in the West is not the result of some strategy, but of random choices emerging from discussions between conductor and staff, on top of the assumed basis of the classical repertoire. Nobody is looking specifically at the gender of music. This means that surveys do not mean much and that it is quite possible that great talent in composition was more common in males before the 20th century, for cultural reasons, but also based upon some biological traits, it is very hard to distinguish between the two. It is not too unlikely to assume that if there were a couple of female geniusses, they would have been played and we would know them.

      • Magnus Still says:

        I have been on several programming committees for orchestras. There is enormous energy put into the “perfect program”. And there are many stakeholder: conductor, soloist, development of the ensemble, audience perceptions and development, financial, marketing, overall season structure, etc. I haven’t been on one single committee that didn’t discuss the audiences view.
        The problem is that these committees mostly are rather poorly informed what really matters. They seldom have real facts about the market and their preferences.

        By the way: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra consciously focuses on female conductors, soloists and composers. Very proactively (but realistically, meaning they aim at 10% female conductors) support the female gender when making choices. They also consciously choose to balance male and female pictures in their advertising. And last time I heard they sell 97% of the tickets.

        I believe the future belongs to the brave, not to those that just try to survive by accommodating to the most simple and popular taste.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Agreed, but being brave is not enough; also the capacity of making distinctions between what has musical value and what doesn’t have is important. For that, the conductor is supposed to have most of the expertise. And he need to have the courage to stick-out his neck for something he feels deserves to be shared with his audience.

          This artistic courage is, alas, quite rare.

  • Halldor says:

    Not aware of any orchestral music by Rebecca Clarke either…

    • Christopher Johnson says:

      Clarke wrote only a single orchestral piece, “Combined Carols, or, Get ’em over at once” (1944), for string orchestra, an expansion of an earlier version for string quartet. Her other works are instrumental and vocal solos and ensembles.

  • Hilary says:

    Elizabeth Lutyens wrote a great deal for orchestra, and she was fairly well supported during her lifetime. She also had a fascinating life and was an inspiration to many younger British composers. How well has her huge output aged though?

    • John Borstlap says:

      It is her modernist aesthetic that dates the music considerably:

      The atmosphere of stagnation and aimless, slow meandering without getting at some ‘point’, occasionally alternating with some desperate climaxes going nowhere, creates a tiring and depressing listening experience – if compared with repertoire which offers so much more in terms of emotional experience. And then, this is really very well made. But for which aim?

      • Hilary says:

        It’s not the modernist aesthetic which is the key to the problem (“you are the style”….don’t be taken in by labels!) but the tendency to sprawl. Her music is rather garrulous even when brief.
        By contrast, take Max Davies’s string quartet…pre-dating the grey Naxos Quartets….is cast in a modernistic aesthetic but sounds as clear as a bell to my ears, and emotionally charged. All this is very subjective of course.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Is ‘modernist aesthetic’ a label? It just sounds like having a modernist aesthetic and that is not necessarily a subjective reactioon, it can be an objective observation. It is the harmonic language, the emotional effect of this music which is depressing – if you listen to it as music, which means: comparing it with numerous other listening experiences. It is quite likely that the garrulousness of this music is related to its aesthetic.

          I don’t know Davies’ work well, the pieces I have heard did not invite for further exploration, but I take you on your word.

          • Hilary says:

            I’m listening to some classical music by Marcos Portugal (1762-1830) :
            aimless, formulaic and turgid. There’s depressing music from all types of musical language.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    One important point to ponder. Throughout history, whether music by men or women, it has often taken decades for some composers’ music to be revived and championed. Like great art, quite often composers are not known as well during their lifetimes as they are post-life. Even during the lives of the greatest known composers, their music was not always accepted by the general public, and often scorned by critics (Lexicon of Musical Invective has great examples). We have audiences who prefer the tried and true standards of the orchestral canon, and those who prefer to listen to new discoveries. Thankfully, there is something for everyone. But for those composers whose music has fallen by the wayside, it is not because their music isn’t good, rather, and only perhaps, because they have not enjoyed having champions of their music. There are countless composers whose music should be performed and recorded. Case in point, if not for Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, much of Howard Hanson’s music might have been lost and forgotten. It is out moral duties as performers and audiences to help cultivate the music we love to play and hear, and also give voice to those who may be forgotten and are worthy of listening to, and those who have new voices among us. On a personal note, I have to agree with everyone here whose points are valid to an extent. Like my colleagues, our job is to give people what they want, but also to help keep composers’ music past and present alive in conjunction with offering the best known and loved works. Hope this makes sense!

    • John Borstlap says:

      It makes perfect sense. It is all true.

      The problem begins where new music wants two mutually exclusive things: rejection of the central performance culture and being played in that culture. Therefore, the development of a specialized performance culture (specialized festivals and ensenbles and audiences) makes sense.

  • Robert says:

    There is a wealth of wonderful Classical-Romantic era music out there by lesser known composers, both male and female, waiting to be mined to give some of the war horses a rest.

    It has the same problems as “new” music… it’s not necessarily easy and orchestral players and conductors seem to prefer the safety of what they already know.

    One way to generate hits… get it used in a movie. The Symphony League should have an office devoted to “product placement”, sneaking classical tunes into movies and TV. It’s worked for soft drinks and cars and everything else.

    • John Borstlap says:

      No, because when it is taken out of context, the musical meaning disappears.

      • Robert says:

        Yes, “meaning” 😀 😀

        As if the war horses have never benefited from new contexts being created for them.

        “Meaning” 😀 😀

        • John Borstlap says:

          No single extension of context in the past of the art form overstepped some fundamentals, like: musicians playing physical instruments or singing; musical culture as a relationship between the 3 parties composer/performer/listener; tones forming meaningful relationships within a work; musical works with a beginning, a middle and an end; the custom of practicing beforehand to produce the best possible performance; the attempt to create a temporary mental space distinct from daily life. Maybe there are a couple of other universals to be found. But within these fundamentals, there is very much room for variation, adaptation, tranformation etc. (like recording which is an abstraction of a performance).

  • Eric says:

    Playing devil’s advocate to some degree here, but isn’t it possible that the recording industry is partly responsible for a lack of curiosity on the part of the modern concert-goer? Pre WWII there would have been little contemporary music committed to disc. Some would have been broadcast but there was no “listen again” facility… Nowadays, there are countless recordings, many of them freely available online. Composers have their own sites with soundclips, podcasts etc. If you are remotely curious, it’s actually very hard not to have heard some music by a given composer before you attend a concert premiere of one of their works.

    • John Borstlap says:

      That’s a good point. But it should also work into the opposite direction: ‘I have heard bits of composer X and it makes me curious to hear the new piece next week’ (which cannot as yet be on his/her website).

    • Anon! A Moose! says:

      This is a good point, twenty years ago if I were curious about a composer on an upcoming program, I would have attended. Now I go to the web and if the composer has been working for more than a year or two, there are performances all over the place. Quite frequently this means I end up not going.

      Applies to recordings as well. The kids nowadays don’t know how lucky they are- I’ve shelled out more money than I care to think about on CDs and LPs that I bought out of curiosity about a performer or composer, only to be listened to only once and left on the shelf.

  • Emil says:

    By the way, that “Dead women composers are always deader than men” line? Norman Lebrecht stole it from someone (named Roberta Stevenson) on his Twitter feed.

  • Anon! A Moose! says:

    Just wanted to note that it’s a mistake to conflate orchestras with classical music in general. Focusing on orchestras while leaving out chamber music and recitals gives a distorted picture. As others have pointed out, the women composers listed didn’t write much for the medium, but I would bet are better (but probably not equally) represented on chamber music programs. The Rebecca Clarke Sonata has become completely standard rep for violists- but this feat goes unnoticed because it’s not an orchestral work.

    • Rebecca Clarke Society says:

      Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata has been orchestrated (as a solo for Viola and Chamber Orchestra), which has been performed quite a few times since its premiere in 2007, and a recording is forthcoming.