Women rising very slowly in concert programs

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For the second year running, UK record label Drama Musica and its partner project DONNE, Women in Music examined the programmes presented by 15 major orchestras worldwide in their 2019-2020 season to identify the presence of women composers in concerts.

Results show that classical music is still a man’s world: only 3.6% of the total pieces to be performed this season were composed by women. Although there has been an increase – last year only 2.3% of the pieces were written by women – we are still quite far from reaching equality.

Soprano Gabriella Di Laccio, founder and curator of DONNE, Women in Music, says: ‘It is very difficult to find excuses for not having works by women composers present in every concert. There are thousands of music scores now widely available and the quality of the music is unquestionable. As artists, I truly believe we should always try to cultivate curiosity in our audiences, to open their eyes to a much richer and diverse musical world. It is possible and it is an incredibly enriching artistic experience for everyone. Plus, we will be supporting diverse role models for future generations. What could be better than that? And to quote composer Nicola LeFanu, commenting on last year’s results: “What’s wrong with 50:50 for a living?”’

photo: Thea Musgrave

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  • FS601013 says:

    What is the figure as an overall percentage of performances of music by living composers? That’s the only really useful metric in this discussion.

    • R. Brite says:

      Why living composers? Wouldn’t we want to start with percentage of women composers out of all composers, all periods, then see how that compares to percentage of performances?

      • Edward says:

        Because the bulk of any major orchestra’s repertoire is going to be the established core pieces of the past, which is of course dominated by male composers. So just taking all the performances like this then if course it’s going to be heavily skewed in favour of the men. The original poster is right, why not publish the ratio of all music written, say, in the last 40 years and see what the male/female ratio is like then? A more useful indication.

        • Mike Schachter says:

          Quite. No matter how hard we look the percentage of women composers before 1900 will be very small and before the 19th century absolutely tiny. Many people would like to rewrite history in this and other areas, and have done for decades but it doesn’t work.

  • I find this unsettling. Starting twenty years of commissioning new music in 1999, without thinking of gender, I commenced with the first project by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich – a woman composer. Did I have to say that? Of course not. It was about the music, and the acceptance of her music across the board. 27 orchestras joined this first project – the largest of commissioning projects to date – not because of the project being for a woman composer, but because it was for one of our most respected composers. As it should be. Not to mention we collaborated again ten years later to show how one composer can evolve over a ten year time span. Man or woman, was never an issue or motivating factor. Society often takes generations to evolve, but if we work together, many strides can be made.

  • Rosemary Forbes-Butler says:

    A couple of years ago, Nicola Lefanu was BBC Radio 3 ‘Composer of the Week’, with daily performances and interviews. I wonder if she was the first ever woman to be so honoured ?

  • M McAlpine says:

    This talk of ‘equality’ in concert programmes is of course pretty meaningless as up to recently there were no real women composers of note. One major reason was because girls simply weren’t given the rigorous musical education of boys that could equip them for the task of composition. Hence to talk of equality in this PC way in concerts when we have had 300+ years of almost exclusive male composition is meaningless. Of course, we welcome quality compositions regardless of gender but it has got to be based on musical quality not on the basis of gender-equality. Remember an audience has got to sit through it!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed.

      And on top of that: it is much too early to draw any conclusions about the question whether there exists a gender difference in composition. The abstract nature of the creative process of writing music may define it more as a masculine talent, but if given the chance, feminine obstacles may be overcome by exceptions. Given the state of contemporary music, any gender difference in terms of talent seems to be irrelevant, because it has become very easy to write the type of new music which is mostly presented.

  • Nick says:

    Enough of identity politics already!! Relax NL!!!
    Quality MATTERS not gender!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes, but what if quality is hindered by a gendered obstacle? Then you have to overcome the obstacle, like any other obstacle to performance. There are many other types of obstacles as well. For instance, if there were more musical discernment among orchestra programming staff, some of the greatest obstacles would evaporate, even for women.

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