(Ensemble Goldentree)

On Women in Music

(Articles & Program Notes)
Published – 05.03.2016
(Writing)

Females make up half of the human population, and yet, seem to be under-represented in almost every part of the arts. Firmly into the twenty-first century, we are still celebrating the first females in any number of positions, and the inclusion of one female composer in a program or syllabus is often cause for celebration, not simply considered regular practice. When interviewed, young and successful female composers are asked “why is it important that women are given a voice in the arts?”, and “how can we ensure female composers are given a place in the concert halls?” It’s baffling, of course, that such questions are even asked when the answer seems so logical, and yet we continue to program our concerts with compositions by long-dead males. Based on the popularity of mainstream Western Art Music composers like Mozart and Beethoven, it is easy to assume that there are no females up to the standard of those male figures that we revere, but there are many women that deserve more conversation and airplay.

Women in composition, both practising and studying at a tertiary level, are still considered a minority, but slowly, this is changing. With more and more focus being put on the work of current female composers, as well as scholars beginning the process of inserting newly discovered compositions into the history books, the contribution of women in music is becoming less of a rarity. Works of Hildegard of Bingen, considered one of the first female composers, are being performed more regularly. We are beginning to hear the works of Fanny Mendelssohn programmed on classical radio, and performed by students. Clara Schumann has entered the regular vocabulary of classical composers. The works of Ethel Smyth and Amy Beach are being celebrated.

In Australia, we are lucky enough to have such formidable composing talents as Elena Kats-Chernin, Sally Whitwell, Mary Finsterer and Sally Greenaway, and chamber groups that take the process of commissioning up-and-coming female composers seriously. The development of composers, male and female, stems directly from the interest taken by performers, which is what makes a concert like the one today so special. Showcasing the talents of our best new female composers, and hearing them speak about their work, is a wonderful step towards making the appearance of female composers a regular occurrence. The goal, of course, is to make it more likely to hear surprise that a female composer was not included in a program, rather than shock that one was.

So what is the take away? There needs to be more commissioning, more listening, more conversation with, and from, young women composers. By not acknowledging the works of female composers, we are simply robbing ourselves and our art form from exploring such a huge part of the world’s music. The work that women are doing is held to the same standard as that of men and should be programmed as such. When we are seeing a balance of male and female composers, and women are no longer asked about their place in the music world – that is when we have succeeded.

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