Susan McClary’s Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality might have ushered in a new era in feminist studies in music in 1991, but it seems fundamental questions still remain unanswered about why so few female composers have their works performed today. A new book by UK writer Anna Beer seeks answers as to why. Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music (Oneworld Publications) is a mainly biographical study of eight female composers through history – Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Marianna Martines, Fanny Hensel, Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger and Elizabeth Maconchy.
Beer argues that social attitudes have militated against women making successful careers in composition over many centuries, and that these attitudes still prevail. In a piece for The Guardian she recounted: “Writing about the lives and works of eight female composers over four centuries of western European history showed me, forcefully, what they were up against.”
“Each of them created their music in societies that made certain places off limits, from the opera house to the university, from the conductor’s podium to the music publisher, and made sure that certain jobs, whether in cathedral, court or conservatoire, were ones for which they could not even apply.”
Beer’s book has been well received. The Sunday Times’ Jessica Duchen wrote: “The underrepresentation of female composers in concert programming, broadcasting and recording is, if you think about it, little short of scandalous”. She also described the book as a “Great read” but hoped its title “was chosen with irony”.
In turn it has sparked new debate in the UK about why schools fail to give girls enough confidence to pursue composition as a profession, and why exam boards still ignore female composers. If the provocative au contraire views of The Spectator’s Damian Thompson are any indication, the topic is still far from resolved.
Here in Australia, the AMEB has made a concerted effort to represent women composers in its teaching syllabus and publications. Perth writer and critic Rosalind Appleby similarly raised awareness in her landmark book, Women of Note: The Rise of Australian Women Composers (Fremantle Press, 2012). But obstacles clearly still need to be overcome. No female composer made it into ABC Classic FM’s Classic 100 in 2013, for instance – a fact that erstwhile presenter Emma Ayres lamented.
Two other well regarded textbooks on the subject are Julie Dunbar’s Women, Music, Culture: An Introduction (Routledge, 2010) and Karin Anna Pendle’s Women and Music: A History (Indiana University Press, 2001).