FEATURE: Bittersweet Symphonies: Are Female Composers, Conductors and Performers Being Excluded from Classical Music?



Bittersweet Symphonies

PHOTO CREDIT: @gwundrig/Unsplash 

Are Female Composers, Conductors and Performers Being Excluded from Classical Music?


IT is appalling when looking at some areas of music…

 PHOTO CREDIT: @larisabirta/Unsplash

and seeing discrepancies and massive gulfs in terms of gender. If some major festivals are closing the gap when it comes to line-ups and committing to a fifty-fifty split, there are others corners of the industry where progress and visibility is a massive issue – Classical music seems to one of them. I have been a Classical music fan for many years and know full well that the genre is not male-dominated when it comes to talent. I know that the vast majority of legendary composers were men but, as every style of music opens and evolves, that is not the case anymore. There are articles dedicated to highlighting great women in Classical; another here that outlines some great artists whilst here is another great feature. There are clearly some fantastic women in Classical music and I do think we get this very rigid impression of the genre. Classical music has changed a lot through the years and it is not just confined to a particular mood and style – Electronic sounds are being mixed in and spliced to create something vivid and expansive. The accessibility of Classical music is clear; there are more and more artists embracing it as a foundation but, still, there seems to be an issue regarding gender. I do not think it is the case women do not want to get into Classical music and have very little interest. Look at most concerts, recitals and big events and there is still a sea of male faces.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Karina Canellakis/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The fact Karina Canellakis just made history by becoming the first women to conduct the First Night of the BBC Proms underlines why we need to address gender disparity and celebrate women in Classical music:

Karina Canellakis has made history, as the first woman to conduct the First Night of the BBC Proms.

The US musician led the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and BBC Singers in a stirring and dramatic programme culminating in Leoš Janáček's utterly unique Glagolitic Mass.

The landmark performance came just two years after Cannellakis's conducting debut at the Proms.

"I'm honoured - and I'm very sweaty," she said after leaving stage.

The 38-year-old New Yorker started her career as a violinist after graduating from the Julliard School.

The seeds of her conducting career were sown at the BBC Proms in 2008, as she performed Mahler's emotional 6th Symphony as part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

"I was playing second violin, and I played my heart out," she told BBC Radio 3, "and I remember just looking up and thinking I had never seen the ceiling so far away".

I am not one of these people who gets lured in by the view that genres are male-heavy because that denotes natural inclination, talent and popularity, Festival bills are not male-dominated because men are better and more commercial; Classical music is not being overrun with men because that is what people want to listen to - and women will cause people to look elsewhere.


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These sorts of ‘arguments’ and theories are ridiculous. The simple truth is (that) there are more men in charge than women who are not doing enough to create balance and augment the great voices of female composers and Classical artists. There is also a problem with Electronic music and, again, the perception that men are superior or more accessible. Look at this article from Soundfly and there are some fantastic composers/artists we need to get behind. Here, we can see the amazing women who have helped shape and promulgate Electronic music - and here is further proof that some amazing and bold women have brought Electronic music to where it is now – yet they are being denied and overlooked. I am mainly focusing on the imbalance in Classical music but, truthfully, Electronic is just one genre among many where women are being seen as less worthy and valuable – one can also look at Country and Hip-Hop. Before moving on, this article from The Guardian shows that a new album, Collaborations, is meant to represent the best of modern Electronic and Classic but is largely skewed in favour of men:

Collaborations, which will be released by Mercury KX – a label that claims to cross “the borders between electronic, ambient, classical, alternative and modern music” – is compiled by choreographer Wayne McGregor and was billed as “a collection of music from the biggest names in modern classical and electronic music” in a tweet sent by the label. But the dearth of female artists was immediately picked up on – with footwork artist Jlin and Finnish contemporary composer Kaija Saariaho the only women represented over the 15 tracks.

IN THIS PHOTO: Hannah Peel/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Composer Hannah Peel tweeted: “Biggest names in modern classical and electronic? Makes me feel a bit sick in 2019” and then listed female artists who were not on the record, including FKA twigsGazelle TwinPoppy AckroydHolly HerndonMira Calix (who McGregor has collaborated with) and Anna Meredith.

McGregor said the record was inaccurately promoted by Mercury KX, and that the selection is taken from work he has commissioned over the last 25 years to accompany dance pieces.

“Clearly these are not the most important contemporary and electronic composers in the world. That’s just a ridiculous thing to say,” explained McGregor, who included two tracks each from Max Richter and Jon Hopkins. “When I’m commissioning I’m not just looking at music. I’m thinking about commissioning in context of the whole [dance] piece. In isolation … I realised that in terms of gender parity it is not great and we want to do better with that, definitely,” he said. “I was horrified by how few women we’d commissioned.”

In 2018, research found that only 76 classical concerts among 1,445 performed worldwide included at least one piece by a woman, and at those concerts 3,442 (97.6%) of all performed pieces were written by men and only 82 (2.3%) by women. Analysis from the Guardian in 2017 found that on a single October night over two-thirds of the music acts performing in the UK were all-male, with the pattern continuing for the rest of the year. In the same year the feminist music network female:pressure released research into electronic music festival bookings and found that for the period from 2012 to mid-2017, only 14% of all acts were female, 79% were male, 7% were mixed acts and 1% had unidentified gender”.


I have included figures and statistics because it outlines the problem and you do not need to know music to understand that, in music colleges, programmes and playing in orchestras around the world, there are so many talented women. In fact, a lot of the great women emerging are being denied entry into orchestras because, as many have claimed, there seems to be a quota – if there is a woman or two in the orchestra then that is enough! I want to bring in a couple more articles because, before moving forward, I feel it is important to show the problem at hand. The first was published a few months back and talks about the lack of female faces at the BBC Proms:

Your editorial (23 April) rightly argues for more representation of female composers at the BBC Proms. As you mention, the BBC last year committed to 50% of commissions for women by 2022 (although without explaining the four-year wait). However, its current programming policy in this regard remains woefully inadequate.

Thirty female composers are featured in this year’s Proms, as against 128 men, so still only about 19% of the total. But the men are frequently represented by multiple pieces, or large-scale works occupying a whole evening, while the works by women are generally fewer and shorter – only four are scheduled to last over 15 minutes, compared with 10 works by men lasting over an hour. Hence the total playing time of women’s music in this year’s Proms will be less than 6% – a pathetic figure.

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Also, while it is good to see many living female composers being performed, women from the past continue to be ignored: only six pre-20th-century women are featured. Why not perform Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero, the first opera by a female composer and the first opera of any sort to be performed outside of Italy, or maybe a symphony by Louise Farrenc or Emilie Mayer? There is a growing awareness that there is plenty of music by women from the past which has been suppressed: the BBC has a responsibility to bring this music back into the light and perform it at the Proms.

Maybe there is an historical impression that feels Classical music is for men and women are not suited. Last year, The Guardian published this article which caught my eye; talking about the way women were put down and discouraged from being Classical performers and composers:

Almost every portrayal of a woman in the entire regularly performed opera repertoire is constructed through male eyes. The dominance of male composers is, today especially, staggering

But this is not just a story about the husbands or patriarchal decision-makers in music. Society at large also stifled women; being a female composer or performer was seen as a highly questionable profession – often implying, in earlier centuries, sexual availability. As a woman, your options were limited, so marriage was a critical economic decision for most, and disregarded at peril. One of the very few alternatives was to take the veil , a direction which, through chance, the 12th-century writer and mystic Hildegard von Bingen took. Through this vocation she found a support system and platform for her prodigious creative intellect. Even so, moves were made to mute her. At one point, Hildegard rebuked an archbishop, and as punishment was forbidden to sing”.

I have lobbed a lot of research and statistics out there…but it is clear there is a problem. At a base level, there is an issue regarding featuring female composers and whether they are worthy of study; so many orchestras are blindly turning their eyes away from women and, whilst some orchestras are moving in the right direction, many are not doing enough. There is no research in any genre that supports the fact men are better than women and more commercial. Whilst festivals and label bosses are having to do more and explain themselves, it seems there is this ignorance in Classical and Electronic music; an unwillingness to recognise female poisoners and encourage more women into orchestras, concerts and performances. Maybe there is a bit of a split between the old order who want to keep their line-ups male-focused and some new labels/orchestras/event organisers who are keen to embrace equality. It is always distressing and disheartening to see any genre dominated by men because it is not representative of reality and sends a bad message out to any women who want to get into that genre – and it is really boring seeing male faces when music is at its strongest and most harmonious when you have male and female performers sitting alongside one another. I know so many upcoming Classical performers and Electronic artists who are doing amazing work and setting their goals out but, when they see articles like the ones I have quoted, are they going to keep determined or feel like there is no point trying?!

It is depressing to consider and, whereas festivals and some parts of the music landscape are making bigger steps, Classical music especially seems doggedly determined to remain still and uncompromising. Maybe my headline question has too obvious an answer: perhaps I should have asked, given we know women are not being included in Classical (and Electronic) music, what needs to be done. I do think we need to keep music on the curriculum from primary to high-school level and, when it comes to music schools and programmes, women need to be promoted and included more. I know there are a lot of great female composers and players right now but they are looking out at the reality of modern music and not having their voices heard. Orchestras, organisers and everyone in the Classical music sector needs to drop ridiculous quotas and commit more to equality – perhaps a widespread fifty-fifty balance will take years but, like festivals in the U.K., a pledge need to occur and those in power (mostly men) have to get real. No style and area of music should be male-heavy and to suggest there are very few women able to slot into orchestras and appeal to the masses is ridiculous. From great street performers through to women in orchestras, one cannot deny the talent is out there but the notion that very few women should be allowed access and consideration is patently absurd.  The sooner we can redress imbalance and make changes the better. Not only will gender equality make the industry stronger and send a positive message out to girls and women but it means, as it should be, Classical music will be…


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FAR more harmonious and fair.