Rhinegold Shedding light on women’s music: Angela Slater

Angela Slater

Illuminate: shining a light on the work of women composers and performers

8:00, 8th March 2018

The classical music industry is notoriously unbalanced in its representation of women musicians. There are many unfortunate figures and statistics that highlight the underrepresentation of women composers, and despite some changes, there is still a long way to go before reaching more equal representation. This point was highlighted by Women in Music’s 2017 BBC Proms survey (bit.ly/2rpYfmG), which showed that the overall programming of women composers accounted for 7.5% of composers, 22% of living composers programmed, and 30.8% of BBC Proms commissions. This is a familiar story from across the years, but there is still a lot of work to be done before women truly have the same musical opportunities as their male counterparts.

One of the most worrying trends is how women composers are lost or perhaps never captured through our education system. It is still striking that only two years ago, an A-level student, Jessy McCabe, mounted a high-profile media campaign to argue for the inclusion of women composers in the Edexcel A-level music qualification. Edexcel did make some positive steps to include women composers but it is still worrying that many of the other examination boards contain very few or no women composers at all in their classical music selections. Media representation is also another area of concern, where documentaries perpetuate the ‘great man’ image of the composerly genius, never a woman.

How are classical musicians and audiences meant to know and appreciate the music of women composers if they are never given the opportunity to explore the music in their education? And how do we expect budding women composers to have the confidence to go forward with their music if they are not given any examples or role models in their education? This is a topic that I discussed in depth in a recent conference paper entitled ‘Invisible canons: a personal canon of women composers’, where I discussed the notion that the only women composers with whom I came into contact as I developed my musical skills were those described as ‘education composers’. In my younger years it never occurred to me that I could be a composer of classical music, but it also never occurred to me when I did start composing seriously that I couldn’t be one either! It was only through my own interests in the natural world that I started to discover a huge body of women composers and their repertoire, and began to create my own personal canon.

Illuminated: composer and performer Gemma McGregor
Illuminated: composer and performer Gemma McGregor

There are a number of initiatives that have emerged over the last few years to begin to rectify this unjustifiable imbalance, including one of my own. I recently established the Illuminate project, which has been set up to highlight and celebrate the work and music of women composers and performers from the past and present. In 2018, Illuminate will be staging a concert series across the UK, programming new music from living women composers: works by Gemma McGregor, Blair Boyd, Sarah Westwood, Carol J Jones and myself. These women composers have written several pieces drawing on the instrumental forces of performers Késia Decoté (piano), Cassie Matthews (classical guitar), Sabina Virtosu (violin) and Gemma McGregor (shakuhachi and flute).

Illuminate will be celebrating the music of women composers and bringing their music to wide range of audiences across the UK. The concert series will start in London at Goldsmiths University on International Women’s Day (8 March) and continues across the weekend and beyond, visiting Oxford, Stafford, Birmingham, Cardiff, Brighton, Liverpool, Nottingham before returning to London.

Illuminate is also passionate about celebrating the works of historical repertoire by women composers that has been all but forgotten and only programmed by a few dedicated performers. We will be programming works by Morfydd Owen (1891-1918), Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), Amy Beach (1867-1944), Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969), Louise Marie Simon (aka Claude Arrieu) (1903-1990), Hilda Jerea (1916-1980) and the more well-known Clara Schumann (1819-1896). This wonderfully rich repertoire is rarely heard by the broad concert-going audience, a legacy of the historic and cultural suppression of women’s music across the ages. This has led, in turn, to a lack of knowledge about these composers and also the music being more difficult to source than traditional repertoire from the canon. As a result, these composers tend not to be considered for programming and the cycle of reproduction continues, where audiences know nothing of these composers’ existence. Lack of a fair hearing leads to unjustifiable neglect.

In the build-up to our forthcoming concerts (and beyond), we are hosting a series of in-depth blogs exploring the music of these women composers to help shed light on their lives and music. These blogs will help give a greater context and depth to these lesser-known figures and their music. Illuminate hopes that programming these women composers will allow their fantastic pieces to enter the personal canons of audience members and, eventually, be considered alongside those canonic works whose place in concert programmes seems safe. However, for this problem to be resolved, larger classical music institutions need to start actively finding, programming and valuing music by women from all eras and educating their audiences about this lesser-known repertoire.

There are many composition opportunities and general concert programmes that end up with entirely male programming. This has been deemed as perfectly acceptable and normal, when such underrepresentation would not be tolerated in other walks of life. Illuminate is giving women composers the space to be the ‘norm’ and celebrating the wonderful repertoire that has been written by these talented people.

IlluminateThere’s a wealth of female composing talent out there just waiting to be heard, so I hope you will come and join Illuminate in some of our concerts this year to celebrate the music and work of women composers and performers.

Dr Angela Elizabeth Slater is director and artistic director of Illuminate.

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