Wednesday 8 March is this year’s International Women’s Day and Radio 3 is not just stopping by with a token quartet or symphony. Instead it is turning the occasion into a mini-festival, spread over several days. There will be some known works, some not so well-known works and a premiere or two. Which begs the question, do women still need their own special day?
‘Since we started acknowledging the day,’ comments Radio 3 editor Edwina Wolstencroft, ‘we’ve changed not only International Women’s Day, which we celebrate, but changed the canon of the world. Everyday on Radio 3’s Breakfast Show we play a piece by a woman and listeners are now much more aware of women composers. Our job is to remind people that the western musical canon was not just written by men. There have been some fantastic women composers.’
Wolstencroft says that one of the problems when trying to explore music written by women is that there have been, and remain, a lack of high-quality recordings. ‘Of course there are brilliant people like Diana Ambache around who have been recording works for a long time. But one of the things we found when trying to set up an all-women Composer of the Week was that we were struggling to find five hours of music by women composers.’
During the day’s celebrations, regular Radio 3 programmes such as Essential Classics, In Tune and Afternoon on Three will be taking centre stage and Record Review looks at what is happening with recordings by Ethel Smyth and others. Another new approach is to have six composers curating their own shows. These are Errollyn Wallen, Tansy Davies, Annette Peacock, Kerry Andrew, Alissa Firsova and Sally Beamish. ‘We thought it would be interesting to celebrate individual composers by finding out how they think,’ says Wolstencraft, ‘their influences, the way they approach writing music.’
To carry on the fight to put women centre stage within music, Wolstencroft is already thinking of next year. ‘We plan to invite academics to help us find the works we’ll be giving to the BBC Orchestras and Singers to record and showcase. We’ll continue giving people opportunities to hear these historic works. Being ignored is not unique to music. I think one of the most important things about being alive now is that people are accepting the fact that certain things have been forgotten and that women have an equal place in all aspects of culture.’
Also this year, there’s a major Women’s Day commission, a setting by Kate Whitley of the speech Malala Yousafzai gave to the UN in 2013. At the other end of the spectrum Tom Service explores how Fanny Mendelssohn’s Easter Sonata was lost, found and now receives its world premiere at the Royal College of Music.
Producers at Radio 3 are proactively looking to include more music by women in the schedules on a daily basis. ‘That’s a real shift. I think that sometimes in order to solve a problem you have to draw attention to it. People sometimes say to me, “Oh why does there have to be an International Women’s Day?” I reply, “Well, we won’t need an International Women’s Day when women are equal to men in every way.” We draw attention to this music in order to celebrate it but also the day is not a bad way to help solve the problem.’