Alexandra Coghlan

Women in classical music are being thrust into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons

2:38, 1st October 2015

When 17-year-old Jessy McCabe made headlines last month with her shocking discovery that Edexcel’s Music A-Level syllabus featured not a single work by a female composer, my reaction was one of anger and frustration. But it wasn’t anger directed at a patriarchal conspiracy or frustration born of exclusion and discrimination, it was anger that – once again – women in classical music are being thrust into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Let me explain: I am both a woman and a feminist, and it is precisely because of those things, and because I am so completely convinced of the equal talents of men and women in this field, that I am absolutely opposed to affirmative action.

When a major exam board constructs a syllabus in consultation with ‘teachers, academics and many more’, I want them to make their choices based solely on merit – whether that means the finest examples of genres and forms, or works most typical or revealing of the major movements and styles of music history. I no more want the hands of these educational experts tied by quotas or fashionable social priorities than I want the nuanced sentencing of judges controlled by mandatory diktats imposed by politicians.

I also want their necessarily limited choices to reflect the truth of the history they are narrating, not some moralising, euphemistic rewriting of it that superimposes the values of another age. Yes, female composers have existed from Hildegard von Bingen onwards, but given just 63 choices (the size of Edexcel’s current set-works list, phased out this September) would you really opt for Fanny Mendelssohn over her husband? Nadia Boulanger over one of her many pupils, or Barbara Strozzi rather than Monteverdi?

The reasons for these women’s secondary or short-lived successes are, of course, social and political. But how much more valuable and interesting to address these concerns directly within the course, to ask students what strikes them about the all-male list, to interrogate why and how such an uneven representation of society came about, than to insert one piece by a woman as a token sop to gender equality. And the same arguments must surely apply to questions of race, disability and socio-economic background which will inevitably follow where those of gender lead.

McCabe’s argument, formalised in a petition on Change.org, questions how ‘…we can expect girls to aspire to be composers and musicians if they don’t have opportunity to learn of any role models’. It is a concern that, fortunately, was not shared by our mothers and grandmothers when they defied generations of precedent to become doctors, lawyers, engineers and astronauts. It is also one that neglects to acknowledge the many female musicians represented indirectly on the syllabus, featuring on recordings of the set works as conductors, soloists, orchestral musicians and studio technicians. McCabe herself admits that she had ‘never before noticed that no female composers [were] included’ until a gender equality seminar at her school. Up until this point, we must assume, she – along with countless contemporaries – was perfectly content to study the music of Bach, Schubert, Stravinsky and Reich on its own merits.

Where Edexcel’s case against the inclusion of female composers does seem inadequate is the 21st century. Even if it is hard to argue for Gubaidulina or Saariaho over Cage or even John Williams, surely a Joni Mitchell or a Björk have the necessary stature in the development and evolution of musical history to stand beside Oasis and The Beatles? Rival boards AQA and OCR do include a few such women, including Beyoncé and Anoushka Shankar, though this does little to address the central question of women’s representation in the western classical canon.

Women in classical music have never been more successful or more central to the industry than they are today. Whether it’s Marin Alsop conducting the Last Night of the Proms or soloists like Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Isabelle Faust doing things defiantly their own way, power and authority are increasingly a given. Composers too, are on the up. With the works of Unsuk Chin, Roxanna Panufnik, Kaija Saariaho and Anna Meredith comes pressure on the industry to give female voices the same status in the concert hall as their male counterparts. Their works, not our petulant, victims’ voices, are the most powerful catalyst for change. Why not wait and trust in women to grasp for themselves what a male-dominated society has denied us for so long, rather than begging those self-same men for a special favour?

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