Women in Music: A Brave New World?

By Carrie Leigh Page

“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility…” – Florence Price to Sergei Koussevitsky, 1943

“She plays like a man.” – Carl Zelert to Goethe, regarding Fanny Mendelssohn, 1831

Two women, over a hundred years apart, struggled to be heard and to be accepted as part of a canon that was unwaveringly old, white, and male. As Florence Price insinuates, the accidents of birth influence perception, judgment, and opportunity. Most of Fanny Mendelssohn’s compositions were published under the name of her famous brother, Felix. No critics noted a difference between the works of the good Hausfrau and her male sibling. How much of it would have been immediately discounted, though, if the real author had been known?

When I first came to Spartanburg as a music student at Converse College, I had thought very little about women composers, or composition at all. My life took a significant turn in my freshman year, though: In the midst of a personal crisis, none of the music I was performing or studying seemed to say the things I wanted to say. I began to struggle with the muses of composition. Over the years, I was privileged to have masterclasses with a few women composers and even study with a fellow female composer for a semester, but I rarely heard music by women performed live or even on the radio. There were no examples from music literature by women in my music theory textbooks, and maybe a handful of women composers mentioned in my music history texts. I felt rather like a member of an endangered species.

In 2010, one of my works was selected for the annual concert of the International Alliance for Women in Music. I traveled to France for the concert and was enveloped for three days in the camaraderie of women composers. I suddenly realized I was not an endangered species. These were women from many countries, working in diverse schools of compositional thought as students, teachers, and freelancers, and they were but a small sample of the women composing all over the world. I returned home and perused my local symphony’s season and abruptly dropped back into reality. There were no works by women that year. Or the next year. Or the next.

In a 1991 article for the New York Times, critic Edward Rothstein stated that “the lack of significant women composers is a historical fact that will not be changed by invoking percentage points.” He said this in response to a complaint by award-winning composer Joan Tower bemoaning this very lack of women composers in concert halls and textbooks.

27 years after Tower’s lament and Rothstein’s obtuse summation, there has been fundamentally little change in our concerts halls and classrooms. A Baltimore Symphony Orchestra report by Ricky O’Bannon showed the representation of women composers in major concert halls around the USA to be around 1.3% during the 2016-2017 season, and only 10% of the works by living composers were by women. My own survey of three of the most popular theory textbooks in 2016 showed that there were NO musical examples female composers in the sections on music since 1900, and only scant references to female composers in other sections.

Thousands of women across many hundreds of years still struggle to be heard. The fact is, women have been working in these musical canons alongside men all along. Suor Leonora D’Este’s madrigals and Francesca Caccini’s Ruggiero do not detract from the accomplishments of the Gesualdo or Monteverdi; they enrich our understanding of early Baroque. The records of the multitalented Clora Bryant and Ginger Smock do not take anything from Dizzy or Bird. Julia Amanda Perry’s Stabat Mater more than holds up to those by Vivaldi, Poulenc, and Szymanowski and deserves regular programming in sacred concerts.

Curators who commit to increasing gender parity in their musical programming find that there is a world of exciting “new” literature from every time period, in every genre, that can be found by including women. For those of you who think you have never heard music by women composers, I invite you to embrace a beautiful, brave, “new” world. 

Carrie Leigh Page creates music for chamber ensembles, orchestra, and electronic media, with a special emphasis on vocal writing. Page has taught at colleges and schools throughout the United States. She currently teaches K-12 music at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind. She lives in Spartanburg with her daughter and husband, fellow composer Nicholas Alexander Drake.

Keyana Hammonds