Where Are the Women Composers?

Where Are the Women Composers?

In its 85 years of existence, the Rockford Symphony has performed well over 2,000 compositions (including repeated works). Twelve of them were written by women. That’s less than 0.6%.

Shameful? Chauvinistic? Discriminatory? Maybe, but also pretty much the norm for orchestras around the world. Since the late 1800s, orchestral programming has favored “masterpieces” by composers who more than likely were dead and almost always were male (the abbreviation commonly used to describe this preference is ‘DWEM’, or ‘Dead White European Men’).

Has the musical world discriminated against female composers? The scarcity of women in the pantheon of great composers doesn’t necessarily prove intent, but more likely the placid acceptance of the status quo: Brahms sells more tickets than Boulanger, and Felix is more famous than his sister Fanny (Mendelssohn).

Until the 20th century it was a universally accepted norm that careers in musical performance or composition were reserved for men. Well-bred girls were encouraged to play piano, sing, and even dabble in writing songs, sonatas, and chamber music. Among the upper class even private teaching was discouraged because it smacked of the need for “pin money”. Professional musical careers were male by definition, and serious composition was off-limits for women: it was believed that they were biologically and temperamentally unsuited for the “masculine” demands of the art. At mid-century almost all of the world’s symphony orchestras were exclusively male, as were conductors and most instrumental soloists (an interesting footnote holds that the scarcity of men during World War II opened the door for women in symphony orchestras. Helen Kotas was principal horn with the Chicago Symphony from 1941 to 1948).

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was the first successful American female composer of large-scale art music. She was 29 in 1896, when the Boston Symphony premiered her “Gaelic” Symphony. Not only was this a first for her gender, it was highly unusual for orchestras to play music written by Americans. Four years earlier, Antonín Dvořák had been brought to New York and given the task of teaching American composers how to write American music!

Beach was hardly a feminist; she composed and performed using her married name, “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach”. She didn’t crack the “glass ceiling” so much as take the private elevator around it. Her status as the wife of a wealthy Boston doctor and society matron afforded her the luxury of time to practice and compose without worrying about commissions or concert fees. Still, her success inspired future generations of women to think beyond the limits society had placed on them.

After this season the number of works by female composers performed by the RSO will increase by at least five. The hegemony of the DWEMs will likely endure for some time, but that monumental façade shows signs of crumbling. Today, there are more women than men majoring in musical performance and composition.