The forgotten women of classical music

A four-minute musical challenge for you! No knowledge required – all you need is the burning desire to challenge lazy gender stereotypes.

So – please listen to these seven extracts of music. Can you guess the sex of each composer?

It’s not easy, is it? And, if you did this with others, then I bet you each made different choices.

(I’d love to hear your response to the challenge @annarosebeer. I will even reveal the answers if enough people ask!)

As you’ve just proved, you cannot hear the sex of a composer. And yet, for centuries, commentators have been quite sure that women ‘betray’ themselves in their music. They could, for example, hear the chromosomes in the compositions of Fanny Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn’s big sister. They were kind enough to say that a small collection of her songs offered an ‘artistic study of masculine seriousness’ but, sadly, a woman could only go so far: all but one lacked ‘a commanding individual idea’. Commanding individual ideas are clearly only possible to produce if you are a man. Another critic admired ‘all the outward aspect; yet we are not gripped by the inner aspect, for we miss that feeling which originates in the depths of the soul and which, when sincere, penetrates the listener’s mind and becomes a conviction.’ And yet another felt a lack of ‘powerful feeling drawn from deep conviction’.

Why does this matter to me and to us? Because, as almost every aspect of the Fawcett Society’s work reveals, these and other powerful nineteenth-century ideas about the nature of woman still run like a toxic seam through our political, cultural and domestic lives. More specifically, that language of Inner aspects, powerful feeling, not to mention penetrating (yes, penetrating) the listener’s mind, still lurks somewhere not too far beneath the surface of today’s classical music industry. Take a look at some of the choice phrases regarding Marin Alsop’s conducting of the Last Night of the Proms, quoted in the Guardian. And, much as I hate to appear ungrateful, the idea of women as somehow a race apart underpins BBC Radio 3’s wonderful commitment to showcasing the music of female composers – once a year. Women are so exotic that their music can only be brought out on special occasions, such as International Women’s Day.

We may no longer openly subscribe to the view that women’s essential physical and intellectual weakness makes them unfit for purpose, whether conducting an orchestra or creating a large-scale composition – but the reality remains that very few women lead major orchestras, and very few large-scale works by women (living or dead) are programmed by our concert halls or radio stations. In fact, very few works by women are programmed at all…if it’s not International Women’s Day.

Irrational beliefs about what women are, and are not capable of, have been, and remain, powerful deterrents to a woman achieving her creative potential, but there are other, more practical, reasons for the scarcity of female composers in the past, and the lack of awareness in the present of those who did succeed as composers. The conditions under which classical music has been written, published, performed and received have been – and some would say remain – very different for men and women. Most women simply did not have access to the education and materials necessary to write music in the first place, let alone the public institutions needed to sustain a career as a composer, whether in the cathedral or opera house, conservatoire or prince’s court. Even if, through sheer good fortune coupled with phenomenal determination, a woman did live and work in a community that permitted her to compose, perhaps even celebrated her work, then – posthumously – there was a great forgetting, in part because women did not have access to the institutions which manufacture posterity. That great forgetting continues to this day.

You are by now perhaps wondering whether Sounds and Sweet Airs: the Forgotten Women of Classical Music, my latest book, was a rather depressing book to research and write. No, it was a thrilling, joyful journey of discovery – one that continues every time I hear a new piece of music. My antidote to despair and frustration was to celebrate the achievements of women, and to attempt to show just how they overcame the obstacles in their path. I found that, again and again, individuals evaded, confronted, and ignored the ideologies and practices that sought to exclude them from the world of composition. Many did so despite subscribing to their society’s beliefs as to what they were capable of as a woman, how they should live as a woman, and, crucially, what they could (and could not) compose as a woman. I sometimes think that’s where their true courage lies. Sounds and Sweets Airs honours their lives – and I urge you to seek out their music. You will not be disappointed.

Sounds and Sweet Airs is available to order now.

The London Oriana Choir have launched the five15 project, championing the talent of female composers. Find out more here


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Post Author

Anna Beer
Anna Beer is a British author and lecturer, primarily known for her work as a biographer. 'Sounds and Sweet Airs' is her latest book, charting the hidden history of the women who dared to write music in a man's world.