What a pleasure it was in early September of this year to read that young Jessy McCabe, a student at the private Twyford Church of England High School in London, England, stood up to exam boards for the A level music tests. Among the 63 composers listed on the exam, not one of them was a woman nor were women composers listed on the syllabus for course work.
In Miss McCabe’s estimation, something had to be done and it was her responsibility to correct the wrong done to women composers. She began a journey to change the way advanced music courses were taught. She received an apology from the exam board and an assurance that women composers would be included in her music classes.
This young lady had taken a course entitled, “Fearless Futures” which raised the subject of gender inequality. Her eyes were opened to the role of sexism in all facets of our everyday life. With her determination to see an end to this sort of discrimination, she presented a list of women composers to the exam board, went on social media to promote her idea with the end result being a change in the way music courses are being taught in England.
Miss McCabe’s comprehension of the lack of understanding of women’s inclusion in all aspects and courses in education is commendable. Jessy did not stop at just music classes. She approached the Secretary of Education in England to make sure these discriminatory practices were changed across all areas of course work and exams. BRAVA, Jessy.
Through the centuries classical music women composers have survived, usually scoffed at or hidden behind the fame of their brother, father or husband.
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), a Catholic nun, whose liturgical music inspires us to this day, was looked down upon by the church clergy for she was only a nun.
Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) who was one of the most prolific composers (man or woman) of her era whose published compositions were nearly all secular vocal settings, was an independent woman. Her father encouraged her musical career.
Wolfgang Mozart’s sister, Nannerl (1751-1829) is said to have been as equally talented as her famous brother. The sister/brother child prodigies were adept at performing on the harpsichord and fortepiano, yet once she became of marriageable age, her performing career stopped at the insistence of her father. Nannerl was known to compose as Mozart mentioned her works in his letters. None of her compositions have survived.
Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847), sister to Felix Mendelssohn, was a composer of songs and instrumental works. Her music was published with the aid of her famous brother who affixed his name to them.
Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896) was a piano prodigy and composer whose father was her teacher. Her performing career began at a young age and continued throughout the years of her marriage to the famous composer, Robert Schumann. Their lives and careers became intertwined. With eight children to support, Clara’s income from performing and the publishing of her songs and other works was essential to the support of the family. Robert’s mental health was unstable and at times Clara either completed works Robert had begun or wrote works using his name for publication. Robert’s name brought in more royalties than Clara’s.
Alma Mahler, (1879-1964), wife to composer/conductor Gustav Mahler, composed 17 songs. Her husband scoffed at her musical works then later regretted his actions when a friend pointed out that Alma’s music had substance. Gustav edited her works and saw to it that her songs were published. In addition, he orchestrated a number of her songs.
From the title of my blog and my many entries, you know I discovered the music of Canadian American composer Gena Branscombe. I have recorded her songs, told her life’s story in a one-woman show and lectured about her. When I began my research to find other women composers whose music I might record along with Miss Branscombe’s, I found hundreds of women from the era of 1880-1950. We know the names Mrs. Amy Beach, Harriet Ware, Mabel Daniels, Mary Howe, Liza Lehmann and a few others as they were famous in their day and their music performed.
My eyes opened to the fact that yes, some of these women’s songs were published, but hundreds and hundreds were lost to history. Where was their music? Were their family members available to recount their story? More and more questions to be asked, yet no one to answer them.
When depressions or economic downturns hit the economy, publishers would first drop the women composers’ works from their catalogue over that of a man’s. Often times the women composers’ music was destroyed before the publisher notified them. What a loss to our music history.
And, why, why did I never hear of these women composers or their impact on music history mentioned all the way through my bachelor’s and master’s degrees? Why were they left out or why was their no specific course taught about women composers? Why on my oral exams for my masters degree was I not asked one question about a woman composer?
Much like Jessy McCabe in England, we must take the responsibility to correct the teaching of music history. Women composers must be mentioned alongside their male counterparts in music history and theory courses. A few colleges offer overview classes about women composers from the middle ages to the present day. It’s a step in the right direction yet more must be done to bring these women to the forefront.
What is our responsibility in this matter? Attend your local orchestra concerts, college recitals, high school concerts, local choral concerts and any other music offering. Make note of the composers being performed on the programs, challenge the performers and conductors as to why women composers were not featured.
Music appreciation classes in grade school, middle school and high school must include the teaching of music by women. High school chorus, band and orchestra programs must include works by women. Begin gender equality education at a young age with the end result being informed adults. Masters and doctoral degree music students, insist that questions about women composers be asked on your written and oral exams. Challenge your college and university boards to demonstrate their belief in equality in the music world.
We must take action just like Jessy McCabe, for how else are we able to tear down the walls of discrimination towards women in all walks of careers?
One small reminder, the English language is a difficult one with many words sounding the same yet spelled differently. There is an advantage to our language; nouns are genderless. The word “composer” has no gender. Women write and wrote music. They are composers whose works are not to be judged because they are female but because they wrote music. One day soon may we come to that place….a composer! Until that time, our mission should be to promote women's music.
The women mentioned above are composers of notoriety over the past 10 centuries. There are thousands of lesser known women whose music is sitting in a library not catalogued or in someone’s attic, in a box waiting to be opened. Their music must be discovered, published, performed, recorded and their life stories told as profoundly as that of Beethoven, Mozart or Brahms. Music education has sorely left women composers out of their history books and classrooms. Let us all work to correct this.