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  • Writer's picturePatrick Allies

Female Composers: Time for a Musical ‘Woman’s Hour’?

Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina at the piano

Recently, when BBC Radio 3 devoted itself to playing music by female composers to celebrate International Women’s Day, the response was not unanimously positive. As one presenter, Clemency Burton-Hill, related on Twitter:

@clemencybh: I'm getting emails (from men) saying that men will feel 'disenfranchised' by fact @bbcradio3's playing only women composers

The absurdity of criticising Radio 3 (or anyone else for that matter) for promoting music written by women almost doesn’t need explaining. However, for those new to the topic, the following should give you idea of the gender disparity in this particular field: when the leading classical music website (which lists over 25,000 events a year) calculated the 250 most-performed composers in 2014, the list featured only 4 women (Sofia Gubaidulina, Clara Schumann, Kaija Saariaho and Judith Weir). That’s 1.6%.

Classic FM were quick to join the debate, pointing out that there have been plenty of successful women composers through history, many of whom who haven’t received the posthumous reputation they deserve. As enlightening as their list was, it didn’t offer any ideas as to how women’s music might hope to get their music wider acclaim; how they might achieve a listing on the same radio station’s overwhelmingly male annual Hall of Fame for instance.

The enormous task of making the future of music composition a more gender-equal place is so daunting that it’s difficult to know where to start. Reassuringly, there are some great initiatives under way to help the development of female composers, not least the PRS for Music Foundation’s Women Make Music scheme, which offers funding of up to £5000 to female music creators in any genre, and the Women Composers Festival in Hartford, Connecticut, now in its 14th year.

If I could make my own suggestion of how to bring greater exposure to music by women it would be this: a weekly show on BBC Radio 3 showcasing work exclusively by female composers. It would of course be presented by a woman (I can think of some strong candidates for the job) and could combine live performance, interviews, features, competitions and CD reviews. The aim would be to shed light on new generations of women composers, but also celebrate those of the past.

It might not solve everything, but it would be a start. And I’d certainly tune in.

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