The gender gap

Why are there still so few female composers with substantial careers, asks Helen Wallace

A desire to compose

‘I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?’

Clara Schumann’s despairing words shouldn’t have a resonance today – but they do. Since she gave up composing, aged just 36, we can name tens if not hundreds of female composers who have made their mark, from Louise Farrenc to Ethel Smyth, Amy Beach to Kaija Saariaho, Rebecca Clarke to Judith Weir. Despite this, the statistics in 2010 look distinctly unpromising: only 14 per cent of the Performing Right Society’s (PRS) registered composers are women – and that’s in popular and classical music. Women represent just 5 per cent of composers at this year's Proms (though this rises to 15 per cent if you look at new music).

The gender gap

This was the subject of Bird’s Eye View/PRS Music Foundation’s recent debate at Kings Place, chaired by journalist Miranda Sawyer, joined by songwriters Kate Nash and Alison Goldfrapp, film composer Rachel Portman, electronic composer Mira Calix and Janis Susskind, publishing director at Boosey & Hawkes.

If in visual arts, literature and performance women are highly present, the gender imbalance is striking in the music business. Women dominate music publishing, management, the music charts, and orchestras are full of them; so why don’t they create the stuff? Susskind had a more positive view: at Booseys, 20 per cent of her composers are female, and she predicts it will rise.

She identified three decisive factors in the last 20 years that have helped unearth women composers: the curriculum change in school music, which brought composition centre-stage and encouraged girls, who previously wouldn’t have dared, to ‘have a go’ at creating music; the rise in educational and community musical work, for which many composers, like Roxanna Panufnik and Rachel Leach, have proved adept; the relaxing of aesthetic barriers, which means today’s most active female composers – think Anna Meredith, Mira Calix, Tansy Davies – can switch in and out of genres without fear of death-threats from the old, male ‘schools’ of compositional dogma.

A question of priorities?

All good news. But there’s still an elephant in the room. Why are there still so few female composers with substantial careers? Part of the answer lies in two off-the-cuff comments that were almost lost in the verbal scrum. ‘Well, rock and roll is all about ego and delusions of grandeur,’ laughed Goldfrapp, ‘Perhaps we’re just not delusional enough!’

Calix took that idea of ego a step further. Describing how hard it was to keep up the motivation to compose, she confessed, ‘You’re not saving lives, you’re not making the poor rich. You do ask yourself, what am I doing, does it have any value?’ I thought back to Clara Schumann: there’s a mentally unstable husband and six children to support, and she was the bread-winner; Schumann himself was ‘disturbed’ that her talent lay wasted, but had no doubt her priorities lay elsewhere.

Fast-forward a century to Ruth Crawford Seeger. After a promising start as a subtle modernist in the early 1930s, she devoted her life to transcribing and archiving American folk music; boy, was it worthwhile. And her children Pete and Peggy Seeger have been part of her great legacy – but she could have had a very different sort of recognition. Then I thought of Imogen Holst: clearly as gifted a composer as any of her contemporaries, but the greater part of her adult life was devoted to educational music and other (male) composers – Benjamin Britten and her father Gustav Holst. She only ‘indulged’ herself in her teens and her retirement.

The next step

Could these lives be repeated today? I trust not. Thinking of Judith Weir’s mesmerising Vanishing Bridegroom or Kaija Saariaho's Tout un monde lointain or Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland gives me hope. These are the role models to look to now: women who have single-mindedly devoted their lives to their art and not been persuaded their energies are needed elsewhere.

Let’s see more big commissions for such composers. Women are told by the L’OrĂ©al ad, ‘because you’re worth it’, but too many gifted women don’t believe that they have a talent worth nurturing, or that they should let their creative egos and, yes, even delusions reign, that they should sacrifice obligations to others or to more ‘worthy’ causes. And if they don’t believe in themselves, who in the music business is going to?

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine