Music

There's a good reason why there are no great female composers

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

Last week a 17-year-old girl forced the Edexcel exam board to change its A-level music syllabus to include the work of women composers. Jessy McCabe, a sixth former at Twyford Church of England High School in London, started a petition after studying gender inequality. Good for her, you might think. But is it good for A-level students?

A delicate question lies at the heart of the subject of female composers, and it’s not ‘Why are they so criminally underrepresented in the classical canon?’ It’s ‘How good is their music compared with that of male composers?’

Ms McCabe told the press that ‘I’d quite like to learn about the music of Clara Schumann.’ OK, let’s start there. As I write this, I’m listening to a recording that couples the piano concertos of Mr and Mrs Schumann. In track three, I marvel yet again at Robert’s genius. The leaping melody of the finale turns into a fugue and then a waltz, enticed by the piano into modulations that never lose their power to surprise and delight.

Then comes track four, the first movement of Clara’s concerto, and within ten seconds we know it’s a dud. The first phrase is a platitude: nothing good can come of it and nothing does. Throughout, the virtuoso passagework is straight out of the catalogue. In her defence, it’s an early piece; her mature Piano Trio is more accomplished, though its lyrical passages could have been cut and pasted from one of her husband’s works. Her G minor Piano Sonata, on the other hand, isn’t a success. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it ‘repugnant’ (Clara’s verdict on Tristan) or ‘horrible’ (her description of Bruckner’s Seventh), but it’s embarrassingly banal.


Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix, has also been suggested for the new syllabus. She, too, wrote a G minor Piano Sonata and it’s bloody awful. Whether it’s worse than Clara’s sonata I can’t say, because that would mean listening to them again. But we can be pretty sure that neither of them would have been recorded if they had been composed by a man. (Note to A-level candidates: you make this point at your peril.)

Clara and Fanny were not, of course, typical female composers of their day. They traded on their surnames, and Clara was also a world-famous virtuoso pianist. What about women who lacked these advantages? Amy Beach (1867–1944) is regarded as the first significant woman composer from the United States, though she sounds more French than American. She’s significant mainly because she was a woman. Critics dutifully praise her but can’t resist the adjective ‘well-crafted’, meaning boring.

In contrast, Dame Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) wrote some very badly crafted music. But her opera The Wreckers and her Mass in D — which she once sang solo, orchestral parts included, to Queen Victoria — are titanic in scale and ambition. The Wreckers has been described as a fusion of Wagner and Gilbert and Sullivan. She’s an interesting composer but not a great one.

Although Beach and Smyth lived until the second world war, it’s hard to think of them as 20th-century women composers, of whom there were many. They wrote in an enormous range of styles, though none of them can be said to have invented a musical language. The 13 string quartets of Elizabeth Maconchy (1907–1994), for example, are distinctively knotty — but when they turn spiky you think of Bartok and her bleaker moments sound like Shostakovich. Again, the phrase ‘well-crafted’ comes to mind, as it does in the case of Thea Musgrave (born 1928), a master orchestrator who spins out the development of small-scale motifs to the point where listeners are looking at their watches.

But then that’s a bad habit of male composers, too. Indeed, there’s nothing distinctively female about the uneven output of women composers. Clara Schumann’s piano concerto is no worse than similar pieces churned out in their hundreds by her male contemporaries. If Maconchy’s fine string quartets don’t belong in the first rank, then neither do those of Ernst Krenek, Darius Milhaud or Robert Simpson. And if there are no great women composers, that’s because creative geniuses are rare and, in the past, so few women wrote music. There may be some in the future, though I’m not sure whether ‘greatness’ is achievable amid the messy eclecticism of 21st-century music.

Meanwhile, we’re stuck in a situation where the barriers to women becoming composers have been removed but they’re still honoured for being women. Judith Weir (born 1954) is a minor figure whose ‘stark’ scores sound as if crucial instrumental parts have gone missing. Her opera Miss Fortune received such a savaging at Covent Garden in 2012 that the Santa Fe Opera dropped its plans to stage it. Last year she was appointed Master of the Queen’s Music. You may not be surprised to learn that she’s all in favour of the new A-level syllabus.

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  • Christina Thaler

    my dear whoever you are; i recommend Barbara Strozzi (who is to be on the syllabus by the way) and Francesca Caccini to further your somewhat deficient music education. Also have you ever heard of Hildegard von Bingen? And the Livre Vermeill? Music did not begin in 1800.

  • Chris L

    OK, so you’ve listened to a few women composers, with what looks like a not particularly open mind, and decided to dismiss the lot of ’em on the back of some half-digested first impressions. Gosh, how very reasonable of you! Do you want to bring down a torrent of perfectly justifiable hatred on your head?!!?

    Not only are you dead wrong about Maconchy (maybe not as good as Bartok…but definitely better than Shostakovich! And yes, I am very well acquainted with the string quartets of all three), but, in addition to the wise suggestions of Christina Thaler, I’d also recommend the very necessary corrective provided by Lili Boulanger’s devastated, and devastating, setting of Psalm 130, and virtually anything by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, widely regarded as at once one of the most individual and most approachable of emerging compositional talents.

  • Chris L

    I should add that “Chris” does, indeed, stand for “Christopher”…

  • Les

    Rubbish at music may explain it.

  • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

    There are fewer women geniuses in all fields, that is a fact of life and the sooner women accept that the happier they will be.

  • Anti_Femastasis

    There’s a good reason why there are no great female composers

    The reason is the same why there are no great children composers: Women’s brains are smaller (relatively and absolutely), women have 17% less neocortical neurons and 40% less neocortical synapses.

    Additionally women have weaker bodies (can’t work long), slimecramp every month and are emotionally unsteady.

    The highest form of art women are capable of is approximately this:
    http://i.imgbox.com/LG3okVwx.jpg (left original, right the “restored version”).

    Don’t kill me, I’m just the messenger. We all know what women are designed for.

    • Franz King

      A load of bull. Are males with a larger brain size better at composing than those with a smaller brain size?

      • Zbyněk Dráb

        Generally speaking, yes. Better at anything we put our minds to, given the extra processing power.

        Not social power. Processing power. Take care to differentiate.

  • If we are talking about strictly symphonic composition, there would be no twentieth century Western music today without Nadia Boulanger. Full stop.

    The copyists’ unions are a virtual female monopoly: if you are familiar with the trade you will know that copyists are also like Linotype operators or old school copy editors but with musical notes instead of letters of the alphabet–they make corrections on the fly then put them on paper with their Osmoroid Ovals or computer printer. To be a copyist is the most exacting of symphonic musical skills as the job consists of matching the composers’ scores to the capabilities of the orchestra or film studio musicians and selected instrumentation. A copyist’s dream contract would be to be paid to “upscore” all of the Borodin Quartet’s repertoire to full 81-piece orchestral arrangements.

    Men cannot do it for the same reason men cannot load artillery shells or make printed circuit boards: they get bored, their mind wanders and the next thing you know the entire job is ruined.

    Hollywood also has a highly competent lineup of female composers who are playing the game the same way Wolfgang Korngold did: get paid so you can write the work you wish to write on your own time. No one can pull together and tighten up a sloppy score into something that is memorable like a woman and I do not care if that is a sexist remark. Men analyse, women synthesise.

    Why women migrate toward teaching and composing/arranging for film and TV is for the money. As a group Gen Y and Millennial women are now in exactly the same position as Shostakovich as a pit orchestra pianist for the silent films was as a young man relative to future prospects.

    We are ten to twenty years away from women composers crafting as a matter or course the 10 or 15 full symphonies each per career, but the biggest holdup now as back in the supposedly bad old days is true for all current art forms: there is no culture of the impresario. State funding is absolutely no substitute. You need completely mad enthusiasts with razor-sharp insight, the enthusiasts’ level of training as a peer to the musicians, writers or graphic artists they fund, and bizarrely huge piles of money to burn on projects that fall flat.

    As of now there is also not the marketing mechanism in place to pitch symphonic music in any form to the public which was in place and ticking along nicely until the end of the Second World War. That consisted also of a fully functional and serious-minded culture of devoted salonnieres to which dinners and drinks-til-dawn affairs industrialists and aristos fought for invitations. Government sponsored PR does not work.

    Lastly a lot of it comes down to physical endurance and tenacity of the testosterone variety. Toscanini comes to mind as conductor of the NBC Stmphony Orchestra until the age of 85. Conductors are the implementers of all that is excellent in a piece of music and that culture is not there, male or female as ruthless discipline and vigour in execution are completely out of fashion.

    • SPW

      I don’t think we are talking strictly about 20thC symphonic composition, (to say there would be NOTHING without Boulanger is hilarious – try not to hole your own boat).

      • Have you seen the list of her studenta over more than half a century of teaching? I beg to differ.
        On the other hand you read as though you are a fan of Schnittke and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen or John Cage to which one must cheerfully respond chacun a son gout whilst keeping Mental Health Emergency Services on speed dial.

        • SPW

          My goodness you’re wordy. Yes I have seen list (yawn). No I don’t like Cage et al yet. You cannot hide inability in music. You cannot argue something’s there when it’s not. Words won’t do it.

          • My, you are thick. The object of Damian’s post was to somehow explain why the presence of women writing music of the type music he specified are lacking. My responses were to clarify why. If those two simple points escape you that is not my fault.

            Enjoy your own goal. Longtime DT trolls Iggyjack and John Chuckman await to comfort your remorse at the pub.

          • SPW

            Yes I know what the article was saying but I disagree with your reasoning. That’s not losing the two points, that’s agreeing with one and disagreeing with the other.

            As to rabbiting about trolls… sorry, not interested.

          • I applaud you enthusiasm for music in general and wish more regardless of how they feel respecting one of life’s arduously-crafted yet most precious pleasures felt as strongly as you obviously do.

            Pleasant listening!

            Incidentally but on-topic as well, one of the best simple tools for boosting the quality of your computer’s headphone sound quality is to install something called ASIO4All at http://www.asio4lall.com. It makes a huge difference almost instantly. I use it in conjunction with Soundblaster Go! Pro after processing my MP3’s through a programme called Musereo after using Audacity’s noise removal and normalization default setting then putting the mp3 through Xenium Audio’s X-Tube free tube sound saturation VST on the “warm setting” which also runs on Audacity. Works with your computer’s speakers, too, of course. Make sure you set your resampling at at least 16 though.

            Sounds like a bit of trouble but the results are well worth it. It is an easy way to make your computer sound like a 3 grand tube audio setup for about 60 bucks plus a little time processing initially scritchy-scratchy mp3’s without doing the “maximum loudness” gambit most Audacity users prefer for some reason.

  • The dimension of economics also cannot be ignored. A few years ago I wrote a letter to the Schirmer folks to their for-hire composer division asking for a quotation on a full 81-piece scoring plus composers’ score for their staff composer-provided original 4-movement symphony. The price came to 100 grand plus 35 grand in US dollars for supplemental copyists’ work.

    That is pathetically low when you consider it takes at least a year or two to even get the starting string quartet from which you then extrapolate the full voicng. Most living composers making a fist of their livelihoods raise their children in 2- or 3-bedroom semi-detacheds and the majority of their income comes from teaching and/or managing 3 or 4 church choir directorships simultaneously.

  • The last bit with which I shall belabour you is the reality of ecclesiastical and symphonic sexual predation prevalent today is as it always has been: ten times worse than the rock and roll and pop industries. There are thousands of Andrade-style tragedies worldwide which have happened or are waiting to happen.

  • Kirsten Maddison

    Well – try writing even a ditty when you are being interrupted all the time!
    There are more than enough excellent women composers now – which is wonderful.

    • SPW

      I would like some recommendations please to explore further.

      • Zbyněk Dráb

        Cue chirping noises.

  • SPW

    I can’t abide music by women I’ve heard so far. I have a wide range (Palestrina to Penderecki and everything in between (except perhaps pretty Viennese ditties)). There’s something plagiaristic, narrow, dead-end about the female compositions I have tried to listen to. Contrived too. I would also say women do not make good conductors (except perhaps in the electrical sense). They do make wonderful performers however – outstanding in every field, even keyboard. I have often been baffled about female composers (lack of) and seem to find others baffled by this too,

  • Sean L

    Why should there be parity in the first place, because it’s a political fashion? There aren’t any female Rembrandts, Aristotles, Shakespeares either.

  • David Brighton

    My FB feed blew up when this was published, mostly with negative comments about how sexist and/or misogynist this article is. I think the question is fair: ‘How good is their music compared with that of male composers?’ One can simultaneously decry the lack of a welcoming, nurturing environment for women composers and pan the work of individual women in the field, past and present. Pretending that weak music is good, for the sake of political correctness, won’t fix the problem. That being said, the author is a bit sweeping in his condemnation – Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet “1931” is first rate, and women composers are succeeding equally with men in the 21st century – which is to say they are starved for promotion and funding to the same shameful degree.

  • David Brighton

    My FB feed blew up when this was published, mostly with negative comments about how sexist and/or misogynist this article is. I think the question is fair: ‘How good is their music compared with that of male composers?’ One can simultaneously decry the lack of a welcoming, nurturing environment for women composers and pan the work of individual women in the field, past and present. Pretending that weak music is good, for the sake of political correctness, won’t fix the problem. That being said, the author is a bit sweeping in his condemnation – Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet “1931” is first rate, and women composers are succeeding equally with men in the 21st century – which is to say they are starved for promotion and funding to the same shameful degree.

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