Back to Navigation page; see also
sound clips & CD shop for music by women
1. Generalisations about the sexes
2. Are women different?
3. A chance discovery
4. Who are the women composers?
5. Getting women composers back on the map
6. Researching the past
7. What 18th and 19th Century women composers faced
9. Life as a female performer
10. Visible signs of prejudice
11. Relics of prejudice within enlightenment
12. Assumptions associated with prejudice
finished, and the composer called to the platform, it was observed with
stupefaction that all that tremendous noise had been made by a lady."
George Bernard Shaw
So, men are noisy and aggressive, and women are delicate and sensitive. At least it's clear
that Beethoven was male; but it does suggest that Chopin was female, and Mozart was
One thing I'm sure about is that we have not yet achieved equality. Of course we could just
put that down as a residue of historical habit, but perhaps there's value in unpicking some
of the issues within the unfairness.
There has recetly been some research done at Keele University on the 'gendering of
musical instruments'. This refers to the fact that flutes are usually played by girls and
trumpets by boys. Against expectations it seems that this kind of stereotyping is becoming
more enforced. Despite the fact that more girls are succeeding in music at 'A' level, the
profession is still very male dominated, and these people are the visible role models seen by
History relates that the famous violinist Joseph Joachim, addressing Clara Schumann in
1870 said "As far as art is concerned, you are man enough". In fact her phenomenal talent
transcended gender divisions, not by being masculine, but through sheer brilliance, as her
dazzling international performing career proved.
Another version of that compliment was made by George Chadwick to Amy Beach. On hearing her Gaelic Symphony he wrote to her "I always feel a thrill of pride when I hear a fine work by one of us, and as such you will have to be counted one of the boys."
The gender question in regard to musicians makes me annoyed. What relevance does a
person's sex have? Doesn't the quality of music making come more from a person's
individual character than from the generalities of their sex? Although I complain about this
question I also have to admit that I have had benefits from it as well. As the Director of my
own orchestra, which performs music by both women and men, I've received a certain
amount of extra press coverage because women composers and female Music Directors are
still quite rare, and considered newsworthy by the media.
Somebody once told me that women's brains are different and simply don't have in them the capacity to create artistically. Similarly Wilhelm Gericke (the Boston Symphony's Musical Adviser) told Amy Cheney/Beach's mother that her prodigy daughter should not be educated in Europe as women were intellectually less highly evolved than men. How sad that we are seen as strange animals, so "differently" endowed. Could it be that our capacity to produce new human life is so major a threat for men that they have to keep the creation of symphonies (etc) to themselves?
My involvement with music by women arose quite by chance, when I came across a
description about Germaine Tailleferre's Piano Concerto in a book on French music. Only
then (aged 36) did it occur to me that I'd never heard anything written by a women
composer. I was shocked to think that I had never questioned it before. Curiosity got the
better of me, and I went looking for the music. With some difficulty I got hold of the
Tailleferre score, and discovered an utterly delightful work from Paris in the 1920s. Then I
simply couldn't turn my back on the injustice. Why did we know nothing about music by
women? What else was there that I'd never heard of? I had to find out and then help to set
the record straight. So I went looking in libraries; the more I dug, the more I found, and the
more I saw how much beautiful music has been neglected.
Many people know about Schumann and Mendelssohn - Clara and Fanny, that is. Their
famous surnames make them easy to remember, which is not to acknowledge that they
were both exceptional individuals. Clara's achievements as one of the greatest pianists of
the 19th century is well documented. Only recently have we got to know her highly
expressive voice as a composer. Fanny sustained a musical life despite considerable
discouragement; her compositions, which she wrote for her own Sunday Musicales,
demonstrate an energetic and adventurous nature.
Picking two names that are less well known, Louise Farrenc and Marianne Martinez
embody some other characteristics, including steady devotion to music and sturdy
determination to pursue their interests regardless of others' attitudes.
"Mozart was an almost constant attendant at her parties and I have heard him play duets
of his own composition on the piano-forte with her." This was reported by the tenor
Michael Kelly of Marianne Martinez in about 1785. Lucky woman! Martinez's substantial
canon of work indicates an ambitious imagination. She not only wrote Concertos, Sonatas,
Cantatas and Masses, but also a huge dramatic Oratorio.
Louise Farrenc was also an acknowledged part of the musical scene of her day, which was
Paris in the mid 19th century. She received appreciative reviews about her compositions,
including compliments from Berlioz on her orchestration. One of her clever moves was to
marry a music publisher, which meant that many of her works were issued in print. Her best
works are for piano and chamber ensemble and her style includes some beautiful use of
In the UK, there is one simple way of illustrating the level of interest in music by women:
statistics from the Promenade concerts. The best it's ever been was to include music by five
women, usually compared to sixty or so men. Even in the year of the 100th anniversary of
Clara Schumann's death, there was only one work by a woman - her Piano Trio. Nicholas Kenyon received a good deal of flack for his unblanced programming of the 2006 Prom season.
"What is music by women like?" is a question I'm often asked. Usually I refrain from
asking what music by men is like, or reacting to the whiff of expectation regarding
sentimental salon bon-bons. Individual personality is so much more interesting than gender
generalisations. To me, the point is that people should hear the music and make their own
minds up from listening.
People seem nervous about listening to music by women, and reviewers are visibly
reluctant to show ignorance. Their attitudes come through even so - both the obstinately
closed minded and the determinedly politically correct, while others avoid communicating
any quality of experience and tell the composer's life story instead.
There have been many attempts to get music by women recorded. An important
contribution, but prone to many problems. Sad to say, I think there are a number of
recordings in the catalogue which could be described as "worthy" offerings but which don't
actually enhance our appreciation of this lost repertoire.
The public's knowledge and understanding could be changed indeed by the creation of a large body of high quality recordings, which could be played regularly on the classical music broadcast networks. With this aim, I approached several recording companies with a plan for a substantial new series of recordings, to bring the work to public attention. I even had a marketing proposal for joining up with Virago, and selling the discs alongside their books in bookshops. Quite a number of the recording executives I spoke to showed considerable interest in the "new and interesting idea". When they came to look at budgets, and the idea of committing good money to such a project, suddenly the tune changed! To their credit, Carlton Classics did produce a mini-series of three new recordings in 1997 (Farrenc, Strozzi and Schumann) which all got good reviews, but no money was allocated for marketing or advertising and little more was seen of them.
This is an erratic and unpredictable process. Many women composers were successful in
their day, but forgotten when they died. Many had their music published, so some scores
can be found (with luck) in libraries; indeed some manuscripts are there too. Having
unearthed a certain number of interesting works by women in British libraries, I was given
a grant by the Arts Council of England to explore libraries in Vienna, Berlin and Paris.
More pieces emerged. Sometimes just the parts, sometimes just the score. I've spent many
hours writing up the missing score or parts, and have enjoyed getting a feel for how this or
that composer worked. I began to get to know Farrenc's effervescent energy while copying
the parts for her Sextet for Piano and Wind Op 40. Nowadays I can do it on the Sibelius computer programme.
Most tantalising of all has been to read about a work in a history or reference book, but
then not find the music anywhere. Ruefully I observe that this era of high speed electronic
communication, and library access, may not deliver back to us this lost corpus of work.
There were several reasons mitigating against women becoming composers. Usually the
individuals who overcame the problems did so because of their love of music and their
determination to pursue their interests regardless. Marianne Martinez is a typical example
of the kind of independent mind - she wrote extensively in many genres, and clearly
composed because she loved it. Farrenc illustrates another aspect, normally associated with
20th century women: the juggling act of looking after a family, performing, teaching (she
was an early pioneer in the issue of equal pay for equal work) and composing. Last but not
least she also did academic research: a century before the early music movement, Farrenc
published the 24 volume Tresor des Pianistes, keyboard music of the three preceding
The most obvious obstacle was just the lack of a proper musical education. If they were
lucky, musical girls were born into a musical family (Fanny Mendelssohn), the aristocracy
(the two Anna Amalias, Frederick the Great's sister and niece), or went into a Nunnery
(Hildegard, and Isabella Leonarda) and grew up with music around them.
Just as important is the whole business of learning on the job. Most of what I know about
performance and communication I've learnt through the process of doing it, and working
with my professional colleagues. Mozart and Haydn had constant feedback about their
compositions in their everyday lives. Few women composers of the past had that living
experience of hearing their work, learning from it, and moving on to the next level.
"Perhaps for Felix music will become a profession, while for you it will always remain but
an ornament; never can and should it become the foundation of your existence." This
letter from Abraham Mendelssohn to his daughter Fanny has become one of the most
famous discouragements in musical history. It is also a classic expression of society's long-held view that it was not acceptable for a woman to compose. Recently we've come to
know of the phenomenal talents of both the Mendelssohn siblings. To the credit of their
parents, Fanny received the same musical education as Felix. However restrictive social
attitudes deprived us of her subsequent developments as a major creative talent.
Clara Schumann - virtuoso pianist, composer, teacher and mother of seven - wrote in her diary in 1839: "I once thought 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, and why should I expect to be the one?" Of course I know that self-doubt is not a uniquely female characteristic, but (apologies for the generalisation) there seems to be something about masculine assertiveness that covers over, or gets round this form of nerves.
Let me go back to Ethyl Smyth. She had a favourite legend about rivalry: one afternoon
while Adam was asleep, Eve, anticipating the Great God Pan, bored some holes in a hollow
reed and began to what we call `pick out a tune'. Thereupon Adam woke; "Stop that
horrible noise," he roared, adding, after a pause, "besides which, if anyone's going to
make it, it's not you but me."
The big musical competitions are generally won by men. I have no wish to "beat" others in
contest, I simply want to make music. However, we live in a very competitive world, and
that may be one reason why there are less women at the top. Some people think that men's
success comes from talent while women's comes from hard work, which is irksome in not
acknowledging women's abilities.
A recording company executive trying to show his open-mindedness once said to me "if only there was one world-breaking piece, then we'd be on." Images of shattering the sound barrier came to mind, and once again I felt that the real point - the quality of the music - simply didn't feature.
In 1939 Nadia Boulanger was asked what it was like to be the first woman to conduct the
Boston Symphony Orchestra in the world première of Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks. She
replied "Well, I have been a woman for 50 years now and have recovered from my initial
Even now there seems to be a difference in attitude between composers and performers.
Jane Austen novels include many fine descriptions of the value to her young heroines of
having musical skills, particularly when it came to attracting a spouse. While people might
not think of that as a way of courting a husband today, there is still something of the idea
that female performers are glamorous and sexy - or should be. Some of my female
colleagues have been reviewed for their concert clothes! Can you imagine anyone saying
that Mozart wasn't worth listening to because he was short and ugly?
Anyone who puts their head above the parapet will get shot at: all conductors and musical directors have to prove themselves. However, as in all walks of life, it still seems that women have to be extra good to get accepted. Generally I choose to play with musicians who won't get stuck on gender, but occasionally I can sense I'm being challenged just to see if I'm tough enough to take it. As any musician should, I prepare very thoroughly and try to communicate clearly what I want. Those are the standards I judge others by, not by their sex.
In these days of political correctness people keep their prejudices to themselves, so it's
hard to pinpoint. I cited some data from the Proms earlier in this article, and I offer a story
from my orchestra's experience. In 1995-7 we did a concert series in London featuring
music by women composers, presenting several premières of music by women of the last
250 years. BBC Radio 3 producers were invited to every one of the nine concerts, but
didn't come to any - in other words they were not willing to listen to any of this music.
This looks like prejudice.
But the series did make a difference. I'm happy to report that the London Times commented at the end "over the last three years they have performed 11 premières by women composers ... rewriting musical history in the process."
With the best will in the world, we are all prejudiced at times. Colleagues in my Orchestra are generally open minded, and on being faced with playing music by a "new" (usually old) woman composer, they are willing give her a go and enjoy the discovery. Finding the way any individual's musical language works always takes time, and given enough time we usually develop a sense of style. Once, when we hadn't arrived at a proper interpretation during the rehearsal, I heard comments in the vein of "this is what gives women's music a bad name". Later, when it came together in the concert the prejudice evaporated, and the comments changed to "that really had something". It's so easy to blame the composer for our inadequate understanding. When I think about the amount of time I have spent developing my Mozart-playing skills, it bears no comparison. We have all heard music by Mozart all our lives; we have all learnt from the understanding of many generations before us, and we come to his music with a huge amount of experience and familiarity. When I make a "first recording" of music by women, I wonder what it will sound like when it gets to a tenth generation version.
As I've become known for reviving music by women, I've noticed people making assumptions from that fact: for example that my orchestra must be women players only. After all, I must be a feminist who would only play with women, and men wouldn't play music by women, would they? Ironically, because my orchestra is freelance, and there are more female freelance players in London, I sometimes have to discriminate positively in favour of men in order to keep the balance more or less equal.
A criticism often levelled at women composers of the past is that they weren't radical,
original or ground breaking. There are so many ways to be creative, and any composer who
finds their own authentic voice has been innovative, and I believe many women have done
that. Women have made music in many unprecedented ways.
With both the Schumanns and the Mendelssohns, the musical language of each pair is so
close, we don't really know who led the way, and does it matter? I don't think they were
copying each other, it was simply that the musical ideas of each household progressed as a
duologue. For me Clara's music has a thoughtful nobility all her own, connected but
different from Robert's unique introvert/extrovert manner. Contrast her brooding F minor
Konzertsatz with Robert's more famous A minor Piano Concerto. Felix has a fine balance
of romanticism and classicism, while Fanny is passionate and excitable, and their two Piano
Trios in D minor also make a fascinating comparison.
Sometimes composers are accused of being too obviously derivative of their teachers.
While it's clear what influence Farrenc got from Hummel and Moscheles, I'm shocked
when I see her music described as a recycling of those styles, and I always note that the
writer has shown up their own lack of hearing. The Trio for clarinet, cello and piano Op 44
illustrates her unique sense of harmony, and balance between discipline and emotion.
In another area dates can be illuminating. We think of Messiaen (b1908) as the first
composer to have annotated birdsong. However Amy Beach was also fascinated by nature
and her two Hermit Thrush piano pieces of 1922 include transcriptions of the birdcalls.
When Marie Grandval wrote her Offertoire, evoking the heavenly Elysian sounds we
associate with Fauré's Requiem, she was some ten years before him.
In talking about the music by women which I've been reviving, I've found it helps to try and give a historical context. Usually this means referring to a male composer who was a contemporary, or with whom there are stylistic connections. I wish it was possible to place them in history without hitching them to a male reference, but I haven't found a better way.
The years of work I've spent digging up, editing, learning and performing music by women
have been challenging, stimulating and enriching in many ways. As a classical specialist,
Clara, Fanny, Louise and Amy have provoked me into exploring new avenues of creative
expression, and they've inspired me as women of tremendous character and strength. I
notice that other people also seem pleased at discovering what women have created, as if it
was a missing piece in our cultural heritage that is now becoming audible again.
When I started writing this article I wanted to say that gender issues are beside the point -
just trendy talk. I wanted to say this is irrelevant; all that matters is the music. But I see I
can't. These questions are still vividly with us, and will be for the
© Diana Ambache at www.ambache.co.uk