Some important words for female composers

"To the girls, to the women, to the mothers, to the daughters who hear the music bubbling within, please speak up. We need to hear your voices."

These are the words of Hildur Guðnadóttir, who recently accepted the Oscar for best original score for the film Joker at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards. This takes the number of women to win this award up to three – following Rachel Portman’s win for the film Emma in 1996 and Anne Dudley’s for The Full Monty in 1997.

Guðnadóttir’s message comes at a time when we as a society are growing in awareness of the difficulties confronted by minority groups; in daily life, in politics, in the workforce, and in the arts. However, even with these changing social attitudes, entrenched views can take a while to change. Unconscious bias also plays a part – it is so accepted the music we hear in concert halls will be composed by a man, or the conductor on the podium will be male, that many people still react with surprise or even hostility when it turns out to be otherwise.  

Historically, there are few examples of female composers in the Western art music canon; this career was almost impossible, due to the social attitudes of the times. Of the few examples that exist, Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847), although undoubtedly as gifted as her brother Felix, had many of her compositions published in her brother’s name. Clara Schumann (1819-1896), although having an international reputation as a concert pianist during her lifetime, was until recently relatively unknown as a composer, although her works rival those of her husband Robert in technique and emotional range. More recently, British composer Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) also struggled under active discouragement and disparagement – she also used male pseudonyms to have her work accepted. Now Clarke is recognised as a distinguished composer of her generation. The Rebecca Clarke Society, complete with website, was established in 2000 to promote the study and performance of her music. 

Professional orchestras gradually began to allow women into their ranks from 1913 onwards, prior to that women faced many obstacles in studying music professionally. In fact, Rebecca Clarke was also one of the first women to play in a professional orchestra, the Queen’s Hall orchestra conducted by Sir Henry Wood. Today, although there are many female solo singers, singer songwriters, orchestral players and instrumental soloists, it seems the jobs of composer (creator) and conductor (director) have remained more difficult for women to crack. 

Looking back to my own days of university studies, I was participating in a kind of “double think”.  I knew that I was welcome as a composition student and supported by my teachers (whom I respect and admire to this day), while accepting without question the music we performed and studied was composed by men. This bias is not surprising, considering the percentage of music composed by women in the Western art music canon of the past is miniscule. However, in a contemporary setting it is up to us as educators to help redress the “imbalance” referred to by Guðnadóttir in her post Oscar interview session.

There is another aspect to my university study that I look back on with regret. I was shy, quiet, reserved, and suffered from a lack of confidence in my work. When I look back now and see the opportunities (and friendships) I missed out on through a lack of self-confidence I feel a sense of frustration at my younger self. As a teacher now, I see the same characteristics in many of our female students with regard to their compositions. It’s my observation that female students frequently tend to be more cautious about putting themselves “out there” and more afraid of taking risks and grasping opportunities than their male classmates. 

A composition competition organised by a local instrumental society a couple of years back still stands out to me as an example. When the finalists in the competition were announced, the organiser came into some flak when it was discovered there were no women finalists – until it was disclosed that no female composers had entered. It is to be hoped that as more music by female composers is commissioned, performed, recorded, researched, and generally supported, this issue will gradually fade away.

In New Zealand, there have been a number of events held to support this aim, beginning with the New Zealand Smokefree Composing Women’s Festivals in held in 1993 and 1995. More recently there were a number of events held to celebrate 125 years of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, including “Vox Fem”, a concert by the Wellington new music ensemble Stroma, featuring works by six New Zealand and Australian composers. (Further afield, the New York Philharmonic has this year instigated “Project 19” in which 19 new works by women composers will be premiered during the 2020 season to celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment 100 years ago).  

We are fortunate in this country to have composer role models such as Dame Gillian Whitehead, Jenny McLeod, Dorothy Buchanan, and Dorothea Franchi. We have benefited from advocates such as Dorothy Buchanan and Elizabeth Kerr, and teacher-mentors such as John Rimmer, Jack Body, John Elmsly, and many others.  The New Zealand Composers Association (CANZ) and the Centre for New Zealand Music (SOUNZ) also offer support and encouragement. 

In 2018 Eve de Castro-Robinson gave the annual Lilburn lecture at the National Library of New Zealand. In this talk, entitled “Wide blows our banner” (title taken from Ethel Smyth’s “March of the Women”), de Castro-Robinson reflected on the difficulties and successes experienced by women in the fields of composition and conducting, how far we have come, how much is still to be done. 

The 2019 Lilburn Lecture “Breath of the Birds” was given by Dame Gillian Whitehead, in which she discussed the origins and revival of taonga pūoro, and her collaborations with performers in the use of these traditional Māori instruments. We also have great role models in our younger New Zealand composers, including Claire Cowan, Sarah Ballard, Salina Fisher, Celeste Oram and many more, working in the fields of classical art music, film music, jazz, popular music and more.  

Yet the fact that Hildur Guðnadóttir is the first woman to win an Oscar for a film score in over 20 years underscores a significant imbalance within the creative, technological and business fields of the music industry. Our young composers of any gender identity must be given support to encourage and promote their artistic careers, and the confidence to put forward their vision. Guðnadóttir’s words are important for our young composers to hear.  

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