How Female Classical Composers Are Encouraging Gender Equality
Throughout music history's illustrious, centuries-long repertoire of eclectic creations and multicultural musical endeavors, women composers have been continuously silenced. Plagued by the harrowing struggle to have their voices heard, only a handful of pre-20th century women who dared to compose actually won the battle to be performed, recorded, and remembered. Any scholar of Western classical music can attest to the fact that Fanny Mendelssohn, Cécile Chaminade, and Clara Schumann are three of the few pre-20th century women composers whose names come up in conversation on a regular basis in the classical community. In fact, Clara Schumann was an example of a composer who, if not for her husband and father encouraging and believing in her, would have turned away from pursuing her creative dreams.
"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? It would be arrogance..." - Clara Schumann
For 20th-century women composers, there were noticeable improvements. British composer Ethel Smyth, for instance, took part in the Women’s Suffrage movement in England, composing the official anthem of the Women's Social and Political Union entitled, "The March of the Women." The uplifting song, which has been arranged for choir, orchestra and even saxophone quintet, reached the ears of the entire nation and goes down in history as one of the early testaments to women’s compositional potential.
But was it enough to kickstart real change? In 1903, Smyth became the first woman to ever have an opera presented by the great Metropolitan Opera in New York when they performed Der Wald. Why didn’t the Met embrace another female-composed opera until 2017, more than a century later?
"Comrades, ye who have dared, first in the battle to strive and sorrow. Scorned, spurned, naught have you cared - raising your eyes to a wider ‘morrow." - Excerpt from Ethel Smyth’s "The March of the Women"
The year 2020 marks the first in history that three women have been nominated for the GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in the same year: Caroline Shaw, Julia Wolfe and Jennifer Higdon, who walked away with the award for her groundbreaking Harp Concerto, which Gramophone described as "a delight," performed by harpist Yolanda Kondonassis. In total, only three women have won this GRAMMY in Recording Academy history, and only seven women have ever been nominated. But thanks to the determination of longtime disadvantaged female composers, the field of classical music - one which is easy to perceive as dated—is on a path towards progress. Classical composers like GRAMMY award-winning Joan Tower, GRAMMY award-nominated Missy Mazzoli, and Pulitzer prize-winning Ellen Reid have demonstrated to the classical community—and the world—that women composers have been silenced for long enough.
This year’s GRAMMY-winning composer Jennifer Higdon faced her fair share of challenges early on in her career. Getting her start at age 15 when she taught herself to play the flute, it took years before Higdon developed her striking rhythmic, neo-romantic style, and more than a decade before she would be taken seriously by the classical community. But several concertos, an opera and three GRAMMYs later, Higdon’s list of accomplishments is as long as it is rich, even marveling fans as recently as two weeks ago when the Library of Congress announced that Higdon’s GRAMMY-winning Percussion Concerto has been inducted into the National Recording Registry. Higdon, who is currently practicing social distancing at her home in Philadelphia while she works on her upcoming opera Woman With Eyes Closed, took a break to share a few lessons with us about how she arrived at this level of success, how she remains proactive, and how other women can follow in her footsteps.
Program Directors are out there looking
When asked about what improvements are still needed in the classical community, Higdon replied, "I want to see more women on programs." And Higdon makes a strong point, given that only 1.8 percent of music performed by the top 22 orchestras in the United States included women composers in their programming, according to a survey of the 2014-2015 concert season. And among living composers being programmed, women accounted only 14%, which means we can’t go blaming Beethoven and Mozart for the imbalance.
The question begs to be asked: why do we still see this imbalance in concert programming? According to Higdon, there are several right answers, and they don’t all involve gender bias. “Sometimes people just don’t know enough women composers. They just don’t realize how many women are out there working—working hard,” Higdon explains. The truth is, women composers are out there—just as many as there are men. In fact, at the Curtis Institute where Higdon has taught composition since 1994, more than half of her composition students are women.
Thankfully though, according to Higdon, in the past couple of years, people have become a lot more cognizant of the fact that there aren’t enough women composers on classical concerts. "It’s getting better, but I think there’s lots of room for improvement." She goes on to explain how, more and more often, artistic administrators who do the programming for orchestras are starting to look around for women composers to include in their concerts.
When the answer is gender bias, people are not inclined to share their biases and prejudices anyway. "People don’t come up and tell you, ‘Oh we’re not going to program you because you’re a woman,'" Jennifer explains. Consequently, women composers can be left questioning themselves, in the dark as to why they aren’t being heard. But Higdon is a radiant picture of steadfast perseverance, as no ounce of prejudice was ever enough to stop her from creating her best work. "I can remember in the early days when I was starting my career, probably in the late 90s, people were saying things to me like ‘I can’t believe a woman wrote that.'" At first, Higdon’s reaction to comments like these was to ask, "Really? What does that mean exactly?" But eventually, her response evolved into, "Yeah, a woman wrote it! It’s a fact. You need to get used to it."
We succeed when we unite
Another lesson we can learn from Higdon is that women get further when they unite and help each other. In 2010, Higdon won the Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto, which the Pulitzer committee described as "deeply engaging...combin[ing] flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity." It’s clear the experience was both humbling and overwhelming for Higdon. "The expectations are so high…I must’ve done at least 200 interviews in two weeks," she recalls. So when female composer Caroline Shaw won the prize a few years later, Higdon did not hesitate to help. "Right after winning the Pulitzer, she came down to Philadelphia and we talked about trying to cope with the intensity of that prize—how it’s a little overwhelming," Higdon shares. "We sat down and had coffee and talked about my experience, and how to not let the pressure drop down on your shoulders."
Higdon also makes a point to promote her female peers as often as she can. "Sometimes an orchestra will contact me and ask me for suggestions of composers they should check out, so I have a list of women composers that I will send," she describes. "I'll ask them what they’re looking for and then pass along as many names as I can." Higdon’s approach is a refreshingly simple yet positive way of being proactive.
The community of women in classical music is vast, and their ability to unite rather than compete is how they are succeeding. One album released last year, Project W (the "w" standing for "women") is an excellent tribute to women composers’ efforts by the Chicago Sinfonietta, which is known for doing works by people of color and women. Featuring only new orchestral works by female composers, the album is also conducted by world-renowned female conductor Mei-Ann Chen, whom Higdon describes as a "dynamo" when it comes to inclusivity.
Organizations like Women in Music (WIM) have also aided this move towards progress. Founded in 1985, WIM is a non-profit organization out of New York that is committed to educating, empowering and advancing women in the music industry.
Let your music do the talking
Perhaps the most important lesson emphasized by Higdon is that no composer should ever give up and stop writing, even if she feels excluded, outnumbered, or unheard. "Keep writing the best music that you can," Higdon says. "That’s going to be the best argument to get your music out there; to have music where people go, ‘Oh, I want to hear that again!'" The sound advice is as empowering as it is true, for it comes from one of America’s most performed living composers. It is Higdon’s experience that if you keep creating your best work, eventually the fact that you’re a woman will become less and less relevant. The music will speak for itself.
“Keep writing the best music that you can. That’s going to be the best argument to get your music out there; to have music where people go, ‘Oh, I want to hear that again!’” - Jennifer Higdon