Gramophone guest blog

We want to champion women composers...but there aren't enough recordings to do so

Edwina WolstencroftSat 3rd December 2016

A new BBC Radio 3 project will mean more people than ever before can hear this music

Back in March 2015, Radio 3’s celebration of International Women’s Day was far reaching – the impact of programming the day with only music by female composers was huge. Not only did it mean, thanks to the research we did, that we had more repertoire to include in our day-to-day programming, but it impacted our listeners too. We had a strong response from our audience, one even changed the curriculum arguing that if we could programme a day of female composers there must be some to include in exam papers. But after the success of the first year we also discovered there was still a problem lurking.

For the past few years, I’ve been Editor of Composer of the Week – five hours of broadcasting which, most weeks, explores the life and work of just one composer. However it started to become clear that whilst there might be one or two pieces available of certain female composers, there was often not enough recorded repertoire to create 5 hours’ worth of biographical programming. Where were the great historic works of female composers? Why were only a handful known about and where was the recorded music we could play? Kate Kennedy from Cambridge university, who was involved in our Women’s Day programming, said there were some 6000 female composers forgotten by history.

It struck me that the BBC was perfectly placed to solve this as we have the BBC Orchestras and Choirs who could record the music and Radio 3 could broadcast the recordings, not just in Composer of the Week but across the schedule. So I asked BBC Wales to develop a project which we hope could have a long term effect on our musical landscape and the classical canon. They suggested that we partner again with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (who we work with on Radio 3’s New Generation Thinkers) and to reach out to their academic community to find the very best of the music written by women that lies unperformed and unrecorded throughout the world. This aim fits well with BBC Radio 3’s mission to celebrate the music of the past and future with the very best of present day performance and insight.

Radio 3 is collaborating with the Arts and Humanities Research Council on a workshop on January 25 to explore ideas that will feed into our programming, bringing together BBC commissioning and editorial staff with arts and humanities researchers specialising in, or with interests in, female composers. We’re interested in uncovering the works of historical female composers that, crucially, have composed both orchestral and choral music. We aim to commission up to three features on different composers; this would include working with the BBC Orchestras and Choirs to play and record pieces of music alongside radio programmes detailing the life and times of the composers themselves.

Only Radio 3 could do this. We have our own orchestras and choirs to record this work and partnerships across the UK with major orchestras whose works we broadcast. We will use Radio 3 to promote these works on-air and use our presenters’ breadth and rigour to put them in context and readdress a gender imbalance in classical music that has been perpetuated throughout history. I can’t wait to see what we and the AHRC uncover and to connect our audiences with some remarkable music from forgotten greats.

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