Is sexism still hindering the careers of female composers and musicians?

Mark BebbingtonWed 1st October 2014

The relative neglect of music by female composers remains frustrating and puzzling

In the 21st century we seem to strive to determine and dictate a crystal-like clarity in all matters of social and professional conscience. Sex discrimination in particular, continues to inflame our media's interest and no sooner has one high profile case reached the law courts than our attentions are steered towards another example of professional or personal gender misconduct.

Issues of chauvinism in music have been set into context for me recently through a series of British Piano Concerto sessions in which I recorded, inter alia, the Piano Concerto by Doreen Carwithen (1922 -2003), the second wife of William Alwyn. That she, after her marriage, preferred to be known as Mary Alwyn (disliking intensely the name Doreen) may hint at her apparent lack of interest in preserving her composing maiden name. She seems to have abandoned interest in her own career soon after marriage, preferring instead to add her considerable support to the widening appreciation of Alwyn's music until her death in 2003.

This would have been of largely academic interest to me were it not for my professional connection with her Piano Concerto. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the eloquence and imaginative vitality of this score. I have never previously witnessed quite such wholehearted enthusiasm for little known music from conductor and players alike during recording sessions (Richard Jenkinson and his CBSO-based Innovation Chamber Ensemble), as well as from our producer Siva Oke and engineer Paul Arden Taylor. How can it be, then, that a Piano Concerto of this sparkle and appeal can be off the radar of just about every pianist and concert promoter? 

Neglect of the fairer composer sex is no 20th/21st-century phenomenon. A William Hurlstone or Benjamin Dale may not make concert programme headlines very often today, but compared to a Louise Farrenc (I performed her fabulous Piano Quartet recently) or a Susan Spain-Dunk (1880-1962), whose overture The Kentish Downs appeared at the 1926 Proms, these neglected male composers seem almost commonplace. 

Can we be sure that today's times are more enlightened? There may be a handful of contemporary female composers regularly commissioned - certainly more than, say, 20 years ago - but in our world of social media and glitzy PR, might the female composers we read and hear about represent less the tip of the iceberg but rather the iceberg itself?

Turning the clock back some one 150 years or so, we can detect a parallel sparsity of female performers. Where are the female members of an 18th/19th-century professional chamber ensemble, for example, or even within a late 19th-century opulent late-Romantic orchestra? Performance was almost exclusively a male preserve. 

Compare this to the comparatively significant number of female novelists (albeit those writing under the pseudonym of a male name), poets and painters; if you were a Jane Austen, a sympathetic and enthusiastic publisher was crucial, but there was no 'invisible' barrier between author and reader once the pre-ordained methods of publication and distribution had been met.

Clara Schumann was something of a 19th-century exception; she became established as a celebrated performing pianist. But she was also a composer, writing mainly piano miniatures for her own recitals and for a close circle of intimate musical friends. Her large-scale Piano Concerto was ignored during her lifetime (as were the majority of her solo piano works, excepting those she played herself) and even in our more enlightened 21st century, she remains an enigmatic figure, recognised more for her role as wife and muse of her husband, Robert, than for her own, quite exceptional accomplishments. Did Clara avoid composing symphonies and operas because, had she done so, she would have been spurned out of hand by the male-dominated opera companies and orchestras?    

Mark Bebbington's picture

Mark Bebbington

Mark Bebbington is a leading pianist with an international reputation for his recordings and performances of British music. His latest CD release, Piano Concertos by Doreen Carwithen, Gordon Jacob and Malcolm Williamson is on Somm label (SOMMCD254) and released in October, 2014.

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