Reloading the canon: what about music by women?

It's exactly 124 years since German pianist and composer Clara Schumann passed away. Conductor of the Nonesuch Orchestra, Dan Shilladay, on performing more music by women.

As a proud alumnus of Southbank Sinfonia, the Waterloo Festival’s resident orchestra, I like to keep abreast of their work – they’re always refreshingly ahead of the classical music curve. Their pioneering work in engaging more female conductors and performing more works by composers who also happen to be women inspired me in my own position as conductor of the Nonesuch Orchestra. How could we respond to their brave and eye-catching reshaping of their concert repertory?

I knew as soon as I read about Southbank Sinfonia’s pioneering 2018 season, which featured works by 23 female composers to mark the centenary of votes for women, that the Nonesuch Orchestra could do something similar. At a committee meeting I announced my intention to seek out and hopefully programme lots more music by female composers. I didn’t voice a private promise to myself of achieving a 50/50 split in our next season. Perhaps my reticence was down to the scale of the task I set myself:

recent surveys of professional orchestras in the UK and US show that music by women made up an astonishing 1.5-1.8% of performances. Equally daunted and appalled, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.

Southbank Sinfonia had already led the charge with their pioneering performances of the music of Dorothy Howell and I had reconstructed a lost work of hers for my own chamber group, the Berkeley Ensemble. I set off to visit her surviving relatives in Bewdley and together we unearthed the old printing proofs for her Two Pieces for Muted Strings, written in 1926 but probably last performed in the fifties. This short film explains more about our Howell project.

With the help of the Ambache Charitable Trust, we made a modern edition and printed parts. Dorothy Howell’s music would eventually receive a modern-day premiere alongside works by ‘A’ level and GCSE composers in March 2020 as part of our mini-festival of new work, From Page to Performance. We were really keen to inspire our young composing colleagues with a complementary selection of professional scores that showed not only what a string orchestra could do, but also an inspiring gender balance of composers. Previously, our season had begun in December with Arnold Schoenberg’s achingly beautiful Verklärte Nacht alongside the Sea Sketches by Grace Williams, music that similarly portrays nature in all its vivid glory, by Schoenberg’s pupil’s pupil.

The Nonesuch Orchestra rehearsing student works as part of From Page to Performance, March 2020 (photo: Chris Adams)

I’m happy to report that by the time our season was cut short by coronavirus, we had managed an exact 50/50 gender split. Encouragingly, this included the composers involved in our From Page to Performance scheme, where the ratio was close to the 44.5% figure cited by research into professional composers working today. Whilst these numbers are moving in the right direction, why then are female composers still a rarity on the concert platform?

Historically, women were barred from advanced formal study of composition until the late nineteenth century. Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann’s wife and an accomplished composer in her own right, wrote in 1839:

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?

Clara was the daughter of leading professional musicians and received early lessons in composition at home. In this respect she was unusual; without access to conservatoire training, the only groups able to study composition were the nobility, members of religious orders and the children of forward-thinking musicians like Clara. It’s no surprise that such a select field produced few household names, even before the pressures of childbearing and family duties were added.

In the background: Clara Schumann, a composer in her youth, accompanies Joseph Joachim in a sketch after a lost 1854 drawing by Adolph Menzel

Even after women gained equal access to study alongside men, resistance remained. Denied the Mendelssohn scholarship whilst studying at the Royal College of Music in the 1920s, Elizabeth Maconchy was told she was passed over as ‘you will only get married and never write another note’. In a prominent competition sponsored by the American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in 1919, a work by Rebecca Clarke tied with a piece by Ernst Bloch. The Daily Telegraph assumed Rebecca Clarke to be a pseudonym of Bloch’s and as Clarke herself later wrote:

the rumour went around, I hear, that I hadn’t written the stuff myself, that somebody had done it for me. And I even got one or two little bits of press clippings saying that it was impossible, that I couldn’t have written it myself. And the funniest of all was that I had a clipping once which said that I didn't exist, there wasn't any such person as Rebecca Clarke, that it was a pseudonym for Ernest Bloch.

The Telegraph was probably wrongfooted by Clarke’s assured and serious work. Traditionally, female composers had been encouraged to write in smaller, trifling genres generally excluded from the canon. As the American composer Mary Carr Moore tartly noted:

So long as a woman contents herself with writing graceful little songs about springtime and the birdies, no one resents it or thinks her presumptuous; but woe be unto her if she dares attempt the larger forms!