Old, Male, and Stale: The Women Fighting Classical Music's Woman Problem
Photos by Rahkela Nardella


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Old, Male, and Stale: The Women Fighting Classical Music's Woman Problem

Since the dawn of time, women have been told they shouldn't compose because it's "unfeminine". A new program out of Sydney is changing that, one talented female composer at a time.

In 1820, when the German pianist and composer Fanny Mendelssohn was just 15 years old and showing prodigious musical talent, her father sent her a letter. "Music will perhaps become [your brother's] profession," it asserted, "while for you it can and must be only an ornament."

Twenty years later, another young German composer, Clara Schumann, was feeling the lack of female role models in her field. She wrote in her diary, "I once thought that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose – not one has been able to do it, and why should I expect to?"


Clara went on to compose a whopping 420 pieces, but the idea that women can't succeed in the industry continues today: In 2013, Bruno Mantovani, the head of Paris Conservatorie, said that conducting was too "physically demanding" for women.

A woman must not desire to compose.

The same year, Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov argued that the strength needed for conducting was in direct contrast with the "essence of a woman", by which he meant weakness. Musicians, he added, would be unable to work with a female conductor because looking at her would "distract [them] from the music."

This isn't 'just' idle commentary. In every part of the composition world, statistics paint a bleak picture for women. In Australia, women make up only 12 percent of the composers commissioned by the Australia Ensemble, and only 26 percent of composers registered with the Australian Music Centre.

Meanwhile, a 2014-15 survey of leading US orchestras found only 1.8 percent of the total pieces performed during the concert season were penned by women.

Yuri Temirkanov (left) with friend Vladimir Putin. Photo from Wikkicommons.

A new project, championed by successful Australian female composers, hopes to change that. Launched this year by The University of Sydney, the National Women Composers' Development Program will see four young female composers being supported and mentored at an essential stage of their careers.

The composers – Ella Macens, Clare Johnston, Elizabeth Younan and Natalie Nicolas – have been picked from applicants across Australia to take part in the program, which is run by Sydney's Conservatorium of Music, one of the most prestigious music schools in the country. For the next two years they will be nurtured by successful composers, write music for leading classical musicians, and network within their field.


"This program offers incredible opportunities like none other before it," says one of the chosen composers, Clare. "It's helping me to become the best composer I can be over the next two years."

Another, Elizabeth, had some initial reservations, asking herself: "Would my music be labelled as intrinsically 'different' or 'other'? Would my music be acknowledged based on its merit alone? Ultimately, I realised that these questions are ignorant of the broader historical treatment of women and its continuing manifestation in today's society."

Elizabeth wasn't alone with her initial reservations. The announcement of the program, Ella says, had a "shock factor – a sort of, 'Why is it only women?'" response among Conservatorium students. But since that initial spark of dissent, she says, many students have since become aware of the historical and current context of their chosen profession.

"There is a growing awareness of the absence of the voice of female composers and an interest in what they have to say," says Clare. "A public fascination with music by women is slowly emerging.

"In high school I don't think we studied any compositions by females," says Ella. For Clara, it was the same. "For hundreds of years, women were told they shouldn't compose because it was unfeminine and women are not as innately creative," she says. "Being a piano teacher was seen as acceptable for a woman, but not a composer."


In 2015, a17-year-old British student petitioned Edexcel, a London based educational body, to add work written by a female composer to their exams. As it stood, all 63 works included were by male composers. After a highly publicised petition, the young woman received a personal apology from the company and a commitment to changing the course.

But not everyone is willing to take such a public stand. Professor Sally Macarthur, a feminist musicologist at Western Sydney University, says that while "some [female composers] certainly feel they are discriminated against, they don't speak out because they don't want to be seen as troublemakers".

This will lead to other young women being inspired.

She cites a friend of hers, a talented composer who spoke up about gender imbalances and then found herself dropped from a festival line-up. "It's a mindset that says creativity is in the domain of men; that it's not women's business."

It's a mindset borne of composition's male-dominated past. Maria Grenfell, a mentor in the Conservatorium's program and a composer herself, explains that while female composers did exist, often they didn't really have "careers" as such: "They were in the church, or wives with children."

As such, she acknowledges, women composers often aren't taught in schools and universities. However, to teach more contemporary female composers would be to teach what's actually going on in the world today, says Maria, adding that "It's really not about gender, it's about equality."


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Maria is excited about the practical implications of this program: There are very few women in Australia writing music for orchestras, and the plan is to pair the four female composers directly with Australian orchestras and ensembles. To learn from them, but also for the chance to network and bulk up their portfolios.

Macarthur says the focus on the future careers of these women will be crucial to the program's success. "It's great the Conservatorium has a program like this, but it needs to think beyond the program," she says, explaining that some pushes to even out the playing field have started off strong but then faltered over time.

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The young women involved in the program are optimistic. "If more contemporary music by female composers is performed [in ensembles and by orchestras], this will lead to other young women being inspired to write music themselves," says Clare. "One of my favourite female composers, Julia Wolfe, just won the Pulitzer Prize for music, so women are being recognised more in the field of composition."

"Our world flourishes in transience," adds Natalie, the fourth member of the program. "Composition is no exception to that."