Why so few female composers in the great classical period?

Here’s an intriguing answer: no one would play or produce works by women:

But the main reason, I think, that there were so few female composers during the glory centuries of classical music is that composers depend on performing musicians and ensembles to play their works, and until relatively recent times, musicians, ensembles and musical institutions were overwhelmingly male.

There were a significant number of female novelists, poets and painters in earlier times. But if you were a Jane Austen, you could sit at home and write your novels. As long as you found a sympathetic publisher, you could get your books distributed and be acknowledged. Compare this to the situation facing Clara Schumann, one of the most celebrated pianists of the 19th century. She was also a gifted composer, though she mostly wrote piano pieces, songs, chamber works: things that she and a circle of musician friends could perform. If she had tried to compose symphonies and operas, even she, for all her renown, would have hit a dead end with male orchestras and opera companies, which would have been unwilling to champion the works of a woman. So why bother?

There would be several obvious female contenders for a list of top 10 novelists. Or poets. But consider this: Where are the great female playwrights of earlier centuries? Again, this is the same problem as with female composers: what theater company was willing to present plays by women?

29 thoughts on “Why so few female composers in the great classical period?

  1. Female philosophers, of course, had similar problems: they would do great work on their own but no one would republish and respond to their writing, so it never became a part of the mainline “canonical discourse” until the twentieth century.

    Margaret Atherton’s Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period is a good book for explaining this to students.

  2. Carl, nice point! There still seems to me a significant difference though. I know what it is to write something no one will read. I’m less sure what it is to compose a symphony no one will play. This may not be a real problem. Must think!

  3. It seems to me that the primary factor with regard to female playwrights, at least, has less to do with male resistance at the time (although there was that) than with them simply being dropped after their lifetimes. There were quite a few notable female playwrights in early eighteenth century Britain, for instance, who had plays acted at all the standard venues (including Drury Lane, which was arguably the most important theater in England at the time); but plays that are not periodically put on the stage again generally vanish from remembrance until someone digs them out of a dusty archive. Part of this fading just comes with the territory, since lots of plays are forgotten regardless of their merits; part of it almost certainly is due to the fact that critics simply did not treat them on the same level because they were written by women.. (This is also a factor in the philosophical case; it’s remarkable how well-known and generally respected Lady Mary Shepherd was in her own day — which didn’t eliminate some people patronizing her for being female, of course, but she was widely respected as well — but it simply wasn’t carried along through the years.) — I’m less familiar with the Continent, but I do know there were also quite a few French female playwrights, and I suspect the same thing can be said there.

    So there, at least, it seems to be more on the critical side; people were perfectly willing to put on plays by women, and go to plays by women, but the critics didn’t do them justice. (And still sometimes don’t.)

    I definitely second Carl’s recommendation of Atherton’s book.

  4. Relatedly, I wonder if other readers of this blog know the work of good female composers?

    The only one I know – despite one great music lecturer who really tried to do his bit – is Hildegard von Bingen, who, as a philosopher, has an interesting story of which you might know. (She had mind-boggling power for a Medieval woman.) I was introduced to her when I walked into a philosophy lecture to find the lecturer setting up a Hi-Fi system at the top of the class. When everyone was seated, she played, without a word of introduction, some of von Bingen’s music, before teaching a class on her philosophy. It was amazing!

  5. Actually today I heard about a female composers network “kvast” – and I got curious about this – and ended up here..
    My curiosity is about How do you define female or male. As this is a philosophical forum, I think it must be essential.
    There is a biological side of course – but the musical part of a person i not so much physical.
    So I would very much appreciate if someone could give me some response on this.

  6. Well there is Clara Schumann of course and it would be interesting to look at her as a kind of case study; Felix Mendelsohn apparently believed his sister Fanny far more talented than he was. With music–and I do believe there is some growing body of scholarship on this, tho it is not my field–it seems this is indeed a partial answer. It leads us to the fact that music must be performed–and frequently in the c19 and earlier composers were also performers [see Franz Liszt, eg]. Now women were certainly known as singers [Pauline Garcia Viardot, eg] and actresses [Rachel, Sarah Bernhardt]. But these arenas are remarkable because the performer is clearly the medium of another’s music and words. So here we have the old scene of women as mediators of culture, as loci of emotional expression, but not as creators in and of themselves. but a performing career on the musical stage as an instrumentalist was problematic for a few reasons for women in the c19 at any rate–at the time ofthe emergence of the ‘virtuoso’ and the modern concert stage. Actresses and singers labored under a certain level of cultural marginalization and were not unusually categorized as or assimilated to prostitutes or at least kind of dodgy and disreputable in terms of hegemonic ideologies of womanhood. But the career of ‘virtuoso’ was decidedly not one–perhaps because it implied a kind of mastery, focus of attention–that women were able to attain; and there was a lot of travel and other things involved as well, which were prohibitive for women.

    This would be a long discussion. But the question of what disappears from a canon is also very important. Sometimes indeed later generations obscured the works and participation in cultural institutions of women composers, playwrights, and yes, even novelists, though they were so dominant in popular and ‘high’ literature at a moment in the c19.

  7. You may wish to consult Marcia Citron’s book Gender and the Musical Canon (University of Illinois Press, 2000). It is particularly illuminating on the topic of Fanny Mendelssohn. Although perhaps as talented as her brother, she was expected to adopt a more traditional mode of life when she married and even her brother, otherwise supportive, expected her to begin caring more about family and home than about music. She was able to compose chamber music but maintained an interest in creating compositions for larger ensembles and, if I am remembering correctly, her brother did eventually help her publish some of these (possibly under his name, but I may not recall correctly). Citron writes about other women composers, notably Cécile Chaminade. There is a lot of feminist work on the musical canon and this would be just the tip of the iceberg.

  8. Carl,
    that’s not quite true about women philosophers. Women did write and publish philosophy and other intellectual thought in eighteenth century England and France, and some were renowned and celebrated for their talents — e.g., Montagu, Sophie de Grouchy, and others. The backlash in Britain occurred in the 19th c.

  9. I’m afraid that I misrepresented the point being made by the NYT writer. The question might be taken as using as a paradigm a series of large public works. That’s a question that’s interested me, because it is so often used to argue for male superiority in Baron-Cohen’s IQ outliers.

    Still, he does recognize that there were women who even composed a lot of music for smaller groups, as opposed to orchestras. I now realized that I’m totally incapable of saying whether these were many or few or what.

    I am VERY grateful in ant case to you all for adding names for us.

    Jackie, nice catch though here again the “few” question arises.

  10. A related question is why there are so few contemporary classical women composers _today_. In the field of playing music, there still may be room for progress, but at least there is a good number of star women performers, and the overall ratio of women to men is much closer to parity than it was 2 or 3 generations ago. (As I understand, one important factor in the shift has been the introduction of blind auditions.)

    But composition seems to still be a very much male-dominated field. That does not mean there aren’t any women composers (of course there are), but there are few really famous women composers; composer students seem to be predominantly male (at least on the East Coast of the US – I don’t know much about the gender structure of the younger part of the new music scene elsewhere). So male domination seems to hold on many levels at the same time. Why would that be?

  11. There are many more male conductors as well. A semi-famous conductor (http://bit.ly/WbKIWR) once told me that women couldn’t be good conductors because they were never appropriately dictatorial! I mentioned Sian Edwards, and he replied that her personality was very male…

  12. Trevor, I’ve heard that form of argument over so many fields. I posted about somewhat more subtle forms of it here.

  13. IY, the NYT article says:

    The last 50 years, especially the last couple of decades, have brought expanding opportunities for women in music. Our orchestras are filled with female players. In most conservatories, usually half of the composition students are women these days. A list of important living composers would absolutely include many women, among them Kaija Saariaho, Sofia Gubaidulina, Libby Larsen, Judith Weir, Joan Tower, Chen Yi, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Augusta Read Thomas, Jennifer Higdon and more. So if we have a top 10 composers survey 100 years from now, the finalists might well include both sexes. For now, alas, my list is all male.

  14. I was a music composition major before I became a philosophy major, and I really do think it’s a matter of culture. Possibly, a lot of women who want to become composers feel it is not their place and they should be performers instead. Another aspect is just how small the classical music world is in comparison to other musical movements, in my experience, most students in the classical area have been performers their entire life. Perhaps there’s a feeling that since they’re already accomplished and improving in one area of the field they don’t want to try something new. That could go for both women and men though.

    In the music world we do have Unsuk Chin as a female composer, who is magnificent. I’d consider her better than many of the dominant male composers today (e.g. Philip Glass).

  15. I had a friend in college (woman– it was a women’s college) who was studying to be a conductor, and is now a conductor. She told me that one of the central obstacles was that it tends to be a field occupied (for reasons I didn’t completely get, or have long since forgotten) by very very monied folks, who have no immediately pressing concern for income.
    I’ve often wondered (OT) whether that influences the few # of women in contemporary philosophy. Certainly, I look at my colleagues, and I don’t believe there’s a single one of them who (like I) is still carrying debt from having put myself/themselves through college. One of my female colleagues might have put herself through college– I don’t believe that’s true for any of the others, and certainly not for the men. I shake my head at my good fortune: lawyer really would have been the more prudent path… When a young woman contemplating grad school in philosophy says to me, “yeah, but I really do need a job”, I get it. Have never once heard a guy express that concern.
    p.s. Jackie– good point.

  16. Men cannot be poor? Men cannot come from poor families? What the fuck.

    Okay: I want to go to grad school, but I come from a poor family, I have a gigantic debt load, and I need a job. If I were not lucky enough to have born in Canada, I would have never gone to university, and I still constantly worry that it was a bad decision to do an undergraduate degree in something wonderful instead of profitable. Now you have heard at least one man express that concern.

  17. no, no of course I didn’t mean to suggest that men can’t be poor. Some can and are, of course. But if fields tend to attract more people who already have money, and more men already have money (or money available to them), it wouldn’t be surprising if those fields end up with more men… My own worry is that the sorting is taking place way before any student comes to me about graduate school. (So that men who have worries about money, and women who do, are for the most part out the door for the major before the ‘game’ is really on about thinking about graduate school). I was myself a hair’s breath from staying away from philosophy, on purely practical grounds.
    And it is different in the U.S. I’m told needs-blind admissions is making it better (and some elite schools are promising to put whatever money needs to be put in to fund undergrads), but not when I went, and that wasn’t so long ago.

  18. Yes, you would expect to see more men in philosophy if men had more access to money than women*. You would also expect to see more poor men than poor women in philosophy if both sex/gender and money were important factors in bringing you under the “graduate school plausibility” threshold (as your own experience suggests). Perhaps I read your first post wrong, but it seems like you are claiming something quite different from this. When you say “One of my female colleagues might have put herself through college– I don’t believe that’s true for any of the others, and certainly not for the men” it sounds like you are saying that it would be especially surprising if you found a male professor who put themselves through college (“certainly” no man philosopher would experience this, the womanly philosopher vice of coming from an impoverished family!). The last two sentences pose a similar problem–if you expect both poor women and poor men to be mostly filtered out of philosophy before you ever spoke with them, wouldn’t you still expect MORE poor men expressing their desire to go to grad school with job worries, since they would be more likely to be hanging onto the idea via their male privilege? And yet you are unsurprised that you have never had a male talk to you about job security (until now!). I have no idea how to parse that, unless you think that the thing that filters out poor people (job security) also filters out women (independent of their economic background)?

    *Is this generally true for the purposes of procuring a college education (in America, say)? Unless middle and upper class parents are rather openly discriminating against their children on the basis of their sex/gender, your sex/gender should be irrelevant to whether or not you receive a college education from your parents. Of course, if you are not a “traditional” student ( a returning student, for example), then wage gap issues/parenthood/etc could cause significant sex/gender income differences.

  19. Back to the topic of female classical composers…. I recently participated in an art song lab as a poet and collaborated on a song with a female composer. There was one workshop led by a very famous male classical composer in which he gave feedback to an emerging male composer and an emerging female composer. He was very praising of the man but hardly said anything to the woman, except for a few very critical remarks, as if she weren’t worthy of comments, and gave much input to the man. However, the woman composer was generally highly regarded by her peers while the male composer was less so. It seemed to me that the famous composer was criticizing her classical song for being “feminine” and sensual. The male composer’s song was very loud with a lot of harsh sounds. Afterwards my poet friend and I asked some of the female composers what they thought of the famous composer’s behaviour. Surprisingly they didn’t appear bothered and one asserted that the famous composer had been equally supportive of both the woman and man; this certainly was not true! It seems to me that the classical music scene is very conservative with little infusion of feminist theory. Texts of old songs are not updated and are filled with traditional love stories with people killing others or themselves over love.

  20. In _A Room of One’s Own_, Virginia Woolf explains this phenomenon as it applies to women writers. Her story of Judith Shakespeare is particularly relevant to the dearth of women conductors and composers.

  21. I recently attended a composing workshop in South-West England where I live. I had submitted a score as part of the competition that they were running and the whole idea was that they would pick the 6 best ensemble compositions and the best orchestral compositions and these would be performed in a workshop. I didn’t really expect my composition to be picked but I did think it was pretty good since I’d worked so hard on it. But when I got to the day, I found that they’d only picked the works of males. None of these works I found particularly inspiring or uplifting, and I was disappointed that I was the only girl there. I also felt like I was being looked down on by all these men and boys who were doing scholarships and degrees in composition, whereas I just go to a public college. But I really felt like I was up there on the level of talent as all these guys. I mean, yes they were all at Guildhall or other conservatoires and I’m not too good at orchestration yet, but it just felt like they had this unfair disadvantage of being male.
    Also, at the end of the day, they displayed all the scores of everyone who had submitted one, and mine wasn’t there. this made me upset since I’d had a letter saying it would be.
    Overall I found the day very beneficial but there was a definite divide between genders.

  22. Anon, your account is very disheartening. Is there some organizer to whom you could write.

    I hope this experience won’t stop you from other submissions.

  23. My impression is that, besides performers, women are extremely under-represented in every other profession directly involved in the production of music. I don’t think I can name even one single woman who works as a recording engineer for either classical or pop music. I can’t think of a single female mastering engineer for either classical or pop music. Or music producer. It would be interesting to sift through one’s cd collection to find a single woman listed in the credits for any of these jobs, or even as technical assistants. (Many times female performances of a certain status will serve as their own music producers, and occasionally as their own primary or secondary engineers, but I take it this doesn’t undercut the observation.

    As I said, this is just my impression — I don’t have hard numbers or anything like that. But I actually can’t think of a single non-manual labor profession in general that does as poorly with respect to the proportion of men/women working in it as these.

  24. Just after posting this, I decided to do a google.


    According to this website, the percentage of female recording engineers is less than 5%. I think they are including in this women who do recording work for tv, of which I know nothing about. (Nor do I know anything about, e.g., women engineering jazz music.)

  25. Ok, last one. This is from http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/women-account-for-less-than-5-percent-of-producers-and-engineers-andmdash-but-maybe-not-for-long/Content?oid=1597594

    Note that there is a clear discussion of explicit bias and sexism and how that is the primary force acting as a gatekeeper. It sounds like they could really use a whatitsliketobeawomaninmusicengineering blog.

    I’m not too happy with the first paragraph here, but anyways…. what follows are all quotes from the article above:


    “”The reason women aren’t more prominent in Nashville is because the men don’t want them to be,” she says flatly. “And the women haven’t had enough moxie — balls — to stand up to them and tell them to take a flying leap.”

    Proffitt says that when she moved back to Nashville from Boston, “I saw quite quickly that men are the football players and women are the cheerleaders.” And there’s a price to be paid for not shaking your pom-pons with a smile. At a meeting of the Audio Engineering Society, Proffitt says she listened to a presentation by a man she describes as a “very prominent engineer,” discussing how to turn over your session tracks to another engineer or producer.

    “I said there should really be a mandate to translate to the newest format every few years,” Proffitt recalls — a valid point, considering how fast recording and computer technology are advancing, and the risk that valuable recordings could be lost or inaccessible if they’re trapped in obsolete media. Naturally he considered the point, correct? Not exactly.

    “He told me to shut up,” Proffitt says.

    Proffitt says she stopped going to meetings, and finds sexism rampant in the industry. “I call it the invisible burka,” she says. “As long as you can be insulted to your face — and nobody thinks anything of it — in large groups of male engineers, you’re not going anywhere.”

    Being shouted down and disrespected in a professional society meeting is one thing. An unpleasant encounter here and there does not a vast sexist conspiracy make. But the scarcity of women producers and engineers raises the question: Is there systematic bias? And as a result, at the more pragmatic level of earning a paycheck, do women get passed over just because of their gender?

    Again, there’s no clear answer, but the anecdotal evidence suggests bias is a factor. After all, women still make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to U.S. Census figures.

    “I was producing hit records when Tony Brown was still playing piano for the Oak Ridge Boys, you know?” Davies says. “And James Stroud had a little tiny publishing company … and he’d b”e giving me songs [he wanted me to cut]. I watched both of them just go right past me and become heads of major record labels, while I was still being treated by Jimmy Bowen at Capitol like an intern — after I’d already produced 18 hit records.”

    It’s not clear — and Davies certainly wouldn’t say it’s clear — that men doing similar or even lesser work were promoted over her simply because they were men and she was not. Proffitt is more blunt. “Why aren’t there more women producers? It’s because of the mindset,” she says. “If you have the mindset that somebody will never be that, you’re not going to consider them for a gig — if their only function is to be a comfort lady [laughs].”

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