A Music Room of Our Own

A Music Room of Our Own

By Niki Zhang, 17, (photographed above) United Kingdom

Four years ago, as we sat in the practice room in which I had spent countless hours, my piano teacher, Ms. Li, handed me a thick navy volume. “The Well-Tempered Clavier” was written on its cover; beneath, in bold letters, “J.S. BACH”—a giant of Baroque music, progenitor of twenty-odd children, and, of course, a man.

I had no doubt about the brilliance of Bach’s music, but still I was not particularly happy about the assignment. Forcing a smile, I politely asked, careful not to offend, “Could I, perhaps, play anything other than Bach, Mozart and Chopin?” What surprised me was my teacher’s pause; the air in the room was tight and it was clear that Ms. Li was slightly taken aback by my comment.

“Not a problem,” she finally said. “What about Debussy? He was the father of impressionist music. Impressionism is quite feminine… I think you would like it.”

With slight indignation, I asked, “Why are there no female composers?” I was certain women impressionists existed, but I was disturbed to realize that I could not name a single one. To my surprise, Ms. Li seemed excited by my question, as if she had been waiting for it to be asked, and had many ideas ready for me. First, she gave me “D’un Jardin Clair” by Lili Boulanger, an elegantly dream-like yet stimulating piece. Then “Six Petite Pièces” by Charlotte Sohy. Then “Rêverie” by Germain Tailleferre. Why had I never heard of this wonderful music? Why has not the average concertgoer, or even the average pianist? The problem, I began to realize, was not the lack of women composers but the lack of recognition. I was determined to build a repertoire of the beautiful but neglected works of these forgotten composers.

I had only raised the question after playing the piano for eight years. In retrospect, I am surprised that as a woman it had not occurred to me earlier. Prior to that, I was ignorant about the subordinate or even absent position of women in the classical canon. Do not blame yourself if you cannot name any female composers, because historically there have been vanishingly few: only 2.2% of historical works were composed by women, according to the Donne Foundation.1

Even today, pieces by Beethoven and Brahms alone are performed about as often, worldwide, as pieces by all women composers combined.2

If women account for around half of the population, how could this possibly be? About a hundred years ago, author Virginia Woolf tried to answer much the same question in A Room of One’s Own.Though her subject was literature, not music, her arguments seem even more relevant to music. “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” Woolf famously wrote. Her insight is staggeringly simple—but like gender inequality in classical music, even simple things are not always obvious.

Woolf explains that, “Nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century.”Up to Woolf’s time, but particularly in the more distant past, role models, as we now call them, were few and far between, for writers or composers or really creative people of any type. The woman’s place was clearly in the domestic sphere; education was denied her, and her energies were allowed to be spent only on housework, not artwork. Lack of support and community would have made writing difficult. But imagine how much more impossible composition must have seemed, with the years of specialized training it required, followed by the large, expensive groups required to perform it. “Any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would have certainly gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days,”Woolf writes during her hypothetical discussion of “Judith Shakespeare,”William Shakespeare’s imaginary (and impossible) sister. Imagine how much truer that statement would be for Judith Byrd, Jennifer Gibbons, or Greta Handel.

The core of Woolf’s insight is materialist: creativity requires privacy, and privacy requires resources. Woolf emphasizes the need for material conditions in pursuing artistic desires, but these were “Out of question” for a woman “Unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble.”But it was not equality of opportunity and access to financial resources that was lacking, it was equality in having the liberty to be different, to express individuality, and to diverge from the standard of “greatness” which was defined in terms of the achievements by male composers.

In classical music, symphonies are traditionally equated with “greatness.” Smaller works are “minor.” If we had to illustrate what a “great” composer would look like, we would end up with dozens of portraits of high-status, European men. That is not to say that no efforts were made to change societal attitudes towards independence for women.

If Virginia Woolf wanted to consider the endeavours of a female composer to be recognised, she would not have had to look further than her close friend Dame Ethel Smyth. Smyth, who was about twenty years older than Woolf, fell in love with the writer, who described the experience as “Like being caught by a giant crab.”Smyth was a pioneer in the women’s suffrage movement, which became what was known as the first wave of feminism at the end of the nineteenth century. She met Woolf through the movement.

Smyth was the first female composer to have music performed at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. She fought alongside suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in the “Votes for Women” campaign and wrote the official anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).She often wrote music as E.M. Smyth to prevent her success from being hindered by patriarchal expectations. Smyth’s career was filled with operas, concertos and symphonies;10 she was not only a real influence on the suffrage movement but also inspired women and other underrepresented groups within classical music as a whole.

Woolf emphasises that women’s financial and educational disadvantages inhibited their creativity, and for musical composition, that is even more true. Classical music, more than literature or drama, requires extensive practical training and collaboration. It also requires a different kind of creativity, one that defies the traditional divisions, often mapped onto the genders, between sentiment and rationality—dramatised so effectively in Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. As Leah Broad explains in Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World, making music in a male-dominated musical scene was different to more directly representative arts like painting and writing. Composing requires the “Ability to think both logically and emotionally… It was a talent considered beyond women’s reach.”11

Smyth rebelled against the roles that had been assigned to women in music. She demanded that her compositions be judged equally and in terms of merit, rather than of gender.12 She wanted to change the standard of “great” music, revise the image of the “great” composer and, by extension, subvert the default subordinate position of women. She broke societal standards of music by driving its political potential to the fullest, composing “The March of the Women.”13 It was later performed by suffragettes everywhere—at rallies, at meetings, and even in prisons.14 However, this came at a reputational cost. Smyth was aware that people saw her as difficult and uncompromising, and said, perhaps with a grin or perhaps with a sigh, that “The faults of people you are fond of are as precious as their virtues.”15 Broad argues that it is only because Smyth had these faults, especially her belligerence, that she was able to study music, let alone build a musical career.

However, Smyth is, like Woolf herself, an exception to the experience of most women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She did not have the burden of raising a family, which would have been a significant obstacle. Even though her father was unsupportive of a career in composition, Smyth was fortunate to be born into a wealthy military family who supported her pursuit of music for leisure by performing in concert halls or for household entertainment.16

When women in Woolf’s day were encouraged to participate in music, it was often a way to elevate social status. The piano’s versatile nature and rapidly growing repertoire provided a perfect opportunity for women to make music, yet all too often, mastery of the instrument was merely seen as a way to render a woman a better housewife. Even for the women who had the leisure and resources to develop serious skills, becoming a professional was often not an option, even if they possessed a gift in composing or playing.

Publishing houses were similarly paternal, often refusing to publish women’s work.17 Composers therefore had two options: to copy their work by hand or to get it printed at their own expense. With many carrying the burdens of raising families, talented young women did not consider a career in classical music due to the discouraging climate in composition. Fanny Mendelssohn was discouraged by her brother, Felix Mendelssohn, from publishing her work because “She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all until her first duties are fulfilled.”18 In Woolf’s day, although the suffrage movement had allowed for women’s voices to be heard politically, they still struggled to be heard in concert halls. It is therefore probably not an accident that most successful female composers were raised in a musical environment where they could access and learn how to pursue music. Smyth, for example, was brought up as an Anglican and was exposed to music through singing hymns.19

Prejudiced attitudes have literally been built into the infrastructure of music. Even piano keyboards were designed in a way that did not accommodate women who, on average, have smaller hands.20 Though there is roughly a 50/50 split in gender in the world, the manufacturers continue to design instruments for the average male hand. This perpetuates the idea that one-size-fits-men applies to every single person, especially if the object is meant to be gender-neutral.

In my decade of playing the piano, it had never occurred to me that one of the reasons I had had to find alternative fingerings, use broken chords, or miss notes was simply because the piano I was playing (let alone the pieces themselves) had not been made for people like me. Female pianists experience gender bias not just in the concert hall, but literally when they touch the keyboard.

Smyth was composing and Woolf was writing in the 1920s. Since then, classical music has progressed from one “great” man to the next. In recent years, many more female composers as well as soloists and conductors have emerged. According to the 2022 Orchestra Repertoire Report conducted by the Institute for Composer Diversity (ISD), concerts featuring music by women composers and composers of color increased from 4.5% of all concerts in 2015 to 22.5% in 2022.21 But still too little of that music gets performed. More opportunities need to be on offer to allow people to learn, teach, and perform compositions by women. The question now, in a world that often congratulates itself for its progress, is no longer, “What has changed?” Rather, it’s important to ask, “What has not changed?”

Changing material conditions should, ideally, lead to changes in attitudes. Woolf understood though that the former always precedes the latter—that we cannot start talking about attitudes until the resources are there: people need to buy tickets, music needs to be commissioned and programmed and of course performed. Supporting female composers is not enough; institutions need to make an effort to stimulate an appreciation for their music. It would not hurt, either, if more women were appointed as administrators and board members.

In “The Pandora Guide to Women Composers,”22 Sophie Fuller writes, “Remembering and acknowledging (female composers’) many achievements can only enrich our understanding and bring us a clearer picture of the past.” The reason why music composed by women is not performed is not because they are not up to the standard but because only now are we discovering them. As we go forward, we need to make sure that independence and equality are distributed not just among elite white women. The Donne Foundation finds that of the 20,400 compositions scheduled by orchestras worldwide in the 2021-2022 season, only 7.7% of the works were written by women and, remarkably, 5.5%, or almost two-thirds, were by white women.23

Classical music is one of the only professions which actively discriminates against the living in favour of the dead; as such, it remains one of the purest bastions of the patriarchy left in our society, which, though not perfect, has changed appreciably since Woolf’s and Smyth’s day.24 There are thankfully many more women composers in the conversation today, from Jennifer Higdon to Joan Tower to Kaija Saariaho. This is progress. But it has taken a long time and we are still far from equality in terms of prestige, airtime, and frankly, ticket sales.

Four years after my encounter with Ms. Li, I performed “The March of the Women” in a school concert. Though a simple and straightforward piece, it brought on a flood of emotions, from hope to pride and the triumphant thrill of victory. I was in the position to take the powerful anthem sung behind bars, by a chorus of suffragettes whom Smyth conducted with a toothbrush, into my own hands on a grand piano in a recital hall with a supportive audience. It is a sign of how far we have yet to go that Smyth’s piece, once an anthem for political change, now feels like a call for change in the concert hall. “Scorned, spurned, naught have ye cared, / Raising your eyes to a wider morrow,” the anthem intones in a text by Cicely Hamilton. “March, March, many as one, / Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend!”25 Solidarity among women and decisive, organized efforts to diversify repertoires and syllabuses will allow for more awareness of the involvement of women in music history, and ultimately fuller enfranchisement of women in the musical community.

—Niki Zhang, age 17, from Hong Kong, is a high school senior in the United Kingdom. She speaks English, Cantonese and Mandarin.

Niki adds: “This essay is really important to me because classical music (flute, piano, harp) has been a large part of my life since I was five, and like many other kids, was a hobby planted by my parents. As I grew older, I gained cultural awareness through the music I was playing, learning about the history and social changes in the environments I was stepping foot in, such as Ethyl Smyth, a composer and pioneer of the British Suffrage movement, and this is something I do not take for granted. I am deeply intrigued by the area of sociology and to be able to combine it with history and music in this essay, I could see the music world from a whole other perspective—much more than just playing notes on a keyboard but delving into the historical contributions and challenges women, in particular, faced as a result of fighting for recognition. My dream in the future is to continue playing diverse composers and spark these conversations, because only recently have we begun discovering and talking about them.” 

 

Foot Notes:

  1. Di Laccio, G. Equality & Diversity in Global Repertoire – Donne, Women in Music (2022), p.5.
    Available at: https://donne-uk.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Donne-Report-2022.pdf
  1. Di Laccio, G. Equality & Diversity in Global Repertoire – Donne, Women in Music (2022), p.5.
    Available at: https://donne-uk.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Donne-Report-2022.pdf
  1. Woolf, Virginia. 2014. A Room of One’s Own, 4
  2. Woolf, Virginia. 2014. A Room of One’s Own, 38
  3. Woolf, Virginia. 2014. A Room of One’s Own, 41
  4. Woolf, Virginia. 2014. A Room of One’s Own, 39
  5. Woolf, Virginia. 2014. A Room of One’s Own, 44
  6. Lumsden, R. (2015). “The Music Between Us”: Ethel Smyth, Emmeline Pankhurst, and “Possession.” Feminist Studies, 41(2), 335–370. https://doi.org/10.15767/feministstudies.41.2.335
  1. Millar, A. (2022) Critiqued, arrested, knighted: Knowing Dame Ethel Smyth, Museum of London.
    Available at: https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/dame-ethel-smyth-suffragette-music-composer-activist (Accessed: 02 July 2023).
  1. Walsh, K. (2022) Ethel Smyth’s Influence on the Women’s Suffrage Movement, The Classic Journal.
    Available at: https://theclassicjournal.uga.edu/index.php/2022/04/14/ethel-smyths-influence-on-the-womens-suffrage-movement/#_fn2 (Accessed: 02 July 2023).
  1. Broad, L. (2023) Quartet: How four women changed the musical world. London: Faber & Faber, p4
  2. Broad, L. (2023) Quartet: How four women changed the musical world. London: Faber & Faber, p5
  3. Smyth, Ethel. The March of the Women. The Woman’s Press, 1911.
  4. Broad, L. (2023) Quartet: How four women changed the musical world. London: Faber & Faber, 2
  5. Broad, L. (2023) Quartet: How four women changed the musical world. London: Faber & Faber
  6. Walsh, Keelin. “Ethel Smyth’s Influence on the Women’s Suffrage Movement | The Classic Journal.” The Classic Journal| a Journal of Undergraduate Writing and Research, from WIP at UGA, 14 Apr. 2022
  7. Broad, L. (2023) Quartet: How four women changed the musical world. London: Faber & Faber, p38
  8. Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (2019) American Ballet Theatre. Available at: https://www.abt.org/people/fanny-mendelssohn-hensel/ (Accessed: 03 July 2023).
  9. Broad, L. (2023) Quartet: How four women changed the musical world. London: Faber & Faber.
  10. Perez, C.C. (2019) INVISIBLE WOMEN: Data bias in a world designed for men. Abrams Press.
  11. Deemer, R. and Meals, C. (2022) 2022 Orchestra Repertoire Report, ICD Repertoire Analysis. Available at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b9ee971fcf7fd7add652207/t/62960a5d2a1998349128b94d/16540
  12. Fuller, S. (1995) The Pandora Guide to Women Composers: Britain and the United States, 1629-present. London: Pandora. 00223744/ICD_2022_ORCH_REPORT_MAY31.pdf.
  13. Di Laccio, G. Equality & Diversity in Global Repertoire – Donne, Women in Music (2022), p.5. Available at: https://donne-uk.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Donne-Report-2022.pdf
  14. Fairouz, M. (2017) Women are great composers too, why aren’t they being heard?, NPR. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/05/01/525930036/women-composers-not-being-heard
  15. Smyth, Ethel. The March of the Women. The Woman’s Press, 1911.

 

Works Cited

Broad, Leah. Quartet. Faber & Faber, 2023.

Di Laccio, Gabriella. “Equality & Diversity in Global Repertoire.” Donne, Women in Music, Sept. 2022, https://donne-uk.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Donne-Report-2022.pdf.

Deemer, Rob, and Cory Meals. “Repertoire Analysis.” Institute for Composer Diversity, Institute for Composer Diversity, June 2022, https://www.composerdiversity.com/analysis.

Fairouz, Mohammed. “Women Are Great Composers Too, Why Aren’t They Being Heard?” NPR Music, NPR, 1 May 2017. https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/05/01/525930036/women-composers-not-being-heard.

Fuller, Sophie. The Pandora Guide to Women Composers. Harper San Francisco, 1994.

Laccio, Gabriella Di. “Ethel Smyth—a Firecracker in Munich—Donne, Women in Music.” Donne, Women in Music; https://www.facebook.com/DonneUK, 28 June 2021. https://donne-uk.org/ethel-smyth-a-firecracker-in-munich/.

Millar, Andrew. “Critiqued, Arrested, Knighted: Knowing Dame Ethel Smyth | Museum of London.” Museum of London, Museum of London, 21 June 2022, https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/dame-ethel-smyth-suffragette-music-composer-activist.

Scott, Britain, and Christiane Harrassowitz. “Beyond Beethoven and the Boyz: Women’s Music in Relation to History and Culture.” Music Educators Journal, no. 4, SAGE Publications, Mar. 2004, pp. 50–56. Cross-ref, doi:10.2307/3399999.

Staveley, Alice. “Marketing Virginia Woolf: Women, War, and Public Relations in ‘Three Guineas.’” Book History, Vol. 12, The Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 295–339, doi:10.2307/40930548. Accessed 3 July 2023.

Walsh, Keelin. “Ethel Smyth’s Influence on the Women’s Suffrage Movement | The Classic Journal.” The Classic Journal | a Journal of Undergraduate Writing and Research, from WIP at UGA, 14 Apr. 2022, https://theclassicjournal.uga.edu/index.php/2022/04/14/ethel-smyths-influence-on-the-womens-suffrage-movement/#_fn2.

Smyth, Ethel. The March of the Women. The Woman’s Press, 1911.

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