Monday, February 02, 2015

Asking the Wrong Question

I'm not going to do a Women Composers 101 posting. There's plenty of information on the Internet about good to great works composed by women, and anyone reading this blog probably knows how to use Google. In fact, there are books about women who compose and the general history of female composers. So I leave it to "M. Kay" and his ilk to do their own research.

However, here's the question he asked, which is just plain the wrong question to be asking:
Is it on the level of Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner...?
Very little music composed by anyone is in that class, with the greatest of all. The right question is "Are women composing music that's worth hearing, on the level of other composers programmed at symphony, chamber, choral, and new music concerts?" And there, the answer is an unquestionable yes.

It's especially true in a situation such as the WQXR follow-ons, where some seriously obscure composers were chosen for follow-ons. Just take a look at the follow-on choices.

One example: I'd follow Moses und Aron with works by the modernist composers Ruth Crawford Seeger and Johanna Beyer. Or Miriam Gideon.


Mark Berry said...

Wholeheartedly writing in your support, Lisa. Not least since I was one of those who offered two WQXR choices (Schoenberg and Stockhausen) that were not only male, but about as conventionally 'masculine' as one can get.

It's interesting to note, by the way, that the Salzburg Festival is offering an Olga Neuwirth premiere as part of its Boulez 90th birthday celebrations. Boulez has performed and indeed recorded her music and I think we can be reasonably certain she wouldn't be appearing on such a programme without his approval. I seem to have been a lonely voice in liking - with reservations - her 'American Lulu' (from which, it seems, the new work might come), but I find her a very interesting composer.

I feel that, having mentioned Boulez's often unremarked work for women composers, I should also mention my university colleague (and friend), Helen Grime, whose music Boulez has conducted. Helen is Associate Composer to the Hallé, and a recording of some of her recent music was issued last year by NMC. The title work, Night Songs, was performed at the Proms last year. There is certainly an ear for timbre there that places her as a choice for a composer 'after Boulez'.

Anonymous said...

How I would put this argument to my ignorant younger self:

Mute inglorious Miltons. Compositional genius is rare, and for most of history the opportunity for anyone to get the kind of training necessary to express it was also rare, and for women even rarer. Multiply a small percentage by another, and the result is even smaller.

Consequently we shouldn't wonder that few pre-20C women composers are very great; it's more a wonder that we managed to get any great male ones.

The proof of this comes in the 20C when opportunities were 1) much wider in Western countries, 2) closer to equal for women. The number of women composers equal in quality to their male counterparts suddenly shoots up, and has stayed there ever since.

Tom DePlonty said...

Also until relatively recently, it's been mostly men who make the "greatest of the great" lists in the first place. Bias against women operates both in historical fact (many fewer opportunities for women for training and access) and on our perspective on the history.

Anonymous said...

To an extent, but for pre-20C I think it's far more a matter of the genius never got a chance to write music, not that it's been suppressed.

There are plenty of good half-forgotten 20C women composers (among older ones, I mentioned Florence Price in another comment), but attempts to unearth earlier ones have mostly not impressed me when I heard their works. Hildegard, yes: she was a top-order genius; Clara Schumann, maybe, if she'd written more, which she didn't get the chance to. Not many others.

I think that fact speaks to the suppression of musical women far more strongly than any number of little-known geniuses would.