In 2021 the theme of ‘female composer’ still touches upon an open nerve

The theme of the invisible female composer  runs like a thread through my career and is still hot stuff in 2021. My musicology studies at the University of Amsterdam started out promising, with an extensive lecture series on Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). After that it remained deafeningly quiet, until one song by Clara Schumann came along in the classes about the 19th century. So the score of female composers in four years of study on over a thousand years of music was 2…

After my graduation in 1996, I immediately started advocating the ‘women’s cause’, both as a music publicist and programme maker for Radio 4. In fact, I already made my breakthrough as a journalist in 1995, thanks to an interview with Galina Ustvolskaya for Vrij Nederland. Two years later, I programmed the radio series Het tweede gezicht (At second glance), about composers from Hadewych to Bordewijk-Roepman and Componeren in Nederland (Composing in the Netherlands), eight extensive portraits of and with such diverse composers as Hanna Kulenty, Caroline Ansink and Calliope Tsoupaki.

Not everyone was enthusiastic and soon I was deprecatingly dubbed ‘her of the women’. An epithet that I then embraced as a badge of honour. A big problem in putting together the programmes was finding suitable material. Women proved not only to be virtually invisible in daily music practice, but also in the very extensive record and CD collection of the broadcasting company. And the few registrations I did find were, to put it mildly, not always of top quality.

The then head of Radio 4, Hans Hierck, supported me wholeheartedly in my aim to give female composers a voice, but was wary of the sometimes mediocre performances that were aired on his station as a result. This was a constant point of frustration and concern for me as well, because was I really helping the cause if compositions were not optimally performed? A convincing interpretation is essential for all music, after all.

When, at the beginning of the 21st century, I made the programme Composer of the Week for VARA Radio4, it was still often an endless quest to find suitable material. It proved really tough to fill the mere five half hours at my disposal with high quality registrations of the work of ladies such as Francesca Caccini, Ethel Smyth or Elena Firsova. From this never ending search I have gained many beautiful, international contacts, but through what sad cause!

At the moment, a new feminist wave seems to have arisen, in which a younger generation of musicians, musicologists and music journalists are ‘discovering’ women composers as a forgotten theme. Suddenly all around articles and books appear that address the shameful disregard for the inescapable trio Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Lili Boulanger. On the one hand this is heart-warming, on the other it is deeply disconcerting: as if all the hard work of earlier generations of feminists has gone unnoticed.

Precisely in the period when I became active myself, the invisibility of female composers was a much-discussed topic. As early as 1979, the Archiv Frau und Musik was established, and in 1986 the Furore-Verlag was set up to publish scores from women composers. Their work was further promoted in the book series Annäherungen (Approximations). In 1991 Helen Metzelaar published Zes vrouwelijke componisten (Six Female Composers); two years later the American musicologist Marcia Citron presented Gender and the Musical Canon.

Gradually, more and better recordings became available. But hit the CD section in music magazines such as Gramophone or BBC Music Magazine and you’ll discover that finding ‘female’ notes is like searching for a needle in a haystack. However, today there are countless online initiatives, varying from a Facebook group like Women & Gender Diverse People in Composition, to websites such as Women in Music and databases such as Composer Diversity.

Nice initiatives, but with a partly counterproductive effect: just naming the underrepresentation of women nowadays often works like a red rag on a bull. As recently as 2019 the programmer of an important concert series even argued in a letter to the editor that Bach was in danger of being overshadowed by his female contemporaries because of the continued demands for gender equality…

And as soon as, in a preview, review or interview about a cd or concert programme I issue a teasing note about its rather one-sided focus on male composers, hell breaks loose. Only rarely does the musician or concert organizer in question frankly admit simply not having thought about the topic. Others argue in an offended tone that they ‘don’t care’ whether music is written by a man or a woman, stressing they only base their choices on ‘quality’. – As if men never deliver a mediocre composition and women never produce a masterpiece.

Recently, I came across a very surprising issue on this theme. While one musician complained that female composers were too overcharged to accept a composition assignment, another despaired that he hardly knew any composing ladies. – Could the Twitter community please spit out some names?

A funny paradox, after which a stream of reactions quickly degenerated into the muddle of misunderstandings and reproaches so typical of social media. What one person regards as a harmless pinprick, another feels as a frontal attack, and what one person presents as incontrovertible fact, another person dubs blatant nonsense. In this way, everyone cherishes his or her own right.

This is not only unfortunate for all those who are devoted to the women’s cause, but at the same time it poignantly illustrates that even in the year 2021 the theme of ‘female composer’ still touches an open nerve…

Enjoyed my post? A gift, however small, is welcome through PayPal (2nd option), or direct money transfer to my bank account: T. Derks, Amsterdam, NL82 INGB 0004 2616 94. Thanks!

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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7 Responses to In 2021 the theme of ‘female composer’ still touches upon an open nerve

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  7. Ger van den Beuken says:

    Goeje deze, leest altijd serieuzer in Engels

    Verstuurd vanaf mijn iWei



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