The headline looks like a spoof: “There’s a good reason there are no great female composers.” The article beneath it eviscerates the outputs of Clara Schumann (“a dud”), Fanny Mendelssohn, Amy Beach and Dame Ethyl Smyth — wondering, basically, who could be bothered to listen to such inferior talents. I wish this were a relic of the past, something to be chuckled over to demonstrate how far we’ve come, but I can’t. It ran in the well-known British conservative weekly Spectator in 2015.
Even today, men still laugh at the idea of women composing classical music.
We should be beyond this by now. Indeed, we should have been beyond it a generation ago. “The social culture of the composition scene was quite shocking to me,” composer Sarah Kirkland Snider wrote earlier this year on NewMusicBox.com, the leading contemporary-music webzine. “In many ways it felt like stepping back in time.” Classical music institutions cling to the past in more ways than one. While American orchestras have managed to significantly increase their proportions of female players, female composers remain almost nonexistent. In the 2014-2015 season, according to statistics published by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, music by women represented 1.8 percent of the music played by America’s 22 leading orchestras. As for conservatories, “when I get the applicant pool,” says composer Laura Kaminsky, head of composition at the conservatory at the State University of New York at Purchase, “and see three-quarters of the applications are male, I get depressed.”
And yet there are hundreds of active female composers. A list I compiled this summer of the top 35 barely scratched the surface. So why don’t the institutions present them?
Some are trying. Four of the past eight music Pulitzers have gone to female composers. Both Opera America and the League of American Orchestras have established recent initiatives providing grants to female composers. The performance space National Sawdust in Brooklyn announced a competition for emerging female composers. And individual chamber groups have been staging all-women concerts for many years — although you can debate whether this kind of segregation is a good thing. When the chamber music collective A Far Cry decided to commission a song cycle, “The Blue Hour,” as a collaborative project by five female composers — given its premiere through Washington Performing Arts on Saturday at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue — at least one woman turned them down. “We didn’t choose that idea,” said composer Rachel Grimes, a member of the former indie rock/chamber music group Rachel’s who served as the point person on the project. “I am sort of weary of it [female composers] being a focal point,” she added.
For some of the women involved in “The Blue Hour,” classical music’s conventional institutions smack of an old-boys network. “I only have a bachelor’s degree,” Grimes said. “I didn’t see the feasibility of succeeding in the patriarchal academic system. My music didn’t correlate with what I perceived to be the accepted academic language. I’m not enough of a rebel that I wanted to swim against that current constantly. Western classical tradition . . . necessitates an understanding of that hierarchical mentality: the best, or most virtuosic, or most complicated. My technique and personality don’t work with that. So I took a soft left and took my own direction.” Grimes’s career has involved playing with bands, solo piano concerts and recordings of her own work.
Shara Nova (formerly Shara Worden), a vocalist and composer (of My Brightest Diamond) who also contributed to “The Blue Hour,” has a similar view of the classical world. “I refused to use the word [“composer”] for a really long time,” she said. “The question that I’m concerned with is not being a woman, because I don’t have aspirations to write for the Met[ropolitan Opera]. I’m at BAM [the Brooklyn Academy of Music] , I’m good.” In other words, being a woman would interfere with her ability to write for the Met — and she has a point, since the Met has to date produced only two operas by women, more than a century apart.
But these august institutions are no longer a necessary avenue to success. Nova’s opera “You Us We All” has been performed in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and at BAM — a more substantial performance history than many new works from conventional opera houses. The more classical music’s institutions show themselves to be out of step with the times, the more it seems that classical music’s future lies outside them. And you could argue that outside orchestras and opera houses, female composers are doing just fine.
Still, the institutions are trying to play catch-up — in part through the above-mentioned initiatives by the League of American Orchestras (its Women Composers Readings and Commissions program awards $15,000 grants) and Opera America, which offers discovery and commissioning grants to female composers of up to $15,000 and $50,000, respectively.
Such grants can make a big difference. An Opera America discovery grant led to the creation of Kaminsky’s chamber opera “As One,” which had its premiere in 2014 and came to Washington’s UrbanArias the following year. The moving story of a woman transitioning from her life as a biological male, “As One” has had 24 productions to date. Because of its success, Kaminsky has gotten two more significant opera commissions, one of them from a consortium that includes the Santa Fe and San Francisco operas. “It’s been life-changing,” said Kaminsky, who was for a time the artistic director of New York’s Symphony Space. “I no longer need to have an administrative job. All of a sudden, I’m sitting in my studio writing music instead of writing grants to put other people’s music onstage.”
What’s notable about these initiatives is that they are all supported by a single source: the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, which started giving grants to the arts in 2013. The foundation gives away $7 million a year: half to programs supporting women’s health and disadvantaged children, and half to the performing arts.
Alexander Sanger, a trustee of the foundation, is also chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council and a grandson of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. “I like to think I have the right instincts” about equal opportunities for women, he said. “I and my fellow trustees realized there was a problem in the performing arts. If this were any other business, they’d be indicted for sex discrimination. It’s disgraceful.”
It’s also a little shocking that a single funding body with a strong vision can bring about so much change in a short time. In addition to grants and competitions, the Toulmin Foundation helps support the Luna Competition Lab, which targets high-schoolers, and funding for female composition students at the Juilliard School.
The foundation has also helped establish an initiative for female choreographers at the School of American Ballet and fund a major study on gender equity in the theater world in 2013.
The foundation’s success points out how entrenched the field must have been, if one energetic funder can change it. And its good effects can take hold only if others jump in to carry the torch, including the institutions themselves.
Sanger said he was sobered by offering seven leading American orchestras a chance at a $50,000 grant for a new work by an emerging female composer: Only three of the orchestras bothered to apply.
It’s easier to make room for women when there are women in leadership positions. The Washington National Opera’s current production of Handel’s “Alcina,” which runs through Nov. 19, is a rare event: a production directed by a woman (Anne Bogart) and conducted by a woman (Jane Glover), with women singing all four principal characters (including Angela Meade in the title role). WNO is a national leader when it comes to hiring women and artists of color — because this has been a priority of the company’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello. (In January, WNO will be presenting an opera by another beneficiary of the Opera America grants: “Proving Up” by Missy Mazzoli.)
The boundaries between major classical institutions and smaller upstart organizations have grown more porous. The indie Prototype Festival generates work that is picked up by the Los Angeles Philharmonic or the Fort Worth Opera; National Sawdust has become a major player on the new-music scene. Real change is most likely to come from outside, from new organizations led by women working together with the old ones.
But in the old institutions, there are still people who think yukking it up about Clara Schumann is funny. And there are still women toiling away to make change happen, one bigot at a time. “The orchestra is what a lot of people think of when they think of classical music,” Snider says. “Those stats do matter, in terms of the optics.”