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Being Heard: A Look at Orchestral Repertoire

by sarah - September 17th, 2009.
Filed under: academia, repertoire. Tagged as: , .
As we are getting settled into a new concert season and all the anticipated performances, particularly of work by women composers, it’s also a good time to look back on the historical precedent of American ensembles performing works composed by women.

I. Where to Begin
I am sure that it is no surprise that there is a noticeable lack of performances of works by women composers in the modern programming of American orchestras. In the same respect, none of us can deny the hard work and tremendous forward strides that have been painstakingly made in recent decades to create an environment where women’s music is heard even occasionally on symphony stages. The various roles that women have taken in the creation, performance, and reception of music are now in the consciousness of far more students and scholars than what there were even ten or fifteen years ago – and for that, we can be glad. Music scholars, students and enthusiasts are familiar with some, if very few, names of women composers, performers or conductors who have made such an amazing place for themselves in history that they are known to audiences if not present in academic circles. More and more attention, if not recognition, is being paid even by the general public on the role of women in orchestral music. But as women increasingly win top seats in top orchestras throughout the country, and fewer patrons are aghast to see a woman conductor standing at the podium, the opportunities to hear works by women are still rare.


As I became involved with Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy I wanted to determine for myself what the current programming of today’s American orchestras suggested in the reception and recognition of music by women. I will here add a note (and disclaimer) to state that my enthusiasm to advocate for the works composed by women is not done blindly. To say that works by women need to be heard simply because they are women is just as naïve as to suggest that they don’t need to be heard for the very same reason. And though I caution against qualitative or quantitative methods for determining what is “good” music, I do firmly believe that it is important to include and recognize the diversity that exists in Western Art Music and value its historical worth as an important piece of a greater whole. The standard repertoire of symphony orchestras not only suggests what music deserves to be heard, but is also the impetus for musical education for the average layperson and is representative of the history of all Western Art Music. Those of us invested in the preservation and promotion of this history are more than aware of the problem – but to help reinforce this point, we need some hard data.

Thankfully, the
League of American Orchestras (formally the American Symphony Orchestra League) collects repertoire data from participating orchestras throughout the United States, and parts of Canada, and makes this information free and available to the public through their website. Some notes here now as to my data collection: I decided to limit my research to American orchestras due to the availability of information as well as the large scope of orchestras that are heard throughout the country – from regional ensembles with volunteer members to some of the most acclaimed ensembles in the world. Sorting through this data was an interesting experience; at times tedious, exciting, or truly disheartening. However, it did provide some insight into where and how audiences are gaining exposure to a more inclusive repertoire of Western art music.

II. The Data
The repertoire lists that I used totaled eight seasons, from 2000-2001 to 2007-2008. Though these lists provide incredible information, there are some flaws in the data. Since the LAO collects data from participating orchestras, the consistency of smaller ensembles is not guaranteed. Moreover, this data is clearly not representative of all of the orchestras in the United States, or the perhaps incredibly diverse repertoires that are being heard at universities, in regional ensembles, etc. For each of the seasons provided I recorded every performance of works by women for all seasons available. Though flawed, this information does provide a snapshot into the trends of many of the most well respected orchestras in the United States, which were the most consistent to provide information.

It can be easy to make widespread generalizations about the presence, or absence, of diverse programming choices. But with this collected information it is clearer to see not only what orchestras appear to be more conscious of inclusion in their programming choices, but also what composers and even pieces are heard the most throughout the country. As with all things, this information is more likely to leave us questioning “why” than finding solace in data neatly compiled in figures or graphs. And though the data does not deny that those of us who have been decrying orchestral programming have every right to be upset, it also provides some important and useful information that will help further advocate for these works that deserve to be heard.

To start, I believe that we should honor the good news that can be found in this information. After sifting through eight years of repertoire reports, I was able to count roughly
530 performances of works by women composers, not including multiple performances by any ensemble in the same calendar year, (i.e.: the same program played multiple times). A total of300 pieces were heard, sharing the work and talents of 126 composers, from Fanny Mendelssohn to Melissa Wagner. Just as diverse as the pieces heard were the ensembles that performed them – 218 in total, from the Honolulu to Brooklyn, with many stops in between.

Works by women are being heard across the country – and in increasing numbers. The earliest repertoire report, from 2000-01, listed a total of twenty-one performances of works by women, out of a total of over 10,000 performances. In the 2005-06 season the number peaked at
138 performances. The most recent statistics available, from the 2007-08 season, reveal that there were a total of 116 performances of individual works.


Though quite an optimistic leap from only a few years before, it still represents only a fraction of the total body of works heard. The LAO reported a total of 16,343 works heard in the 2007-08 season – the 116 performances of works by women represent only .7% of the total.

Some of the trends that are seen are obvious. For example, more contemporary works are heard than historical works, most likely due to the ability of the pieces and of the composers to advocate for themselves. Of the 126 women composers that were represented in this eight-year period, twenty were born before 1920.  Of the 300 works heard in the time period studied, only thirty are from these historic women – that’s 10%.

When I began collecting data I focused first on the repertoires of what are largely considered to be the best orchestras in the country. As I mentioned before, these orchestras, with the largest budgets, longest histories, and deep commitment to music preservation and education, as well as the funding to commission new works, are an important force in the identity of American music. One would imagine that their repertoires would not only honor what are generally considered to be “great” works of time gone by, but also a diverse representation of the rich history of Western art music … right?

My findings suggest that at least some of this is true. For example, throughout eight seasons of full concert schedules, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra proved to be the leader in total number of performances of music composed by women, playing more works than any other orchestra in the United States. Yes – the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which was honored last year as the greatest American ensemble by
Gramophone, and is continually being recognized as such, also appears to have an understanding of the importance in providing a more complete representation of composers on the concert stage. I can say this because in eight seasons they performed a total of fourteen works penned by women composers. True, this is not even two per year – but at least it’s more than can be counted on two hands, which says a lot compared to most other ensembles.

Unsurprisingly, few of what are considered to be the most reputable orchestras in the United States included more than a couple of pieces every few years. In eight seasons, Boston, the first American orchestra to ever perform a work by a woman composer, performed
five works, Cleveland (runner up to Chicago in Gramaphone’s list and in works performed) heard eleven, New York seven, and Philadelphia nine. With Chicago, these “Top Five” orchestras are referred to continually as representative of musical excellence throughout the world, but fail to provide an accurate portrayal of the history of western art music, and the diversity that exists within it. The figures for other “top” orchestras are perhaps just as expected – in those same eight seasons Baltimore and Houston performed three and Cincinnati and Dallas performed two works by women composers.

So, works by women composers are being performed – though not necessarily by the orchestras that are most heard. That is, of the 218 orchestras that the LAO has listed as performing works by women, most are regional ensembles with few performance dates and budgets that are fractional compared to that of any one of the “Top” ensembles, and a total of almost twenty were specifically “Youth” ensembles. The obvious question is, “why”?

Though several orchestras seemed to have made strong efforts to include works by women in a specific concert event, the prototypical “women’s music concert” which may or may not have taken place in March, the majority of the less renowned ensembles performed one of two works which take credit for being the most performed of all the pieces heard in the past eight years: Joan Tower’s Made In America and Jennifer Higdon’s Blue Cathedral. In fact, both Tower and Higdon are listed near the top of LAO’s accounting of the most heard American composers for the 2005-06 through 2007-08 seasons. This is thanks in large part to these two abundantly popular works, which, for the same two seasons, have been listed among the most performed contemporary works heard, though that number is itself a fraction of the larger body of works heard. However, Made In America was the most performed contemporary work in the 2006-07 concert season.

Though we can all be glad in the success that these pieces have found, and undoubtedly will continue to find in the years to come, we should also ask why these two works have made their mark so concretely in the greater consciousness of the American music scene. That both Joan Tower and Jennifer Higdon are incredibly talented, accomplished, and respected contemporary composers is, perhaps, only part of the puzzle. The significance that each of these two works inherently carries was also an important part of the process. Tower’s
Made In America was the most performed work because it was part of a large-scale commissioning project, involving sixty-five smaller-budget orchestras, making history as the largest consortium commission in America – itself an important distinction. No doubt the work, which has been praised in reviews from around the country, has also reached special significance with listeners due to the thematic material that Tower incorporated into the work: the tune of “America, the Beautiful.” And, Tower’s desire to incorporate so many ensembles into the creation and performance of this work for the purpose of educating a wider audience as to the achievements of women in the field of composition.

Though Higdon’s
Blue Cathedral was not part of a joint commission, the significance that is attached to the work hits, perhaps, even closer to home: the work is dedicated to the memory of Higdon’s brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, who passed away at the age of thirty-three from melanoma. The deep personal connection that the composer has to the work is evident in its beauty. Perhaps it is because of the personal significance of the work, not only to the composer but to audiences, and the connection that it creates that this work to be so heavily programmed throughout the United States, and the world. Higdon’s personal website states that the work has been heard by over 150 orchestras since its debut in 2000. These works may attribute some of their success to their special significance, which helps audience members to connect with them in direct and powerful ways.

But there are numerous factors that come together to create a concert program, let alone a concert season. We cannot forget the power that the conductors themselves have in choosing repertoire, based not only on personal interest but also with an ear to the audience, and donors. In the tally of which conductors perform the most works by women composers it was a numerical tie between Franz Welser-Moest and JoAnn Falletta who each performed nine, again in those eight seasons. To their credit, each of these composers has built and sustained friendships with living women composers; Falletta did so in part with her decade of work spent with The Women’s Philharmonic.

We can also acknowledge the power that soloists carry in the repertoire that they choose to perform. A third of the total works by women composers heard featured soloists who chose to include works by women in their working repertoire, carrying the music with them to different orchestras throughout the country, and the world. This past year Hilary Hahn and Anne-Sophie Mutter both premiered violin concerti composed by Higdon and Sofia Gubaidulina, respectively.

When it comes to the performances of works by women composers, we are moving forward – yes. But at what pace?

III. What Now?
As I mentioned before, the information I have to share suggests more questions than provides answers. The conversation about how women’s works fit into The Canon has been ongoing for many years, thanks in large part to Marcia Citron’s decisive work Gender and the Musical Canon. The merit, function and future of The Canon has been, and will continue to be, a long and arduous debate. What cannot be denied is that canons, musical or otherwise, represent power. Citrons explains, “Canons simultaneously reflect, instigate, and perpetuate value systems. They encode ideologies that are further legitimated through being canonized.” This circular, and self-perpetuating pattern suggests that fundamental change, though possible, is many years in the future. I am, personally, tired of waiting. Instead of just being glad for hearing the few and far between works by women that happen to be performed by ensembles in our towns, isn’t it time to advocate for these works to be heard and recognized, not only by academia but in the concert halls across the country?

Perhaps the most important question is where to begin. How do we find a well-deserved place for this music without “othering” the works, or the composers? How many more “women’s music” concerts should we plan to hear before this music and its creators are given the same merit and recognition without a specialized concert program? How do we encourage more orchestras from around the country to perform diverse repertoires, including not only modern compositions, but also works of historical value and importance? How do we best support the work of contemporary composers, as well as encourage the work of rising composers, while also advocating for the works of women who have long since passed? How do we support the efforts of orchestras throughout the country that have performed, or would like to perform a more diverse repertoire but don’t know where to start?
I would like to reiterate that we should be proud of all the accomplishments made in the past hundred years or so – our foremothers would be proud! Along with the increasing numbers of works heard, the extreme popularity of works by women like Jennifer Higdon, Joan Tower, Kaija Saariaho and Chen Yi, we can also acknowledge the tremendous amount of new music being written and heard. In those same eight seasons, the LAO reported 78 world premieres, as well as 12 U.S. premieres. We must also acknowledge the women who have served as composers-in-residence in orchestras across the country. However, we also cannot sit satisfied with the current state of affairs.

IV. Final Thoughts
In collecting this data quite tediously, I came across so many names that I had not heard before – works that I knew nothing about. Doing even very simple and hurried research into the lives of these composers found tremendous professional and musical accomplishments. These women have found success in their art and work, though far less recognition than is deserved. It has been 116 years since the very first performance of an orchestral work composed by a woman was heard on an American concert stage. From that first performance in 1893 of Margaret Ruthven Lang’s Dramatic Overture, which was largely disparaged in reviews, the work of women composers has become far-reaching and well respected. But even as we move forward with hope and anticipation of more music to come, it is important to also recognize the history, including the composers and the music that has brought us to this point. By advocating for the work of women composers to be performed widely and continually, we can also move towards a recognition of women’s work as historically relevant.

2 responses to “Being Heard: A Look at Orchestral Repertoire”

  1. Suman says:

    I think that part of the issue may be that much of the audience for classical music is people of my age (60ish) who came to it in the 1960s and 1970s when a modern piece almost always was written in the most extreme atonal system. We have remained gun-shy of modern music ever since, even though that era dominated by atonality ended years ago and we now have the new tonality of composers such as John Adams.

  2. […] And even with the near-Herculean efforts of these regional and youth orchestras, the math is still lousy for women.  In 2007-08 the LAO reported a total of 16,343 individual performances, 116 by women, for an overall representation of 0.7 percent.  If you’ve never seen what 0.7% looks like represented by a pie chart, click here. […]