Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Concerning Race

by sarah - August 13, 2014

Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy is working to level the playing field when it comes to the representation of works by women in the classical music repertoire.  But it goes without saying that there is a need for equal representation not only of works by women, but also works by people of color.  The recent article in the New York Times calling out the severe lack of representation of works by black composers in repertoire echoes many of the difficulties that women have faced in their efforts to have their works heard.

  • Having works relegated to Black History Month/Women’s History Month
  • Being criticized for not sounding “Black” enough/sounding too feminine, or not feminine enough
  • And, perhaps above all, wanting to be recognized for their own work, creativity, and skill — not qualified with race or gender.

We have encountered this quite a lot from many different voices who object to the qualification of “women” composers versus a composer who happens to be a woman.  However, the continued and blatant inequality that persists throughout the field requires attention be called to the issue, and such descriptors (though I caution to use the term “qualifiers”) are necessary to highlight just how far we are from hearing a range of different voices in the musical landscape.  In order to advocate for more works by people of color and by women to be added to concert programs, and studied in classrooms, we first must acknowledge the lack of presence — that they are unjustly ignored — to begin with.  The Times article asks: if there still is a racial divide, where does it come from?  The divide is relatively simple — though it is not caused by any overt racist or sexist motivations, it is the lack of innovation in artistic programming that continually promotes Bach, Beethoven, and the boys and neglects any voices that have not been cemented into the Canon of “great” western music.

The defense of the Canon seemingly always dissolves into a discussion of worth and greatness – if the works by women/people of color were as magnificent/valuable/important as the “great” works that have been performed repeatedly, then they would surely rise to the top and stand on their own.  But how can that possibly take place if these works aren’t ever heard?

The article, which features several of today’s prominent composers, doesn’t include the voices of any contemporary black women.  It does, however, recall the life and work of Florence Price who achieved an amazing amount of recognition, in particular considering her role as a black woman working as a composer in the 1930s and 1940s.  The article also recalls a time when women, and people of color, were gaining ground in the field of classical music – writing, having their works heard, receiving not only acknowledgement but even accolades.  But that time has passed, and the voices that had been gaining such prominence in the repertoire of American orchestras have disappeared completely from the repertoire.  Instead, the expectation is to hear Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler (again, and again) and to ignore the voices that are no longer around to advocate for their own works.  Though, as Price knew all too well, there were and will always be barriers:

At the height of her career, Price tried to convince Serge Koussevitzky — conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — to program her music. “To begin with,” she wrote in a 1943 letter, “I have two handicaps — those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins. I should like to be judged on merit alone.”

The Boston Symphony has yet to play a note of her music.

In building off of the Times article, let’s also acknowledge the other black women who made their mark with their additions to the American musical canon, though they remain un- or underperformed.  To name a few:

Julia Perry:

Undine Smith Moore:

Eva Jessye:

Margaret Bonds:

Attack on Judith Weir

by sarah - August 7, 2014

Well. We knew it couldn’t possibly be that easy. When Judith Weir was announced to be the next Master of Queen’s Music the news was met with some excitement and praise for Weir and her well-respected work. We first addressed the news here, and after the official announcement from the Palace, Weir also responded directly in The Guardian  where she shared her plans to travel the country, get to really know the status of music education, speak to musicians, composers, and educators and work to make music more accessible to the masses.

But on Sunday David Mellor, former Culture Secretary and Daily Mail classical music critic, stirred the pot with a “scathing attack” against the appointment. In an article in the Daily Mail Mellor said:

Weir-Judith-06[Dietmar_Mathis]

Rather than focus on her being the first woman to hold the post, would it not be better to concentrate on whether this is a job she is capable of doing?

and:

I’d rather be thrown into a pit of scorpions than have to sit through another of her operas.

Charming. And, charming, too, were the trolls that came to the surface in the comments section of the article. My favorite comment thus far:

We all know it is a politically correct appointment—a token woman (doubtless with all the nutty, left-wing views of Cameron). There are NO great composers from the female gender and there NEVER will be.

Many have added to the conversation in support of Weir and to reaffirm the appointment—even Weir’s predecessor, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, sang her praises. Though there is always the matter of personal taste, there is little doubt as to how well-qualified she is for the position, but that has never stopped the criticisms that appear all too often in situations like this. Mellor certainly knew what he was doing when making such accusations and stirring the pot to rally support against Weir. As the first woman appointed to this position Weir is automatically accused of being a “token” appointment, and thereby unworthy of the title and role. And who says that women have reached true equality?

 

Congratulations to Judith Weir!

by sarah - July 2, 2014

It was just announced, though unofficially, that Scottish-born Judith Weir will become the first female Master of the Queen’s Music. Described as the equivalent of Poet Laureate, the position dates back to Charles I, who appointed Nicholas Lanier in 1625, and has been held by William Boyce, Sir Edward Elgar, and most recently, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who vacated it in March 2014. (The once lifetime post has since been changed to a 10 year appointment.) A formal announcement is expected from the Queen in coming weeks.

The position has no official duties—perhaps some ceremonial music for a royal event (wedding, coronation, etc.), but is generally seen as a “musical advisor” to the queen.
JUDITH WEIR
After Sir Maxwell Davies announced his retirement, British newspaper The Independent published a piece calling for the Palace to name a woman to the position—no doubt springing from the recent conversations about just how lacking in representation women are in the classical music scene, and on the heels of yet another embarrassing moment wherein a male conductor spoke publicly about how women just aren’t suited for the job. In her piece columnist Claudia Pritchard includes Judith Weir with Sally Beamish, Nicola LeFanu, and Judith Bingham as possible contenders for the role—all of whom fit the “appropriate” age/experience range that is associated with the position. Also included were several up and coming composers who would be prime contenders in the future: Kerry Andrew, Tansy Davies, Lucy Pankhurst, and Rosanna Panufnik.

Another great piece by Jessica Duchen of The Guardian published just after the announcement reminds everyone of the importance of the appointment, even in a symbolic and ceremonial position:

      Women composers face a ceiling made not of one sheet of plate glass, but a multicoloured mosaic of issues. Classical music is still dominated by works written well before women were given the vote. The perceived “difficulty” of contemporary music in the postwar years did not help to endear it to sales-aware promoters, and even now opportunities to air new compositions remain limited. This year’s Proms include music by eight women composers and songwriters – a relatively large number, believe it or not, yet still only a fraction of the 88 concerts on offer.
      Another major problem is that the paucity of successful role models has made it rare for younger women to consider becoming composers. I remember arriving, in the 1980s, for my first term at university in great excitement at the idea of trying to compose, having been encouraged to do so at my school, one alumna of which is Weir herself. It did not take long to discover that women would-be composers were doomed to a series of patronising putdowns by resistant faculty and arrogant male students.
       The strongest – I wasn’t one – survived despite this environment rather than because of it. You had to be tough and believe in yourself, because nobody else was going to believe in you. Most people need a star by which to navigate and, though women composers did exist, they were few in number and far, far away. I hope all that has changed now.
       As Master of the Queen’s Music (let’s not worry about redubbing her “Mistress”, a word loaded with the contradictory atmospheres of schoolroom and boudoir), Weir becomes a necessary figurehead: visible, high-profile proof that women not only can compose, but can rise to hold the same title as Elgar himself. This is a vital step that can help to encourage a new crop of aspiring composers – and ensure that someday we may never have to talk about their gender again.

Since the announcement there has only been praise and anticipation of what might be to come for the UK’s music scene with a woman (if only figuratively) at the helm. I absolutely agree that it’s about time—and that Weir’s position as Master of the Queen’s Music will mean an opportunity for innovative and diverse programming, and will do a world of good (especially with the BBC’s new initiative) to encourage young people to engage with music.

If you’re unfamiliar with Weir’s work, be sure to also visit Tom Service’s guide to her music.

For a taste right now, here is Weir’s “Airs from Another Planet”:

 

Symphony Guide Featuring Louise Farrenc

by sarah - June 24, 2014

In case you missed it, Tom Service, music critic for The Guardian, featured Louise Farrenc’s Third Symphony in his running Symphony Guide series on his blog.  It’s always wonderful to see a historic(!) woman(!)’s work being featured in a serious column—but this piece is a personal favorite, so it was an even more meaningful surprise.

Of the fourth movement Service says:

There may be referents here, above all Mozart’s G minor symphony, no. 40, as well as Schumann and even Chopin, in the flexibility of Farrenc’s tunes, but the result is something distinctively her own: a uniquely expressive and significant voice that needs to be recognised and heard.

Couldn’t agree more.

Be sure to take time to listen to the symphony in full here:

 

A Round-Up of Recent Headlines on the Fat-Shaming Incident

by sarah - June 10, 2014

The current role, and expectations, of women in music have been in the headlines as of late—all surrounding reception of a recent production Der Rosenkavalier and the size (not the talent) of the singer playing Octavian.  The critical reviews of acclaimed mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught have been big news, and raised many red flags, as they focused almost entirely on the physical appearance of Erraught and not her vocal performance.

The critiques of the critiques have also brought to the fore conversations about expectations for women’s bodies in performance, as well as just how different the expectations for men and women are, more often than not.

Here’s a short list of some of the articles framing the story:

Anastasia Tsioulcas at NPR’s Deceptive Cadence as the story broke and with some additional reflections.

Anne Midgette at The Washington Post

Alex Ross at The New Yorker

Barney Sherman at Iowa Public Radio (which also address the wider facing women inequities throughout the arts)

And, it just so happens, the performance Der Rosenkavalier (from Glyndebourne) with Erraught is available streaming online until June 15.

These links to YouTube recordings are provided on Erraught’s own website:

 

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