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BBC Proms 2018: By the Numbers

by sarah - July 12th, 2018.
Filed under: composers, festivals, repertoire, women composers. Tagged as: , , , .

The 2018 BBC Proms kicks off today, Friday, July 13 and continues with extensive programming through September. The annual event features what is considered the best of the best in contemporary classical music programming with ensembles, soloists, and conductors from around the world. The schedule of events is enormous, with paid and free concerts, lectures, workshops, radio broadcasts – not a dull moment until after Labor Day.

Others have already shared their thoughts on the choices in programming for this year’s Proms, but we felt it important to add our thoughts, and figures, to the conversation as the Proms officially get underway.

There are a lot of ways that we can account for how works by women are represented at the Proms – and we can start with clear figures.  For example:

  •  Of the 127 composers represented this year (in all of the programming, both numbered Proms and “Proms at…” concerts, symphonic and chamber music) only 22 are women. (17% representation) Of those 18 women, only four are historic (Lili Boulanger, Hildegard von Bingen, Morfydd Llwyn Owen, and Dame Ethel Smyth.)
  • Of the roughly 103 hours of music (that’s 4 ¼ days straight), women’s work only accounts for 4 hours. (4% of the overall time)
  • Of the 296 individual works being performed (again, at both symphonic and chamber music events), there were 28 individual works by women. Only two had more than one work being performed (Lili Boulanger, who has an impressive six pieces throughout the schedule, and Caroline Shaw who has two). (9% of the total works)

    This Proms 2018 graphic features men and women in equal proportion — unfortunately very misleading

All told, this is tremendous progress over the figures from last year! Which, sadly, only continues to highlight just how underrepresented women are in so much classical music programming.  But this year the BBC Proms proclaims they are championing women in their discussion of “What’s new and extraordinary”!

The Proms, and the UK music scene in general, has been making great effort in working towards more equality in the representation of women in classical music – and we can, I’m sure, look forward to more good things to come. There are notable celebratory moments throughout this season in the work towards inclusivity and representation. For example, works by women are featured in both the “First Night of the Proms” and the “Last Night of the Proms.” Many of the women composers who are having works heard were commissioned by the BBC, and we are always delighted in organizations making an effort to be inclusive in supporting new music. In fact, of the 24 works by women being heard, five are World Premieres of a BBC Commission. (There are also two world premieres and two UK premieres being heard as well.)

For such a British affair it’s remarkable how much Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday is being celebrated, with music being featured in a total of nine events, including a full performance of West Side Story.  Scottish composer Thea Musgrave, who marked her 90th birthday just a few months ago – and was honored by the Queen herself – is also included in this year’s events. But with just a single work being performed, (Phoenix Rising in Prom 33, paired with Brahms in a concert titled “Brahms’s A German Requiem”) it’s hardly a comparison. It can also be noted that zero works by Judith Weir, Master of the Queen’s Music, are on this year’s program.

Prom 8 is the only event to include works by multiple historic women composers. Titled Youthful Beginnings, the program includes two works by Boulanger, Felix Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, Nocturne by Morfydd Llwyn Owen, and Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4. An innovative program to be sure – but the interest of the event is lost in the description:

Mendelssohn’s precocious First Piano Concerto joins Schumann’s forward-looking Fourth Symphony and music by Lili Boulanger and Morfydd Owen – both of whom died tragically young – in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s first Prom of the season.

So Mendelssohn is precocious, Schumann is forward-looking, but Boulanger and Owen just died young?  Certainly their music has admirably qualities other than the early death of the composer?  Or would sharing that Lili Boulanger’s “Youthful Beginnings” include being the first woman to win a Prix de Rome in music, and that Morfydd Owen completed over 250 highly regarded compositions in just 10 years –is that too much to share?

Prom 13 highlights contemporary women, titled Pioneers of Sound, and works by five works by electronic composers.  Certainly an innovative programming choice for Royal Albert Hall!  In addition to historic composers, the performance will also include a newly revised work by Daphne Oram (1925-2003) who was on the forefront of electronic composition.  For all of the losses in this year’s programming, there are also wins.

All of which is to say, it’s frustrating, but not surprising. Disappointing, but still better than what has happened in the years before. (See our look at the 2016 Proms, 2015 Proms, and 2014 Proms reports.) Progress is painfully slow, but it is happening. And, it can be noted, all of these figures far exceed the representation that women receive in any top American orchestra season (although the number of Proms concerts exceeds that of orchestras and features a wide range of ensembles, large and small, and also soloists).

Have a listen to some of the compositions and composers being heard this year:

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