Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Germaine Tailleferre: The Effects of Critics and Historians on her Reception

by Liane Curtis - October 3rd, 2017

Distinguished Guest Blogger Timothy Diovanni joins us again with a sequel to his previous article about Germaine Tailleferre, Malicious Men: The Harmful Effects of Tailleferre’s Father and Husbands on her Life and Career.  

Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, 1913


Imagine yourself in Paris in late May of 1923. You stand in front of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, an ornate hall constructed ten years prior, in anticipation. Today’s performance includes the premiere of Le Marchand d’oiseaux, with music by Germaine Tailleferre, story, costume, and production by Hélène Perdriat, and choreography from Jean Börlin. The Eiffel Tower looms darkly to your left. You spot Darius Milhaud, here to see his close colleague’s opening night. Your friend leans over to say that they recently heard Ricardo Viñes solo in Tailleferre’s Ballade for Piano and Orchestra. They enthuse about Tailleferre’s musical style. You enter the theater, show your ticket to the steward, and take your seat.

That night, back in your six-floor walk-up, you write home to describe how much you enjoyed the ballet. You want to see it again, and do so a week later. You’re elated.

You live in Paris for the rest of your life. Yet, you never hear even a mention of Le Marchand d’Oiseaux again.

What happened to it?

Contemporary critics are notably to blame for the disappearance of Tailleferre’s Le Marchand d’Oiseaux. In response to the premiere, Raoul Brunel wrote in the Echo de Paris, “The hall applauded a long time and called back to the stage the two young authoresses, who were probably amused by their production of this fun spectacle, as much as we were to watch it.” [Emphasis added by the author throughout.] Brunel’s assessment makes it seem as if Tailleferre and Perdriat constructed their ballet casually, without care. His demeaning comment steered intellectual discussion away from the work.

Perdriat’s sketch of the bird merchant (Accessed from Heel’s dissertation)

André Levinson of Comœdia chimed on a similar note, “Le Marchand d’oiseaux has indeed the futile but coaxing charm of feminine things.” These trifles did not deserve respect, the critic suggests, so they were laughed away with the stroke of a pen. Most acidic, Charles Tenroc of Le courrier musical de France even suggested Perdriat and Tailleferre had “nothing better to do,” hence they “amused themselves by dressing up their dolls.” (See Laura Hamer’s Germaine Tailleferre and Hélène Perdriat’s Le Marchand d’oiseaux (1923): French feminist ballet? and Kiri Heel’s dissertation Germaine Tailleferre beyond Les Six: Gynocentrism and Le Marchand d’Oiseaux and the Six Chansons Françaises for more on these critics’ effects. I am indebted to both authors for these above translations.)

The responses to Le Marchand d’oiseaux responses demonstrate the pervasive style of the criticism used to reflect on Tailleferre. Critics discussed Tailleferre’s works using gender-coded traits, such as “sensitive,” “seductive,” and “pretty,” terms that relegated Tailleferre to a compositional niche based on an aesthetic of pleasure; they evaluated her music predominantly in reference to prominent male composers; and they described her appearance in order to thrust her into a satisfaction role. In taking these approaches, critics shaped the desire of and interest by musicians (from the time of their writings up to the present-day) to perform, record, or commission works by Tailleferre.

American critics of the 1920s tended to emphasize Tailleferre’s visual appearance. Deems Taylor, an American composer and music critic of The World, had the audacity to write that although he found Tailleferre’s music subpar, at least she was “decidedly the best looking” of Les Six.  A year later, an unnamed Boston Daily Globe critic, after seeing Tailleferre take her bows with Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Jeux de plein air, evaluated Tailleferre’s beauty. “She has barely turned her thirties and they are kind; she is fresh and charming, modest and gay. Her dressmaker does a capital job, and she, like every onlooker, appreciates it… Music or no music, not often on a Friday afternoon does the stage of Symphony Hall proffer such a figure.” Olin Downes of the New York Times called Tailleferre “precociously gifted and pleasant to look upon” (He proceeded to question Tailleferre’s originality). Paul Rosenfeld, a New York music critic, suggested Tailleferre’s inclusion in Les Six was merely a byproduct of “a fine enthusiasm for the sex on the part of the five male members.” The New York Times announced Tailleferre’s arrival to New York City in February 1925 with a description of her as a 26-year old “attractive blond with slim graceful figure and blue eyes.” Not only did the New York Times shift the focus from her music to her body, but they also littered the clip with inaccuracies and inconsistencies.

Program advertising Tailleferre’s performance of her Piano Concerto in NY, April 1925 (Accessed from Hamer’s Women Musicians in France during the Interwar Years, 1919-1939)

These American critics focused on Tailleferre’s body in order justify the existence of a woman composer in the world of classical music composition. By focusing their attention on Tailleferre’s appearance, critics disregarded both the quality and the and reception of her work.  This is obviously a gender-specific problem.

In other cases, American newspapers chose to compare Tailleferre’s music to more famous (male) composers. In a 1925 clip in The Boston Daily Globe, an anonymous critic juxtaposed Tailleferre’s Piano Concerto (1924) against Stravinsky’s, “But his [Stravinsky’s] concerto has significant and beautiful melodic ideas, or themes in it and hers has not.” The critic did not describe what they heard in Tailleferre’s concerto, rather they compared in order to subordinate through unoriginality. This degradation not only ignored Tailleferre’s actual achievement, but also pushed the concerto out of the public’s recognition. Since (according to the critic) Tailleferre’s concerto was simply a poor imitation, why not just program the authentic Stravinsky to get the “better” version of the work?

Critics justified Tailleferre’s presence in the male-dominated field of composition by conflating the sound of her music with her gender. Her work was described as “pleasant,” “lively,” and “sentimental,” among other similarly feminine terms. Since the feminine has been historically devalued, the critics thus marginalized Tailleferre’s oeuvre.

When asked about the feminine aspect of her reception, Tailleferre responded:

The essential thing is that it be music. I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t write what I feel. If it gives the impression of being feminine, that’s fine. I was never tormented by explanations. I tried to do the best I could, but I never asked myself if it was feminine or not. If it is music, it is music. I find that I place myself more among the little masters of the 17th and 18th centuries. I have always been attracted to simple things like that. (Quote from One of ‘Les Six’ Still at Work, Laura Mitgang)

While Tailleferre attempted to compose unhindered by criticism, femininity’s traditional connection with triviality decreased the interest for her music. Moreover, the preceding quote exhibits Tailleferre’s routine degradation of her music (“I place myself more among the little masters.”). Her self-diminution—a performance of femininity—hurt her reception.

As time passed and the memory of Les Six grew more distant, music historians determined that they needed to address the group’s legacy. The authors exhibited several main characteristics, all of which negatively shaped Tailleferre’s reception. The writers consistently:

  1.  Dismissed Tailleferre’s work as inconsequential.
  2.  Directly compared her to Louis Durey, one of Les Six.
  3.  Asserted the concept of pleasantness in her music.
  4.  Employed perceived-importance wording, i.e., wording that expresses ranking by placing the more important elements first.
  5.  Described her work only in comparison to more famous male musicians.
  6.  Labeled her as the “most in tune with” neoclassical ideals, thereby creating a false aesthetical narrative.
  7.  Omitted any discussion of her oeuvre post-Les Six.
  8.  Expanded upon Honegger’s, Milhaud’s and Poulenc’s career only.

The earliest textbook example was penned directly following the Les Six period. Cecil Gray in Survey of Contemporary Music (1927) created an awful metaphor: “Of Mlle Germaine Tailleferre one can only repeat Dr Johnson’s dictum concerning a woman preacher, transposed into terms of music. ‘Sir, a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.’” The quote stung with patronization. Gray condescendingly called Tailleferre “Mademoiselle,” then promptly dismissed her entire creative oeuvre.

Other textbooks written while Tailleferre was alive were summarily dismissive. Martin Cooper in French Music from the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Faure (1951) stated, “The music of Germaine Tailleferre embodies many of the more feminine characteristics of the new school….  It was indeed a happy time for the little talents.” Joseph Machlis in Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961) commented that “Durey and Tailleferre, after a brief taste of fame, passed into obscurity.” Peter Yates in his prematurely-entitled Twentieth Century Music (1967), asserted, “Two of ‘the six,’ Durey and Tailleferre, came to nothing.” Mosco Carner claimed in The New Oxford History of Music: The Modern Age 1890-1960 (1974), “Durey and Tailleferre are the least significant members of the group…Tailleferre wrote for the most part small-scale, unpretentious, and rather short-winded works possessing, however, a typically Parisian chic and elegance.” In 1979, Machlis slightly revised his negative assessment, “Of the six, two–Louis Durey and Germaine Tailleferre–soon dropped from sight.” Crucially, Tailleferre was still composing when these textbooks were published. In effect, the historians closed the book on her career before it ended.

Authors have continually written Les Six names in a priority-based order, with the composers that the writers deemed most important at the front of the list. Tailleferre was at the end of these rankings. From their hierarchies, historians chose Honegger, Milhaud, and Poulenc as the most important and devoted paragraphs to their music. Tailleferre was disregarded. Even when Tailleferre managed to appear in a textbook independent of her Les Six connection, the writer’s estimation of her emerged through word choice and sentence structure. In A Chronicle of 20th Century Music (1984), Richard Burbank described Tailleferre’s premiere of her Piano Concerto:

Serge Koussevitzky premieres the Piano Concerto, by Germaine Tailleferre, the female member of Les Six. The performance takes place in Paris, with the composer as soloist.

On the very same page, Gershwin’s premiere of his Piano Concerto is described thus:

George Gershwin is soloist at the world premiere of his Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra, as Walter Damrosch conducts the NY Symphony.

Burbank crafted these reflections on one page. However, the excerpts asserted different historicization priorities. For Tailleferre’s Piano Concerto, the hierarchy is 1. Conductor  2. Composer and soloist; while for Gershwin’s it’s 1. Composer and soloist  2. Conductor. Tailleferre was introduced by the more famous male, Koussevitzky: She needed his authority for inclusion. Conversely, Gershwin was considered a prodigious enough (male) composer to hold priority, with the conductor left in a tertiary position.

Recent textbooks have treated Tailleferre more fairly. But, writers still employ techniques that discourage inquiries about Tailleferre. They continue to order Les Six names according to their perception of success and assert pleasantness in Tailleferre’s music. Despite increasing Tailleferre recognition, Robert Shapiro evaluates Tailleferre’s oeuvre using the latter methodology. He ends his chapter on Tailleferre in Les Six: The French Composers and Their Mentors Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie (2011) thus:

“…Tailleferre was successful as a composer of music because she was able to translate her intriguing interior life into a form of expression that is at once deceptively simple but to which are attached threads of human insight too compelling and characteristically too pleasing to ignore or to dismiss.”

In Shapiro’s view, pleasure is yet again the byproduct of a woman composer’s work. Some scholars argue that feminine terms, like pleasure, were used to describe music by French composers en masse. However, Shapiro emphasizes pleasure only in Tailleferre’s music; he does not do so for any other member of Les Six. Furthermore, critics and historians have historically labeled the music of the rest of Les Six as “masculine” because of jazz influences. Tailleferre’s work has evidently been valued with different gendered terms than her compatriots.

Given the work of critics and historians, how can contemporary writers and musicians respond? It is paramount for authors to reevaluate their treatments of Les Six. It is simply historically negligent to list then promptly dismiss Tailleferre without a consideration of the actual significance that she achieved. Authors can highlight Le marchand d’oiseaux, which was performed by the Ballet Suédois more often than any other Les Six work. I like the direction of Taruskin’s survey, which acknowledges prejudices against women composers and describes Tailleferre’s “Quadrille” from Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel (1921) (The Oxford History of Western Music, 2005). I prefer Bonds’s textbook, which analyzes the finale of Tailleferre’s Harp Concertino (1927) (A History of Music in Western Culture, 2010). Bonds’s study stirred my interest in Tailleferre’s music, which demonstrates the impact that textbook writers can have on their audiences.

In the concert hall, Tailleferre’s work can be integrated into a variety of genres, from chamber to ballet to solo piano recitals. Score location remains an obstacle, as orchestrations of Jeux de plein aire and Le marchand d’oiseaux, have gone missing. It is exciting to find a recording of the latter on Youtube, but it provides no information about the sources for the recording (apart from naming the conductor). Is it a reconstruction?  How can score and parts be accessed?

While advocates scour for Tailleferre’s music, there is still plenty to play. I, for example, will perform Arabesque pour piano et clarinette (1973) in October as part of a chamber recital. I will preface the recital with a synopsis of Tailleferre’s career, in which I will highlight the social agents that caused her current obscurity.

Despite over 100 years of written neglect, I see new Tailleferre perspectives blossoming. I highly recommend research by Laura Hamer and Kiri Heel, whose assessments have guided my pursuits. Because of the recent re-thinkings, increase in performances, and uptick in recordings, I am hopeful that audiences and musicians will learn and care more about Tailleferre.

With persistence and energized support, you—the imagined Parisian—might even one-day see Le marchand d’oiseaux at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées again.

2017-18 Season: By the Numbers

by sarah - September 8th, 2017

Now that Labor Day, and the end of summer, has passed we are looking forward to the start of the 2017-18 concert season – and taking a critical look at what we can expect in the coming programming.

We at WPA have been looking at the repertoire of major ensembles for a long time, and are thankful that more attention is being paid to the statistics – in particular with the diligent work that had been done in recent years by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.  Though we don’t have such an overreaching look as the work that was done at the BSO, we can offer some specifics about the representation of women composers.

The information compiled is representative of the top 21 orchestras in the United States* (the same group that the Baltimore Symphony data has examined).  We looked at all the available information for the coming seasons (available through press releases, season brochures, and events calendars on the ensemble websites) and only collected data from regularly scheduled concerts (not special events, “Family” concerts, chamber concerts, “Pops” concerts, etc.)

Of those 21 ensembles, seven (7) did not program any works by women composers: Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, National, St. Louis, and Utah).  Those that did program works by women only included one or two, with the standout being Milwaukee which programmed four (4).  But not all programming is equal – for example, while Minnesota does have two works by women programmed, they are included in their “Emerging Composer” concert, which is only performed once unlike most concerts in their season that are played multiple times over a weekend.

With all of this in mind, the breakdown for the 2017-2018 concert season looks like this:

A total of 224 composers will be represented, of which 21 are women (8.6%).

A total of 770 individual works will be heard, which include 24 pieces by women (3.1%).

There are a total of 1,484 compositions programmed – which consists of the number of times the work was scheduled to be performed among various orchestras, not the number of performances each work will be heard.  (For example, ten ensembles have programmed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica, but we didn’t count all of the individual performances that might occur over the performance weekend, or include matinees, open rehearsals, etc.)  Of those programmed pieces, only 26 works were by women (1.8%).

Compared to last year’s numbers, this is actually a significant improvement – which only demonstrates how underrepresented women continue to be in concert halls.  The increase in the number of works by historic women is particularly encouraging.  Though we are always in support of new works by living composers, we are always delighted when works by women who are no longer around to advocate for themselves are included in programming.

Of the 21 women who will have works performed, five can be considered historic (composer born before 1950).  This is a huge improvement over the one work included among the same group of ensembles last season!

Even with all of this positive news, it is clear that the status quo is not even close to being disrupted.  Of those 1484 performances, works by Beethoven alone total 7%, and works by Bernstein, who is being celebrated this year in honor of his 100th birthday, total 5.7%.  Meanwhile, we are celebrating the life and music of Amy Beach – American’s first woman to compose a symphony and have it performed by a major orchestra – for her 150th birthday, but her works have not been programmed in any ensemble, including in her hometown of Boston.

It is worth noting that even though these works are being performed, they are not necessarily being recognized or promoted.  There were disturbingly few mentions of works by women in the online or print descriptions of each concert, even when the included work was commissioned.  For example, the Seattle Symphony has included Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps for a program titled Rachmaninov Symphony No. 3, taking place in February.  The other works on the program include Elgar’s Violin Concerto and, of course, the Rachmaninov Symphony.  The description for the event, however, only mentions two of the three:

Rachmaninov’s final symphony radiates a warm, nostalgic beauty rooted in the Russia of his early life. The virtuosic violinist Vilde Frang performs Elgar’s emotional Violin Concerto, a work demanding extraordinary technical skills and physical and emotional stamina.

Later in the Seattle Symphony season they include the world premiere of a new work by Alexandra Gardner in an event, titled Wonderful Town and featuring the work of Leonard Bernstein.  Other works to be heard include Wonderful Town and Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs.  The description for the event makes no mention of the significance of the premiere, or even the composer at all:

Leonard Bernstein understood the pulse of American life like no other composer, and his sassy, energetic scores still get our blood pumping. The Seattle Symphony brings Bernstein’s Broadway classic Wonderful Town to life with “Christopher Street,” “A Little Bit in Love,” “Ohio” and the “Conga!”

Seattle is not alone in this trend.  San Francisco Symphony includes Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna Magica in an event on June 9, which also includes Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy.  The event, titled Susanna Mälkki and Hilary Hahn, is described as:

Two superstars of classical music, violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn and conductor Susanna Mälkki, join forces to present Tchaikovsky’s monumental Violin Concerto. Experience Mälkki’s “charismatic and dynamic podium presence” (Chicago Classical Review) along with Hahn’s “consistent perfection” (BBC Music Magazine) in a concert also featuring Scriabin’s wonderfully mystical The Poem of Ecstasy.

Milwaukee Symphony includes Julia Perry’s Study for Orchestra in a concert titled American Classics.  Other pieces on the program include Bernstein’s Divertimento, Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and Copland’s Symphony No. 3.  But the concert description can only mention three of the four:

Aaron Copland’s stirring Third Symphony draws its majestic finale from his iconic Fanfare for the Common Man. Samuel Barber’s nostalgic setting of James Agee’s prose touches the heart. And Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento is a youthful romp. American Classics as only the Milwaukee Symphony can play them!

All of which only begs the question: why?  Or, rather, why not?  Why would the marketing for these concerts not highlight the inclusive programming – or, at very least, offer more information to the audience, and potential audience, as to who these unrecognized composers are?  Milwaukee’s website, for example, only includes the composer’s last name.  Only someone familiar with Perry’s compositions would recognize that the Study for Orchestra is her work.  The same can be said with the promotion for Los Angeles Philharmonic’s performance of Grażyna Bacewicz’s Overture; the composer is just listed as Bacewicz. 

Perhaps the marketing teams are hesitant to ruffle feathers from those donors and patrons who don’t wish to see a change in their beloved institutions.  But not promoting these innovations is a detriment to the ensemble, and the potential concert revenue.  As industry professionals continue to discuss how to bring new faces, and new dollars, into symphony spaces, one would think that highlighting the unique and visionary qualities of the event would be an advantage.

One would imagine that the marketing for such events would follow in the footsteps of what Baltimore Symphony has done in the concert titled Pictures at an Exhibition (February 16,17, & 18) featuring Florence Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, and Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition: 

There are few pieces of music as visually evocative as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Written in memory of artist Viktor Hartmann, the piece is a musical depiction of an art exhibition. Composer Florence Price was the first African American female recognized as a symphonic composer and the first to have a work premiered by a major symphony orchestra. Witness Joyce Yang push the piano to its limits with her performance of Prokofiev’s colorful Piano Concerto No. 3.

There is much to be done – but there are also many opportunities for ensembles to learn about works by women composers, and to even win funding to perform their repertoire in the coming seasons.  WPA Performance Grant applications for the Fall 2017 cycle are due on October 20, and there are many repertoire suggestions of under performed works deserving attention.

See more of who is playing what this season below – and have a listen to our Spotify Playlist that includes several of the works we can anticipate in the coming months:



Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Florence Price, Dances in the Canebrakes (February 16, 17, 18) and Anna Clyne, Abstractions (February 22, 25).

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Arlene Sierra, Moler (October 5, 6, 7).

Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Elizabeth Ogonek, All These Lighted Things [World Premiere, CSO Commission] (September 28, 29, October 1), and Jennifer Higdon, Low Brass Concerto [World Premiere, CSO co-commission] (Feb 1, 2, 3).

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra: Julia Adolphe, new work [World Premiere, Commission] (November 4, 5), and Emily Cooley, new work [World Premiere] (November 24, 25).

Detroit Symphony Orchestra: Roshanne Etezady, new work [World Premiere] (May 25, 26, 27).

Los Angeles Philharmonic: Chen Yi, Ge Zu (Antiphony) (December 8, 9, 10), and Grażyna Bacewicz, Overture (March 29, 30, 31).

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra: Julia Perry, Study for Orchestra (January 20, 21), Emily Cooley, Green Go to Me (March 9, 10), Augusta Read Thomas, Radiant Circles (May 19, 20), and Joan Tower, Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (June 15, 16, 17).

Minnesota Orchestra: Hilary Purrington, Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky (November 10), and Nina Young, Agnosco Veteris (November 10).

New York Philharmonic: Anna Thorvaldsdottir, new work [World Premiere] (April 4, 5, 6)

Philadelphia Orchestra: Jennifer Higdon, On a Wire for Six Soloists and Orchestra (October 19, 20, 21) and Concerto for Low Brass (February 22, 23, 24).

Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra: Teresa Carreño, Margariteña (January 26, 27, 28), and Jennifer Higdon, Tuba Concerto [World Premiere, PSO co-commission] (March 16, 17, 18). 

San Diego SymphonyGrażyna Bacewicz, Overture (December 1, 2) and Missy Mazzolli, River Rouge Transfiguration (January 26, 28).

San Francisco Symphony: Kaija Saariaho, Laterna Magica (June 7, 8, 9).

Seattle Symphony Orchestra: Lili Boulanger, D’un matin de printemps (February 1, 2, 3), and Alexandra Gardner, new work [World Premiere] (June 14, 16). 

*Orchestras include: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, houston, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minnesota, National, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, and Utah.








Death of Rae Linda Brown, pioneering Florence Price Scholar

by Liane Curtis - August 23rd, 2017

With great sadness, Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy mourns the passing of Dr. Rae Linda Brown, who died following a brief illness of sarcoma (a rare cancer of the connective tissue). A musicologist, professor, university administrator, and past President of the Society for American Music, we remember Dr. Brown especially for her groundbreaking scholarship on composer Florence Price.

While a graduate student, Brown discovered some manuscripts of Florence Price’s music in the Yale University library.  Brown went on to complete her Ph.D. dissertation on Price, which was the first work of extensive scholarship on the composer.  Brown also authored a wide range of valuable work that brought this remarkable composer to public notice.  She worked with The Women’s Philharmonic as part of the recording of 2001, of Price’s The Oak, Mississippi River; Symphony No. 3.  This was the first commercial recording of any of Price’s orchestral music.  Brown went on to publish two of Price’s Symphonies with A-R Editions — their scholarly introductions, and excerpts of the music are available on Google books.

She also edited Price’s Piano Sonata in E minor for G. Schirmer, and wrote extensively on Price, including this article on the Piano Concerto in One Movement  in the journal American Music.

Here is a short video where Brown talks a bit about her work on Price.

Most recently, Brown was featured in the 2015 documentary The Caged Bird: The Life and Music of Florence B. Pricewhich has been broadcast in the US on PBS and can be purchased from The University of Arkansas Press.

As revealed in this film, more music by Price has recently been discovered, emphasizing that our understanding of her important output is still in its very early stages, as more music is brought to light and made available to musicians and listeners.  The best tribute to Prof. Brown’s work is to perform, celebrate, explore and experince the vast riches of Florence Price’s music.

Proms 2017 – By the Numbers

by sarah - June 7th, 2017

It’s once again Proms Season!  And that means it’s time once again to look at representation.  There have already been conversations about certain lacking aspects – not only the lack of women composers, but the overall lack of representation of people (including conductors) of color.  (See more at On an Overgrown Path: http://www.overgrownpath.com/2017/05/is-one-of-these-next-mirga-grazinyte.html) But here is our look and break down of who is, and isn’t, being heard.  


There are 75 Proms, as well as several extra concerts, lectures, films, poetry readings, and other events.  We took a look at all of the music being performed as part of the numbered Proms (where the information was most readily available for composers, works being performed, and timings), as well as the un-numbered events (where information was available) and did some analysis of the works that will be heard this year.  Unfortunately,  not all of the concerts listed specific information – though, largely, the omitted performances are of what is largely considered popular music, not Western Art Music.  For an example, Prom 27 features the work of Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, but no specific works are listed.

According to our counts, there are 243 individual works being performed in the 2017 season (some of which will be performed multiple times, but we didn’t include repeat performances in our counts), and the work of 118 different composers being performed – a total of 104 hours of music.

Of those 243 works, 11 works by women composers.


Of the 118 composers having works heard, 10 are women.

Of the 104 hours of music that will be heard this season, women’s music only accounts for a total of 2 hours.  In comparison, there are 4.5 hours of Mozart’s music being heard, and over 6 hours of works by Beethoven.  

Though the vast majority of composers being heard are of the typical Western Art Music variety (meaning: dead, white men), all of the women having works heard are contemporary.  Moreover, apart from some important names (like Master of the Queen’s Music Judith Weir and Pulitzer Prize winner Julia Wolfe) there are several up and coming composers included.  What a wonderful opportunity to introduce audiences to new names, and music, especially when finding a place in the performing world can be so difficult.  Most of the works are also receiving some kind of premiere – and several works were commissioned by, or in conjunction with, the BBC.

Julia WolfeBig Beautiful Dark and ScaryProm 44 - August 17London Premiere
Lotta WennakoskiFlounceProm 75 - September 9BBC Commission: World Premiere
Missy MazzoliSinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres)Prom 70 - September 5European Premiere of Orchestral Version
Grace WilliamsSea Sketches
High Wind
Calm Sea in Summer
Proms at [email protected] Dock - July 22
Cheryl Frances-HoadChorale Prelude 'Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott'Prom 47 - August 20BBC Commission: World Premiere
Kate WhitleyI am I sayProms at ... Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park, Peckham - August 26
Andrea TarrodiLiguriaProm 61 - August 30UK Premiere
Judith WeirIn the Land of UzProms at Southwark Cathedral - August 12BBC Commission: World Premiere
Rebecca SaundersMolly's Song 3Proms at Wilton's Music Hall - September 2
Hannah KendallThe Spark CatchersProm 62 - August 30BBC Commission: World Premiere

That said, the total lack of historic women composers is (as always) disappointing.  This is especially true when there are so many fantastic works published and available, in particular of British composers.  Though there are certainly efforts being made, as evident in featuring Chineke! in Prom 62, there it still feels as the smallest effort, especially after so many continued conversations about the importance of representation on concert stages and in concert programs.  

For now, have a listen below to the work of the women composers who will be heard this year at the BBC Proms:


Followup on our 2016-17 Repertoire Report

by Liane Curtis - September 8th, 2016

 We’ve had pushback on some of the information in our blog post on the 2016-2017 orchestral repertoire of the top 21 U.S. orchestras.  A statement by musicologist and writer Steve Ledbetter (on his Facebook page), that these 14 orchestras “have totally turned their backs on women composers”  is not 100% correct (but pretty close!)  So I’d like to offer a little further contextualization.  A staff member from the LA Phil wrote us to point out that they have nine works by women on their program this season.  However, they are all on “new music” events that seem ghettoized from the mainstream orchestral concerts.

For instance, six works (by Veronika Krausas, Ana Prvacki, Michelle Lou, Liza Lim, Ellen Reid, Clara Ianotta) are included on the noon concert of Oct. 1. The details of this event are not listed under the main LAPhil calendar, instead it gets its own page .  It is great that the LAPhil is commissioning new music and making a space for innovative works, but it is certainly not an orchestra concert.  At the new music concert the evening of Oct. 1, a work by Kate Soper is included (performed by the LA Phil New Music Group – again, not an orchestra concert).
The LA Phil’s Reykjavík Festival (April 11-15) will include works by three women, Thurídur Jónsdóttir, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir and Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir.  The pieces by the latter two will actually be performed by the LA Phil.  However, there seems to be no way to include the concerts in a subscriber series.

Gustavo Dudamel -- not conducting ANY works by women at the L.A. Phil this season

Gustavo Dudamel — not conducting ANY works by women at the L.A. Phil this season

Lest someone wonder if the lack of works composed by women reflects an overall lack of programming by living (or recently living) composers, a glance at the rest of the season reveals a great variety of male living composers.  John Adams’ 70th birthday is being fêted, and that means a lot of his music is being performed, including two operas.
The other living composers are Gerald Barry, Steve Reich, Andrew Norman, James Matheson, Christopher Rouse, James MacMillan, Georg Friedrich Haas, Matthias Pinscher, Nico Muhly, John Adams, Steve Reich, and Thomas Adès.  Also included are works by the recently departed Pierre Boulez and Elliot Carter, and the not so recently departed Lou Harrison.  Also there are some Icelandic men and others included on new music concerts.

One pervasive tendency is this notion that “since we don’t know any music by women composers, there must not be any, so therefore we have to commission it.”  As Steve Ledbetter points out,

While it is always good to generate new compositions, it is equally important to recognize the existence of a large and growing repertory of fine works that deserve to be heard again. Orchestras are always looking for older works by male composers (even those who are still alive!) — but they don’t seem to search the repertory for fine works by women. … There really needs to be some consciousness-raising here!! So much excellent music is not being given a chance to be heard!

It is hard not conclude that there is, on the one hand, so much ignorance; and on the other, the biased insistence that if we don’t know this music, it must be because it isn’t any good.  In particular I would like to see orchestras explore works by women of the generation of Pierre Boulez, Elliot Carter, and Lou Harrison.  Why not start with Joanna Beyer, Elizabeth Maconchy and Ruth Schonthal?

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As a footnote, an additional concert by The New York Phil deserves mention, an all-Kaija Saariaho concert being performed Oct. 13 and 14, at the Park Avenue Armory.  I believe this event was not included in our previous count because it is a special concert and tickets are sold by the venue, not the NYPhil website (and are not offered on any subscription series).  Esa-Pekka Salonen is conducting, as he also is on two of the Reykjavík concerts in LA.   I mention that to point out his far-flung influence in advocating for new music from Nordic countries (and including women).