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.
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”: