It has always fascinated me that throughout history it has been acceptable for women to be great keyboard players but objectionable for them to be composers. Is there something so inherently male about composing and the creative genius? The most famous female composer of the nineteenth century, Clara Schumann, proclaimed that “a woman must not desire to compose. There has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be that one?” Even though her husband Robert encouraged her and she was much more famous than him in her lifetime as a concert pianist, achieving compositional greatness seemed out of the question to Clara. She was a woman of her time and firmly believed that a woman’s compositional ability was inferior to man’s.
Leopold Mozart was happy for his daughter, Nannerl, to be a keyboard virtuoso but did not even comment when she sent him a composition she wrote. Similarly, Fanny Mendelssohn’s pianistic skills were given the highest praise: “she plays like a man” said her teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter. Yet her father discouraged her from composing. He wrote to her, “music will perhaps become [Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament”. Her famous brother Felix also believed that Fanny’s household duties must come before her music and published some of her compositions under his own name.
Since then women have sought equality in all areas of domestic and professional life, including music. There is an emerging appreciation of female composers with ensembles and radio stations starting to play their music more frequently. Ensemble Offspring has dedicated their entire 2017 season to performing and commissioning work by female composers. They are aiming for 50% of their subsequent programs to be music by women. Musica Viva founded the Hildegard project to commission more chamber music from Australian female composers. BBC 3 has a website dedicated to ‘Celebrating Female Composers’ as part of International Women’s Day. Australian composers Lisa Cheney and Peggy Polias are doing wonders for Australian music with their podcast ‘Making Waves’, which showcases the work of many female composers. These initiatives bring to the public and to musicians an awareness of the existence of great music written by women.
I am extremely fortunate to be one of four women in the inaugural National Women Composers’ Development Program run by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The opportunity to learn from, collaborate with and write for some of Australia’s best professional musicians is an extraordinary privilege. Several of Australia’s top female composers, including Maria Grenfell, Moya Henderson and Anne Boyd, are acting as our mentors. I admire the vision of those at the Sydney Conservatorium who are addressing the gender imbalance between male and female composers by giving women more opportunities for their music to be played and heard.
Just 26% of Australian composers are women. If more contemporary music by female composers is performed this will inspire other young women to write music and will create role models for future generations.
I have never regarded it as a disadvantage being in such a male-dominated field, though I have always been aware of it. Times are changing for female composers and I think their music is being brought into the spotlight with more performances, radio broadcasts and now incredible programs such as the one I am fortunate enough to be a part of. One of my favourite female composers, Julia Wolfe, just won the Pulitzer Prize for music, which demonstrates that women are being recognised more in the field of composition. I still hope that one day we will simply be called ‘composers’.