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Let's stop saying there's no classical music by women composers

Paolo Pietropaolo
Gender equality in classical music

A mini-documentary by CBC Music's Paolo Pietropaolo


One day, a little more than a year ago, my daughter and I were sitting at home, talking about this and that, when she asked me a question. She would’ve been five at the time.

She said, “Papà, why is the music on your show only written by boys?”

That was a toughie. I didn’t know how to answer.

I think I probably tried to explain, as best as I could, the history of gender roles, how they have finally started to change in the past few decades, and how a great deal of the music I play on CBC Music's In Concert was written long before that.

That would’ve been in keeping with all the assumptions I picked up in music school. It’s practically doctrine in classical music that there weren’t really any women composers before the 1960s — just one or two, or at most a few, and that they didn’t write very much music, because society didn’t give them a chance.

I wished I could have given her a better answer.

I couldn’t stop thinking about her question, and ultimately it shook me into the realization that I was part of the problem. I’d lazily accepted what I had learned from classical music history — a history that is unsurprisingly chauvinistic, chiseled in stone long before gender roles started changing.

Once you start looking around, it turns out that it’s a myth that there isn’t that much music by historical women composers. And that’s one of the things that has contributed to the fact that today — in the 21st century! — composition is still very much a male-dominated field.

Last November, the contemporary music world descended on Vancouver for the World New Music Days, an annual festival convened by the International Society of Contemporary Music. One of the hot topics at the festival was gender inequality in composition, thanks to a bold vision set out by the festival’s artistic director, David Pay. Pay insisted the festival should have a gender equity statement, and 50 per cent of the composers featured at the festival were women.

During the festival, I moderated a public panel on the topic featuring composer Du Yun, the Chinese-American woman who was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and Susanna Eastburn, the director of a new music organization in the U.K. I also caught up with two of the composers whose work was featured at the festival, the U.K.’s Charlotte Bray and New Zealand’s Salina Fisher.

Listen to what they had to say in the mini-documentary above.

Oh, and by the way, if you tune into In Concert, you’ll notice things have changed. The music you’ll hear on the show isn’t written just by "boys" anymore.

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