In Which I Learn Why There Are No Great Women Composers

Lots of people have hobbies like knitting, jogging, or stamp collecting. Because I am the nerdiest nerd to ever nerd, the closest thing I have to a hobby is learning about the history of women in music. It’s a topic that doesn’t get as much press as the old chestnuts like “classical music is dying” or “Stradivari’s secret varnish” or “lockouts.” Nonetheless, once in a while the mainstream media will run articles about women composers, and when they do, I enjoy reading what other people have to say on the topic.

Today a very special article ran in the conservative British magazine The Spectator. It’s called “There’s A Good Reason Why There Are No Great Women Composers.” I’m not going to link to it for reasons that will gradually become obvious to you.

It begins:

Last week a 17-year-old girl forced the Edexcel exam board to change its A-level music syllabus to include the work of women composers.

Wow. A 17-year-old girl forced the Edexcel exam board to change its A-level music syllabus? How did she do this? Did she hack an extensive computer network? Did she threaten the board and then hold it hostage? Did she storm their office with firearms and issue terrifying proclamations with her foot resting upon the skulls of her enemies?

The truth is actually far more frightening: she began a petition.

Little known fact: when someone issues a petition, the person the petition is addressed to is forced to give in to petitioners’ demands. As we all know, that’s how 8,763 Americans managed to impeach Barack Obama.

He had a good run.

He had a good run.

A delicate question lies at the heart of the subject of female composers, and it’s not ‘Why are they so criminally underrepresented in the classical canon?’ It’s ‘How good is their music compared with that of male composers?’

Yes. Luckily the “goodness” of music is a totally scientific and quantifiable thing that allows no room for personal preference, bias, or interpretation. There’s a scale of goodness in music. Pretty sure it goes Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and then toward the bottom there’s Grainger and Bruckner and Lalo. Or something.

Also lucky: that the creative output of the respective two halves of humanity can be placed on this scale.

Ms McCabe told the press that ‘I’d quite like to learn about the music of Clara Schumann.’ OK, let’s start there. As I write this, I’m listening to a recording that couples the piano concertos of Mr and Mrs Schumann. In track three, I marvel yet again at Robert’s genius. The leaping melody of the finale turns into a fugue and then a waltz, enticed by the piano into modulations that never lose their power to surprise and delight.

Then comes track four, the first movement of Clara’s concerto, and within ten seconds we know it’s a dud.

For sure. I know my best insights are always gleaned from the first  .007% of a piece. In fact, one of my favorite things to do is to visit iTunes and listen to a third of each track preview. passing sweeping negative judgments on entire concertos, symphonies, or song cycles based on the quality of the first ten seconds.

Plus, listen to this bullshit.

*dry heaves*

Oh, God. Oh, God, that’s terrible. Take it away!

The first phrase is a platitude: nothing good can come of it and nothing does. Throughout, the virtuoso passagework is straight out of the catalogue.

Agreed. Nothing is good in it. It is ugly, boring, tasteless, offensive, dull. It manages to be both ordinary and repulsive. It raped my ears just now.

Which brings up the question: who the f*ck agreed to conduct the premiere of this piece, anyway? Felix Mendelssohn?

Oh, it was Felix Mendelssohn?

(It was actually Felix Mendelssohn.)

Screw you, Mendelssohn!


According to the Spectator, your taste in new music is suspect, sir.

In her defence, it’s an early piece

Woah, woah, woah, you’re being far too generous. Clara Wieck was already thirteen years old when she started writing her piano concerto, and all of the composers on the aforementioned goodness scale wrote their masterpieces by the age of ten. Little-known fact: Strauss called the Four Last Songs that because he wrote them on the eve of his fifth birthday.

her mature Piano Trio is more accomplished, though its lyrical passages could have been cut and pasted from one of her husband’s works.

Which is why we oughtn’t to listen to it, because as we established earlier in this piece, the works of Robert Schumann neither surprise nor delight.

Her G minor Piano Sonata, on the other hand, isn’t a success.

It definitely is not. And as we all know, if composers ever write something unsuccessful, we judge the rest of their output on that one piece. I’m looking at you, Beethoven. Consecration of the House Overture, what the f*ck was that? Whatever it is, it sure negates the Grosse Fugue.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call it ‘repugnant’ (Clara’s verdict on Tristan) or ‘horrible’ (her description of Bruckner’s Seventh), but it’s embarrassingly banal.

(A quick shoutout to Clara, who wrote “I Hate Bruckner” way before I got around to it. High-five, girl!)

Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix,

Woah, Felix again? He’s the reason we’ve been subjected to this dreck in the first place!

Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix, has also been suggested for the new syllabus. She, too, wrote a G minor Piano Sonata and it’s bloody awful. Whether it’s worse than Clara’s sonata I can’t say, because that would mean listening to them again.

Listening to pieces a second time has never enhanced my comprehension of them. I also find playing them a second time to be useless. All I do is sight-read. I sight-read the first ten seconds, and then I know whether I want to keep going. I usually don’t. I’m not very popular in orchestras, is what I’m saying. Or anywhere.

But we can be pretty sure that neither of them would have been recorded if they had been composed by a man.

Obscure pieces by men are not recorded. That’s why the Naxos catalogue doesn’t exist.

Clara and Fanny were not, of course, typical female composers of their day. They traded on their surnames,

Fun Factoid (and I did not know this until now): Clara Schumann wrote her works as a teenager under her future married name.

and Clara was also a world-famous virtuoso pianist. What about women who lacked these advantages? Amy Beach (1867–1944) is regarded as the first significant woman composer from the United States, though she sounds more French than American.

Amy Beach also (apparently) lacked “the advantage” of being a world-famous virtuoso pianist…despite the fact that she was a world-famous virtuoso pianist.

Mind blown

Mind blown

She’s significant mainly because she was a woman. Critics dutifully praise her but can’t resist the adjective ‘well-crafted’, meaning boring.

I have to confess… I did not know until just now that the adjective “well-crafted” is actually a coded insult. All these years when I heard people raving about how well-crafted Bach is, I had no idea they were actually dissing him. I’m sorry. I have boobs, so it’s hard for me to keep stuff straight.

In contrast, Dame Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) wrote some very badly crafted music. But her opera The Wreckers and her Mass in D — which she once sang solo, orchestral parts included, to Queen Victoria — are titanic in scale and ambition. The Wreckers has been described as a fusion of Wagner and Gilbert and Sullivan. She’s an interesting composer but not a great one.

Let me take some notes here…

Women writing well-crafted boring pieces = not great composers

Women writing badly-crafted interesting pieces = not great composers

Y’know, on second thought, let’s just simplify the equation.

Women = not great composers.

There we go!

And if there are no great women composers, that’s because creative geniuses are rare and, in the past, so few women wrote music.

In case you’re wondering, this is the reason cited in the title why women can’t write great music. I am not joking.

Unfortunately this groundbreaking article pretty much ends there. If you want more of this kind of gripping journalism, you run up against the disappointing advisory: This is an extract from this week’s magazine. Subscribe here. Unfortunately my lady brain is too small to understand the concepts at play, so I’ll pack up my vagina and go home and let the penised ones figure it all out.

Which, as you can imagine, they have in the comment section.


On a more serious note, I have to confess something. But first we have to put away the debate over if women can be great composers. For now. (They can be, but like I said: another day.)

Okay. So. Here’s my big secret. If I didn’t already know the Clara Schumann piano concerto… If you played it for me and told me it was early Robert, I’d probably believe you. I hope I’ve listened enough to be skeptical, but honestly, I doubt I would be.

That being said, you know what? My ears are more sensitive than most. Not because I’m better. Because I’ve had advantages not a ton of people have had. I was raised in an educated, musical family. My grandparents had the money to subsidize my studies. I’ve had years of lessons. I’ve been beyond lucky to live in a truly idyllic place where I can hear lots of the greatest players and conductors live. Those were advantages I was handed, that not every listener has.

If I’d have trouble telling the difference between Clara and early Robert, or between a supposedly good piano concerto and a supposedly great one… I think lots of other concertgoers would, too.

So. If the two are that difficult to tell apart, might that not be an argument for including more “merely” “good” works on programs? Especially when their inclusion encourages young girls who might want to compose? Paints a fuller picture of cultural history? Provides an illuminating context to other work? Or, y’know, interests people? Is there really no space for personal preference? Maybe I’m a terrible musician, but honestly? I’d prefer to hear the Clara Wieck concerto in concert over another Tchaikovsky first.

I’m not saying to chuck out Beethoven and Brahms. (Clara would be aghast at the idea.) But once in a while, the boys could be gentlemanly enough to slide over at the table and let the ladies sit down for a bit. I think the results would delight, inspire, and enrich the vast majority of us. And if you’re really so offended by a woman popping up here and there, even with a supposedly substandard work in tow, you could always stay home and wait until the next concert. I can guarantee you, that one will feature nothing but the works of men.


Filed under Women In Music

183 responses to “In Which I Learn Why There Are No Great Women Composers

  1. Emily, and other readers:
    I’ve been on this planet for just over 65 years. Since the age of eight, I’ve been listening to classical music. And since much of my early musical training involved playing or listening to music by dead white male composers predominantly from Europe, Eastern Europe / Russia, I can tell you that the writer of this article really just wants to slam women composers. If you go just a little off the beaten track, you can find perfectly good music composed by Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn (one of her string quartets was recently recorded with one by her brother), and multitudes of perfectly acceptable and good music by women composers both deceased and alive. OK, they may not be GREAT composers like Bach, Beethoven, Brahms or Mahler, but there is NOTHING wrong with their music.I will be happy to provide a list of successful women composers currently alive and/or deceased upon request.
    Lisa Renee Ragsdale

    • John

      Weird argumentation. We have GREAT composers TODAY of all genders, and luckily they don’t compose like Bach, Beethoven, Brahms or Mahler.

      • PlanetPlangentPlantagenet

        Some of us do–it’s just that that’s now considered a sideline and not serious composition. There’s a whole subculture in the deliberate revivals of older compositional styles. For examples, go to Facebook and check out the Vox Saeculorum page.

    • Serena


      I don’t think you get it. The author of the article is saying what you are saying — that women can be great composers — the author is just being satirical/ironic/sarcastic/etc.

      Maybe it’s because you’re a woman that you don’t understand.


      • Serena

        (Whoops thought she was referencing YOUR article, not the doofus’s who wrote the original!… Maybe I wouldn’t have known that, since I’m a woman, too, and all).

        • Serena,
          Maybe. I was just trying to say there ARE great women composers RIGHT NOW. And that even they have a hard time getting their works performed.
          The end!

          • All serious composers have a hard time getting their works performed. The pc rants about Thompson’s piece actually confirm what it says — where is the female Chopin or the female Grieg? — despite the fact the women has as much or more access to pianos than men right through the 19th century — and despite the fact that women in that century scaled great literary heights.

      • Sarcastic and brilliant, Yes. Especially when filled with 19th and 20th century ego, id or critique. Africans or Chinese will rule the world if the EU withdraws patronage from conservatism. Well? Women are always sidelined, example, Sartre’s wife, not that she would have done philosophy a better ‘good’, and I’m afraid women are back in the dock with the untouchables, following Dolezal Symphony? Schopenhauer even speculated they can’t make great painters, lol, monthly dizziness, waiting for new laws and always seeking standard acceptable company just like men, but they are women and the world is not modern, certainly not post modern in the times of the great composers. Great Composers? Concertgoers of middle class origin understand better? This is for people stuck on something archaic… Pls correct me with facts.

    • Barbarona

      Germaine Tailleferre is a pretty fine composer, if not great. So is Mrs. Beach. There have always been at least a few women who compose fine music. They have the same problem as all composers, how to get known. But I would venture to say that there may be more bad women composers, than men, by proportion. Too many decided for social-political reasons to compose, just to prove a point, or because there was enough funding for them to take advantage of. Like Beth Anderson, or perhaps the worst, Barbara Kolb.

  2. David Sanders

    About 30 years ago I played two movements of Clara’s g minor piano trio. There was only time for two movements because it was a live radio concert of the works of Brahms. The main work on the program was the Brahms Trio in A Major, Op. Posthumous (which might not actually be by Brahms). I remember enjoying playing the Schumann.

    Now, Emily, on another matter, I’m sorry you have had such a negative reaction to Bruckner. Of course, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to play all of the symphonies many, many times, and record most of them twice. There are many people who love Mahler and hate Bruckner, or love Bruckner and hate Mahler. Unlike many of my colleagues in the Chicago Symphony, I love them both. I would hope that you won’t give up on Bruckner. I was on sabbatical this past season, but went to the performance of the 8th. It was glorious.

    • I will never give up on Bruckner (or any composer). It’s just become an in-joke on the blog that I repeatedly don’t understand or appreciate him, and I’m so gaga in love with Clara Schumann that I relate with her frustration with Bruckner.

      I do have to say though that one of the most profound musical experiences I’ve ever had was watching the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians play Bruckner 4 under Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. I don’t remember if you were a reader back in those days, so I’ll leave this link here in case you haven’t read it. The Minnesota Orchestra is doing Bruckner 7 next month (also under Stan) and although I’m absurdly busy and traveling to Madison that weekend, I’m going to try my best to see it.

      And by the way, I’m thinking of the CSO negotiations tonight. Hope all turns out for the best. Thanks so much for the comment, and please send best wishes to all of your extraordinary world-class colleagues.

      • David Sanders

        I was reading your blog during the lockout, but thanks for sending the link.
        I do hope you get to hear the 7th. It’s one of my favorites (most of them are one of my favorites). 37 years ago we played it at the Proms in London with Solti, and that performance is available as a dvd. You can also find it, or now it seems just part of it, on youtube. I also played a very memorable performance of it with Klaus Tennstedt,

        Thanks for the thoughts about our negotiations. I’m on the team, and I’m still hopeful that we’ll be able to reach an agreement.

      • Rebecca34


        Here is Camille Paglia’s explanation for why there are no great female composers.

        “I think that genius and criminality are both extremes and deviations off the end of the human spectrum and this is my explanation for why there are no great women composers and artists. Not that women have not been held back from practicing so many of the arts forms. Rather that great art of the Mozart or Picasso or Michelangelo kind comes from obsessiveness, comes from a kind of self-mutilation of relationships. That is also why we have so few women chess masters or so few obsessed female serial murderers or female computer hackers and so on. I think that the male brain has a greater capacity for both genius and criminality. Both are deviations.

        But in literature or anything that has to do with psychology, women are extremely good at. Even in music or places where there is room for the individual voice for self expression there are great women vocalists and great pianists but not great women composers interestingly because composition seems to be very abstract and cold. Women don’t particularly like this inhuman world”

        • PlanetPlangentPlantagenet

          What a load of succotash! Music is intensely psychological, therefore, by Camille Paglia’s own argument, women ought to make better composers than men. I suspect that one of the best opinions on this question would come from a gal named Susan McClary author of a book called _Feminine Endings_, which does a fairly good job of decoding music theory and what really lies behind it.

          The reason that women aren’t considered “great” composers is that the game is rigged against them from the start. I’ll give another example: I once saw an issue of the Brooklyn College alumni magazine that had an item about a singer-songwriter named Sylvia Fine, an alumna, who had disliked Brooklyn College’s old song and so had written the new one. This is notable because it’s literally the _first_ time that I had seen, _anywhere_, a mention of her that did _not_ mention that she was Danny Kaye’s wife. So when people do concerts of songs by the Gershwin Brothers, Cole Porter, and Hoagy Carmichael, she’s simply not among them. This despite the fact that she lived the majority of her life _after_ women had acquired the right to vote. This is a travesty indeed!

          BTW, some of us still do write like Bach and company.

          • Rebecca34

            Hi Plantagenet,

            I have to say that I’m not a huge fan of musicological writing.

            Have you ever read the book “Music and The Ineffable” by Vladimir Jankelevitch? I urge you to take a couple minutes and read these extracts from a 2004 book review…. It’s really good!!

            “Vladimir Jankelevitch makes a distinction between what is ‘untellable’, unable to be spoken of because, as in the case of death, ‘there is absolutely nothing to say’, and the ‘ineffable’, which ‘cannot be explained because there are infinite and interminable things to be said of it’.

            Music, he argues, embodies the qualities of the ineffable: it creates a kind of enchantment that bewilders the mind and puts it at a loss for words. Of course, that music is a thing of mystery and wonder that eludes the grasp of words is a truism to which we all pay lip service. We all know that music is radically other to the words with which we approach it, and yet, in our busy professional lives, where music becomes the object of our scholarly enquiry, we work AS IF that were not so. To be sure, we may produce valuable and fascinating work — as history, criticism, theory, philosophy, or analysis. But somewhere, like a ghost in the machine, the music haunts such systems to which it remains perpetually elusive.

            Jankelevitch speaks to anyone who has once had a sense that, were we able to step off the professional merry-go-round for a few moments, all our theoretical discourses around music add up to a kind of avoidance of something more urgent, a way of holding music’s power at arm’s length, an ordering in rational networks of what might otherwise be too disturbing. He is surely right that the rush into hermeneutics of any kind (amateur or professional) expresses a kind of anxiety — a refusal of the music, a fear of allowing it to persist on its own terms, a compulsion to render it safely into the verbal.

            At the very least, when confronted with the degree to which music exceeds the ways in which we frame it, we have perhaps lapsed into despondency, surviving only by separating out our professional writing and our ‘real’ (private) experience of music. For that reason alone, his book should speak to many of us.


            In essence, the book reads as a single poetic-philosophic meditation on a single theme — the ineffability of music. As a topic this is both profound and banal at the same time, and therein lies the productive difficulty with the book. On the one hand, it tells — once again — that we cannot talk about music. More precisely, it opposes the way in which music is appropriated by analytical and discursive practices that remain always outside its substance. It does so, however, in such a compellingly beautiful and intellectually inspiring manner that it revivifies one’s capacity for both thought and feeling in relation to music. In this way, it provokes thought about music while at the same time appearing to undermine it. It thus joins a select history of great writing on music that tells us — compellingly — that there can be no great writing on music.

            The first line of Carolyn Abbate’s introduction sums up the matter nicely: “Music is no cipher; it is not awaiting the decoder”

            Music is not, argues Jankelevitch, amenable to hermeneutics. He forces us to question the discursive framework through which we attempt to speak about music and to make that HUBRISTIC claim — ‘to understand music’. He insists that all the terms with which we attempt to grasp hold of music are always and only metaphors and analogies, redrawing the lines between the ungraspable nature of music — resistant to logical schemes at every turn — and the structures in which we seek to ‘make sense’ of it. The language of music theory, whether in aesthetics or analysis, is spatial not temporal.

            In the same way, Jankelevitch argues that music is not a discourse and that the idea of development, a process of thought unfolding through time, is misplaced in relation to music. References to development are, he says, merely ‘manners of speaking, metaphors and analogies, dictated to us by our habitual discursive ways’. For Jankelevitch, there is nothing in the music ‘to be understood’ and he pours scorn on the idea that the music can be ‘followed’, as in the tracing of a succession of themes. He has no time for technical analysis, which he characterizes as a resistance to the music’s enchantment, an activity that is both ‘manically antihedonist’ and yet frivolous at the same time. It is the separation between the hermeneutic act and the music that Jankelevitch takes issue with. Thinking about music, in technical analysis or in other discursive forms, entails a separation from the music that makes the music peripheral.

            Once again musicologist Carolyn Abbate sums it up:

            “So much of what he says disturbs the comfortable state of musicology (old and new alike), an effect he achieves because he upends complacencies hard won through years of disciplinary servitude”

            His accusation that what we [musicologists] do falls short of the music should be welcomed with penitence; he voices our own, usually unspoken, anxieties. His book brings our failures home to us”


          • In my humble opinion, music does not know any limitations based on gender or anything. Music is thoughts, sparks of creativity and emotions coming to life and furthermore music is human nature. And assigning genius and/ or especially criminality to a gender (male) is a little sexistic.
            The reason for women being under-represented in music is the same why they have been under-represented in visual arts, science and other areas: Because they have been oppressed for a long time. Society did not allow women to study music (or anything else) since they had to stay home and be a housewife.

        • Rebecca34, Camille Paglia has claimed that the greatest artist of our time is George Lucas and that the greatest contemporary artwork is his movie Revenge of the Sith. She’s also an avowed anti-feminist and seems to fashion her statements more on what is likely to cause outrage than on any kind of rigorous scholarship. I wouldn’t put any stock in anything she writes.

          • She’s the philosophical world’s Ann Coulter, and no one takes her self-hating bomb-throwing seriously, except men’s rights movement fellows who want to cite a “feminist” who supports their retrograde views.

          • kris

            “Camille Paglia is an anti-feminist” is a pathetic denial of what she says because she doesnt follow the laid down dogma of the feminist movement but actually dares to think for herself. She is all for the dignity self esteem and agency of individual women rather than a placard waving robot. That makes her one of the greatest feminists.

            • Paglia continually denies the agency of women by repeatedly insisting, without any evidence beyond saying “I believe,” that women are limited by their inherently female brains and are incapable of achieving the things that men are able to with their more radical male brains. That’s a pretty weird kind of “greatest feminist.”

        • a person

          FYI we don’t have many female chess masters because the world of chess is hideously sexist (until pretty recently, unashamedly so). In fact the number is growing rapidly as women are becoming (a bit) more accepted in tournaments etc, and as the game is (a little) less regarded as a masculine pastime (in some parts of the world).

          • kris

            Women dont like chess because it is too analytical, anti-social and nerdy. They have every opportunity in the world to play the game, It is nonsense to suggest that they are still oppressed by sexism in this day and age in every field of human endeavour that they are no good at . Show us what you can do then the world will listen.

  3. matthewkennethpeterson

    ~It’s also important to point out that there are no great living women composers – saariaho, unsuk chin, guibaidulina, Higdon et al are total chumps – they can’t be Great becuz they are a) living, and b) women. Nor should their music be more widely and often performed, because as everyone knows, performing new music by living composers makes orchestras explode. If you play new music all the old patrons automatically die and orchestras names magically disappear from wills throughout the land.

    And this is good, because we haven’t heard the old dead men enough, and we definitely don’t want girls and young women to be inspired to compose, or god forbid, conduct.

    • Atrios

      I’m no music expert, but a bit more than just a casual fan. Higdon is great. Really really great. Doesn’t hurt that I see her around town occasionally. I think she likes pizza.

      Anyway, I know you weren’t claiming otherwise, just putting a plug for a contemporary woman composer who is great.

  4. hyperchord

    On a positive note, in a 2012 New Music Box article, Rob Deemer gave a list of “202 women composers to help all those ensembles, soloists, pedagogues, and organizations that may want to increase their programming of women composers” including links to all their websites. (
    He made no personal judgements about the music of those listed & as you might expect (just taking a random sample) (& applying my own faultless judgement, of course), there was a wide range from meh to magnificent. Others wrote in to add to his list.

    But mix that list with a list of 200 male composers, hide the sex of all 400 – just present the music – & my guess is that no one (neither someone with a good ear nor a critic) would be able to come close to re-sorting it by sex. Actually there is one way of testing this. There are dozens of “composition contests” (hate the term: inspiration by horse race) out there and virtually all of them require blind entries – so sex isn’t a factor. It would be interesting to gather stats from all those prize awards over, say, the past ten years to see if my “gender-neutral genius” theory is correct. (Project for New Music Box??? – are y’all listening?)

    My own recent personal experience was attending the premier of the work that won the (blind judged) 2015 composition contest at Garth Newel Music Center in Virginia – it was an ++outstanding++ piano quartet, “Silver Awakening”, by Polina Nazaykinskaya. I had never heard of her before, but I have now & can vouch that she’s a dynamite composer & I’ll be looking out for her next work!

    On the negative side, I had to look up the unnamed article to see who the gentleman (assumed) was that wrote those quotes because I have a theory about that also. I can’t absolutely prove my theory, but validations (as with the above) keep piling up. The writer was Damian Thompson who, according to his Wikipedia entry (one of the few informative sources about him on the net), read history at Oxford & got his PhD in the sociology of religion from London School of Economics. He has written three books, two on apocalyptic beliefs (the subject of his thesis) & one on “counterknowledge” such as quack medicine, bogus science & fake history (evidently leaving out a much needed chapter on current professional arts criticism). He is now editor/publisher at The Spectator. And all good for him. But…

    Nowhere do I find anything in Mr. Thompson’s background to suggest a knowledge or ability in the field of music beyond purely personal, untutored opinion. This once again validates my theory that, especially over the past twenty years or so, the only criterion for writing music criticism is an impressive talent for rattling off lists of names a la cocktail-party chatter. Demonstrated in-depth knowledge let alone insight into the subject will likely turn off any editor for a potential employer in today’s job market — & discovery of such knowledge once you’re on the job may even get you fired.

    Sorry this turned out to be so long. What can I say? — I’m retired :-)
    – Stephen Soderberg

    • Interesting thoughts, thanks so much for taking the time to share. Polina is a friend of the blog! I discussed one of her works (albeit briefly) here. She “likes” stuff on my Facebook page, too, so if you’re out there reading this Polina, say hi!

      Thanks for fleshing out the bio for us! There’s a line of thought that bullshit from people like this should just be ignored. That it’s just clickbait, and it’s been deliberately designed to draw reasonable people like you and me into getting pissed off about it, thereby scoring all those sweet sweet clicks for The Spectator, blah blah blah. And I get that. I agree, it probably is. (I watched a great Game Theorist episode on a very similar subject the other day, and discussion of it almost made the blog entry, until I realized it was too long as it was.) On the other hand, I like to have things to write about. So not linking to it seemed to be the best compromise. Thanks for filling us in on the bio. Since otherwise this whole situation is just sad, let’s just ridicule the clickbait / dumbness and enjoy doing it!

    • Lawrence de Martin

      As far as I can tell, Alan Kozinn was fired for demonstrating his knowledge in every review and Anthony Tommasini managed to keep his position by writing in code to hide the display of knowledge.

      This trend, of course, is not confined to music.

  5. I just wanted to say, I thought this blog was delightful. I told my viola-playing daughter about it too.

  6. Great post. I think the really key point – which I’ve heard very few others make in this discussion over the last few weeks – is this: that including more women “Paints a fuller picture of cultural history.”

    An A-level syllabus should not just be about providing a list of the greatest (and “greatest” on whose terms anyway? – oh, yeah, dead white guys’) but of sketching out that fuller picture. Lessons aren’t about pointing at a list and saying “good, good, really good, not so good”. Including Clara Schumann, Amy Beach, etc on the syllabus is a great way to tie in many wider questions, like the way canons are constructed, how power relates to definitions of value, the place of music within 19th/20th/21st-century societies, and so on.

    • Ta-Daa! Indeed. It’s as asinine to suggest women can’t be great composers as it would be to suggest that there’s a plethora of great women composers and they’ve just been unfairly neglected. EVERY composer outside the well-trodden, unimaginative path of greatness (hey, I listen to Bach almost every day, and Homilius only every once in a never, so I’m partly guilty) is neglected. And there’s plenty of very-goodness among it… occasionally greatness.

      But that last sentence of the original, rightly mocked article, is actually not worth mockery: “And if there are no great women composers, that’s because creative geniuses are rare and, in the past, so few women wrote music.”

      There absolutely IS a numbers game to it… and if there are, for whatever reasons (worth examining, hence Tim’s point being so valuable), only a few people of one gender in any one occupation, and only a few of them can be outstanding (for reasons of quality, perception, capacity of those who think they make the judgement et al.), there’s a very normal chance that the predominant group will feature those outstanding members. That bit is not worth our breath or even outrage. Let’s instead celebrate the very good composers that are neglected for reasons of compositorial-chromosomatical anomaly (=being female) or religio-cultural inconvenience (=gassed and not remembered for fear it would remind us of how they died and who did it) or whatever other reason. Because golly, I, too, would vastly prefer to hear the Clara Wieck concerto in concert over another Tchaikovsky first. Or some Bacewicz. Or some Braunfels, or Gernsheim, Gubaidulina, Hartmann, or Mittler, Saariaho, Weigl, Weinberg, Wilms, or Zeisl.

      • There is a fabulous boxset just out of Dutch composers who were banned during WWII which includes works from various women composers. I was reading the Gramophone review of it today (for professional purposes only, I assure you…) and Henriette Bösmans in particular is praised. Looks like it could be a good start to your proposed celebration :-)

      • Beth Garfinkel

        There have been scads of women composers–of course, there have also been scads of composers, period, who never achieved “greatness,” such as it is. I’ve compiled as comprehensive a list as I could of composers who wrote chamber music with obligato keyboard parts in the 18th century, and forty of them are women, aside from the possibles–those preserved anonymously or with only initials.

  7. Lawrence de Martin

    The first published composer was a woman, and her works are still performed and recorded (Hildegard).

    Nonetheless, I think one of the arguments is true if incomplete. There are few creative geniuses, but that is partly because you have to immerse in the art from childhood and few have the resources. In the case of women, if they are allowed lessons and do show promise throughout childhood they are suppressed as adults like Maria Anna Mozart – hence the apparent lack of female composers.

    • Or the time required to dedicate to one’s art is simply so restricted by other concerns – in the past, things like “getting a husband” and then, if you got one, keeping house and bringing up children – that one doesn’t have the time required to dedicate to a large scale creative project. In the past, men were permitted to spend large amounts of time working in this concentrated manner, as they were expected to work for a living etc., but a woman’s time, then and now, has always been so restricted by societal expectations (and at all levels of society) that it would have been very hard for the daughter of unsympathetic parents to dedicate herself to composition for long stretches, and impossible for her to live independently and work as a man could. Greatness in the creative arts is not just a matter of innate talent but also of steely determination, time to work and concentrate on one’s art, and a certain amount of luck/opportunity. Any number of women may well have had the first, but missed out on any or all of the others…

      • Yes. Also all the…………biology. With no birth control. And all the health problems that come for so many women if they don’t have access to birth control, or are dealing with the effects of ten, fifteen pregnancies in a lifetime. I mean……..damn. That’s a bit of a time commitment there. It’s amazing to me that we have as many fabulous women composers as we do, given the barriers to entry!

  8. Tegemea

    This is a wonderful piece – important issues and a good read. I question you on a singular, but I feel, valid, point:

    What’s wrong with Lalo? I really like playing the D Minor Cello Concerto. I think its neato.

  9. PlanetPlangentPlantagenet

    There’s an anthology called _The Gender of Modernism_ that was published in 1990, which is full writings by “modern” (meaning British and American writers of the early 20th centuries such as Djuna Barnes and Marianne Moore) authors. I can’t remember who write this or the exact title, but there’s an essay with a title like “Why Women Have Not Succeeded in the Arts”, which implies that women artists in general have not succeeded because other women will not leave them alone to work. I was very impressed by this argument, until I discovered that to a greater degree what happened was that oftentimes, women _have_ succeeded in all sorts of enterprises, including science, and that the fact has been suppressed. For example, I was able to find thirty-nine women who had published chamber music including obligato keyboard parts in the eighteenth century alone–granted, a small subset of all the composers in that genre alone, but probably more than anyone would have thought.

  10. Byron adams

    I was fortunate to see and hear the wonderful production of Dame Ethel Smyth’s “The Wreckers” this past summer at the Bard Music Festival–indeed, I attended two performances. My conclusion is that it is a thrilling, noble score, not just beautifully crafted but inspired. It is just as good as many operas in the standard repertory, and far better than some. Also, the name of the great Lili Boulanger must be invoked, as should Elizabeth Maconchy, whose opera “The Sofa” is a comic masterpiece–the list could go on, including the brilliant string quartet by Reena Esmail that I heard last weekend!

  11. Steven Ledbetter

    I loved your deliciously facetious blog, which hits so many good points. I had lost track of Song of the Lark after the Minnesota Orchestra started playing again. So happy to see that you are still writing vivid, informative, witty, and interesting stuff! And let’s hear it for more fine women composers. There are more of them all the time!

  12. Minni Ninni Linni

    Wasn’t there some scholarship that suggested that some works previously believed to be Robert Schumann’s were actually Clara’s? What I recall reading was that female composers sometimes published under their husbands’ names (because of sexism or name recognition). I don’t remember where I read it, so if anyone could find it, that’d be grand. It would also really reveal some biases if it turns out a beloved piece by a male composer was actually written by his wife. Would analyses suddenly change? “It turns out this piece was secretly trash all along. Who knew?”

    • Yeah. This sort of happened lately with the Anna Magdalena Bach kerfuffle. Google “Anna Magdalena Bach cello suites” and behold the controversy. I think they are J.S. Bach’s and not Anna’s. But just the sheer….ANGER of lots of people at the very suggestion that his wife had penned them… It was all a little unnerving. If someone had suggested that Bach’s SON had written them, the outcry would have been much quieter.

  13. Liane Curtis

    Emily, what a great response to such an annoying article — your readers might like to know about the resources we have on our webpages at AND please urge your favorite orchestras to apply for our performance grants (applications due Oct. 15)

  14. I’m just going to say that I was composing whole musicals and concertos at the age of 13 and gave up because I saw more female role-models in *science* than in music composition (I’m now trying to work in cognitive neuroscience). I’m sure I wouldn’t have been a ‘great’, had I stuck at music, but it says something about the chances of great women composers becoming recognised as a ‘great’ that I felt that female role-models in science were more abundantly available.

    • Yep. When I was in my early teens, I had the idea I wanted to become a conductor. But before I told my family, I had to check Google to see if women could even be conductors because I’d never seen any and I didn’t know if there was some secret rule against them or what. This would have been around 2002 or 2003. Same thing with me; I wouldn’t have been a great conductor. Probably not even a good one. But that doesn’t matter because if I had issues knowing, then that probably means other more gifted girls had issues knowing, too, and we’ve lost them now to things like science or writing or performing or who knows what else.

  15. Charles Ghisalberti

    “As we all know, that’s how 8,763 Americans managed to impeach Barack Obama.”
    We wish. He is the worst president ever, and should be in prison. We know NOTHING about him.

  16. And indeed, Clara’s music sucks. It is very very weak.

  17. Heidi

    That was awesome. I gave a senior lecture recital (waaaay back in 1999) on the piano etudes of Grazyna Bacewicz.

    I chose her specifically because women were/are underrepresented and no one had ever heard of her. She has quite an oeuvre, a lot of which is very good.

    I also did a master class with Pauline Oliveros in college once, which was really, really cool.

  18. Brava! You’re doing the Lord’s work.

  19. Great article. So funny! I have boobs too, so just reading your words taxed my poor female brain to the limit. I especially loved your comment on My family is extremely musical too and I once calculated out how much my parents had spent on my piano, violin and vocal education. It was well into six figures. My father, although he appreciates music very much, has no real ability himself. He claims he gave it all to my sister and me, which is why he no longer has any. Extremely shrewd observations and I congratulate you on having the guts to tell it like it is.

  20. skrylcomputers

    Great post

  21. Great piece! Also, weren’t there many instances of women’s compositions being passed off as the work of a male relative? Brother or husband?

    • Someone else asked that question upthread here and I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know enough about that very specific part of women’s musical history to be able to give an informed opinion. I’ve heard stories about it but I can’t cite specific examples and I wonder how much of it is true and how much of it is an “old wives’ tale”, so to speak. If any experts here would chime in, I’d be deeply appreciative! DEFINITELY something to research!! (Should that be an upcoming blog project? :) ) I’m pretty sure it happened with Fanny Mendelssohn, though.

      • Steven Ledbetter

        I’m rereading this thread months after the first time (definitely worth reading more than once!), and I came upon this question about women’s music being “passed off” as having been written by men. An excellent example is Fanny Mendelssohn. Her family greatly encouraged her composing, but thought it “unladylike” to push herself forward by means of publication, at least before her marriage. (Virginal female composers are SO easily ruined, don’t you know?) In any case, some of her songs were published in a collection mostly by Felix, with no indication that they were not his. When Felix had an audience with Queen Victoria, she gushed about he favorite Mendelssohn songs, and he had to confess (good for him!) that her very favorite song had been written by his sister.

        • Alex

          The role of women has varied accordingly. Women have been represented among great writers virtually from the beginning of literature, in East Asia and South Asia as well as in the West. Women have produced a smaller number of important visual artists, and none that is clearly in the first rank.

          But no female composer is EVEN CLOSE to the first rank.

  22. tabbyrenelle

    Okay yeah, music is mathematical and the geniuses were young and there is a cream of the crop hierarchy… but Bach is not just well crafted. That’s kind bullsh*t. Depending who plays him and what piece, Bach is not boring… his cello suites are far more simplistic than the showy Beethoven, but they are not boring. They are seductive and moody and you can go inside of them.

    It’s all subjective. Fortunately.

    Women were never given the room or space or the voice or the time to compete or be discovered so we’ll never have our real history. We weren’t allowed in.

    This might seem an aside, but I think Emily Dickinson is overrated as a poet. But she will forever remain the female candle we are held to. She is a “clever” poet. And clever is an insult. So I hear you on the petition-jury for getting our historic role-models selected and inserted or elevated as not the best way to judge. It should be based on the actual merits of the music, not just a “representation” to have one.

    Do you listen and critique jazz too? If so what do you think of Alice Coltrane’s compositions compared to her husband John’s? I think Alice is an equal contender.

    • I unfortunately don’t have a great knowledge of jazz, but I’m excited to learn more about it as I grow older and expand my horizons. I just picked up a really fabulous 2-CD set at (of all places) Savers…it’s recordings of women jazz musicians, dating from the 1920s on. It’s amazing.

      • tabbyrenelle

        Thanks for your reply Song of the Lark… Kudos on the Savers collection! My “crash course to Jazz” was years ago when the Ken Burns 9 part (I think it was 9 parts/hours long) Jazz Documentary came out. It was well worth watching and I was hardcore about it and just watched them back to back. It’s a good place to start and then it would be interesting to see how you’d expand on the female representation in music…

        Not to harp on the Bach, but if you haven’t listened to the Pierre Fournier cello suites by Bach, that’s the absolute best!

        Thanks for an interesting blog post and your time.

  23. autumnpagni

    This is a really rude post! I am a girl and I am a major in Music and I play 10 instruments! You are the meanest person on earth! Men and Women are all equal. If it weren’t for women you would have never been born. BURN! So watch out! If you say another mean thing about women then you might die.

  24. autumnpagni

    Also the reason why you think that women are not great music people is because a lot of men take the credit.

  25. Lol. Brilliant presentation of truth.

    Thanks for being here.

  26. girlunoccupied

    It’s like the bias against female comedians. People have already convinced themselves that women are no good at it so they only hear with their prejudice and do not truly listen.

  27. I think your premise (despite being whimsical) is wrong. There are no great women composers simply because there have been no great women critics. Nor have there been very many female DJs, for that matter. I wonder how many female curators garnered the attention of wealthy patrons. I believe this to be more of a media issue. There may have been a veritable coven of talented women (from Lesbos and Amazonia and Delphi and Salem etc.) whose art was destroyed out of spite or jealousy or sport. Wasn’t there a music section at Alexandria? That might explain…
    Now I’d tell you to get back in the kitchen, but with you it is undoubtedly a subject of class, not one of gender. But seriously, where did you leave your needlepoint… and get back to it. Leave the writing and dissemination (dissemination, get it?) of that which is great to the penised. Only we can be judges because we are the psychopaths who get off on control. Music was the closest thing to porn in the old days; no wonder you were all nothing but performers. We know what we like!

    • I’ve actually been thinking about really researching the history of women in music journalism and music criticism. Do you know if anyone else has? It seems like a way obvious topic that we never hear anything about…

      • Good point. I don’t think there is much on this topic and I’d love to know more.
        Peggy Glanville-Hicks would be a good place to start, an Australian composer and music critic who wrote for the New York Herald Tribune and Grove Dictionary in the 1940s and 50s. She features in Women of Note, my book on Australian women composers.
        Thanks for your great article, I’ve shared it among my networks in Australia :-)

      • If you ever do any research, I’d love to read your findings. When I was taking Music History in College, I seem to remember there’s a book about female composers but drat if I can remember the title.

  28. I wonder if sounding like your husband is a compliment or insult :)

  29. Ahsen

    Women can do everything! Here in the Indian subcontinent, there are a number of legendary musicians and composers who were women. The history of art, no doubt, is shadowed by male. Even in studio arts; more male painters and fewer female ones. They just don’t get highlighted. Pity.

  30. Great read! I loved the sarcasm and snark that you use to help open other people’s eyes/ears to the disparity in assessment of female composers. I would be happy to see more of this in the classical music world. People should be called out on their assholishness and snobbery. Look forward to reading more from you.

  31. A few months ago, I decided I wanted to be a composer (amongst other things), and shortly after, I wrote my first song, and God gave me the tune.

    The very next day, I had a full on symphony playing in my head. I have a friend who’s going to help me write it out. I’m excited for that!

    I hope it turns out to be a great and first of many. When it’s finished, I’ll get your review. 😊

  32. It was a compliment, but upon re-reading, it may have been overly (or overtly) snarky.
    As far as women in music goes, this is a good start.

  33. is a more modern list, and not as useful but a good reference nonetheless.

  34. Oh, and about women comedians, this is the end of the conversation:

  35. decoratiuni3d

    Nice article !!! :)

  36. A second thought for Adrienne: I guess it depends on the kind of man your husband is.
    I also think the first link shows that my initial comment hit the nail right between the eyes [sic.] There has been no lack of female talent, musically speaking, but how come most of us haven’t ever heard of these giants of composition? Critics’ censorship and suppression of information on the part of those who control the media: misogynistic men who want to control or eliminate any female talent through subterfuge. This makes them appear to be the only reference worth considering by comparison. The same can be seen in modern times with regard to neo-cons [et alii.] I write a lot about this topic on my blog: atokenman blog … (please forgive me this shameless pandering ;)

  37. I’m just saying they are plenty of women composers but it doesn’t help men are usually the ones to say that women can’t do it but they let any male to do it, I think most people are judged because they are women and that’s why there are not many in the world but look at them all it just like with musicians they have to have blind additions so they can’t judge by if it’s male or female. That’s all I have to say

  38. CB

    This was fun. It occurred to me that one might make the same argument that there are no great Jewish composers, if we look at the centuries before this one, and for similar reasons, I suspect. Yet just as there has been an explosion of ambitious, innovative and sea-changing writers of Semitic heritage ever since Mahler, we can name 20 or 30 or more 20th-century female composers who just might one day be declared “great.” Opportunity and inclusion. Period. Either help or get out of the way.

    • There are more Jewish composers than is generally known. Salomone Rossi in the early baroque, the Marcello brothers in the high baroque, Jadassohn in the middle romantic, Anton Rubinstein in the high romantic, etc.

  39. Hmmm..our ears probably have been trained for the past few centuries to listen to certain Western music composed by men. Most likely there might be a different aesthetic if there were a few brilliant women composers of their times.

    Art demands supported love of the artist in their daily personal lives. Utter total dedication to allow Muse to be cajoled for art.

  40. hyperchord

    Congratulations, Emily! — I just noticed this post got a listing in Arts Journal News. (

    I can’t let this conversation die without uttering three words before I go. For some strange reason, no one has uttered them here, let alone in ‘that article’:

    Ruth Crawford Seeger.

    Even an excellent composer(-cum-misogynist) like Charles Ives was brought to his knees by her 1931 string quartet. But triumph developed into tragedy & we are the poorer for it.

    — Steve Soderberg

    • Let’s also not forget Rebecca Clarke, who composed what is probably the best viola sonata in the “impressionist” style. That statement may not clearly state the sonata’s merit, since, being written for viola, it’s also probably the only one written in that style. Perhaps saying that I think it is one of the best viola sonatas from the 20th century which I have ever heard (including Shostakovich’s) does her more justice. Her story as a composer illustrates why “there are no great women composers” in music history – or at least some that most people have heard of.

      A short, lyrical piece for viola and piano by Clarke entitled Morpheus, composed under the pseudonym of “Anthony Trent”, was premiered at a 1918 recital of her chamber music in New York City. Reviewers praised the “Trent” piece, largely ignoring the works credited to Clarke premiered in the same recital.

      The viola sonata was created for a 1919 competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Clarke’s neighbor and subsequently a famous patron of the arts. Out of 72 entries, Clarke’s Sonata tied for first with a piece by Ernest Bloch. In the end Bloch was declared the winner, despite all the judges favoring Clarke – it was decided that declaring Clarke the winner would smack of favoritism on Coolidge’s part. It was also suspected by some that the name “Rebecca Clarke” was a pen-name of a male composer, as few imagined the possibility of a competent female writing such music (Comedy of Errors, anyone?). Ironically, the winning piece submitted by Bloch was his Suite for Viola and Piano. Since both Clarke’s and Bloch’s pieces are easily found on YouTube and the scores of both are available for download on IMSLP anyone can compare the two and form their own opinions as to their relative merit and whether the best – *ahem* – man won the competition.

      After her marriage in 1944, she stopped composing and performing. Not because of social conventions or a Mahlerian demand from her husband that she stop composing and playing around to become a respectable wife. On the contrary; by all accounts her husband – a composer and founding member of the Juilliard School – encouraged her to compose and perform. Sadly, by then she suffered from dysthymia, a chronic form of depression; the lack of encouragement – sometimes outright discouragement – she received for her work earlier in her life made her reluctant to compose and perform.

      She passed away in NYC in 1979 at the age of 93, not having composed anything noteworthy (no pun intended) after 1923 and nothing at all after 1944.

      • YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. I’m a violist, so I’ve studied the Clarke. One of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received was a book of her short pieces for piano and viola, which I’ve returned to again and again. One untitled piece in particular appears to be the forerunner to Morpheus. And I’m obsessed with the Clarke sonata. If I had to choose five composers to listen to for the rest of my life, they would probably be Bach, Beethoven, Faure, Ravel, and Clarke. Maybe they’re not necessarily the best, but they’re the ones I just get out-of-my-mind excited about every single time I hear them. I have a draft for a blog entry that looks a bit at the manuscript version of her viola sonata (FASCINATING). I should probably polish that and post it!

        Anyway, in Internet parlance….

        tl;dr: CLARKE IS AMAZING.

      • I love the Clarke sonata- I think it is a work of genius.
        I did always wonder why she hadn’t written more music- reading your post made me rather sad!
        Thanks for your comment

  41. My little contribution to this very interesting discussion is that I think we fetishize “great” composers way too much in classical music. Meaning that we both create imaginary criteria to separate greatness from goodness, and that we mark an unnatural separation between great musicianship in general and great composition, which ends up warping the way we discuss history and repertory.

    To be a great composer you first have to be a great musician — not necessarily a great instrumentalist, but a well-trained, super-creative musician. And no one will deny that there have always been an abundance of great women musicians throughout history. Take away the barriers to women composers being heard and published on an equal footing with men and some of them would have turned into “great” composers, which we can prove by the completely predictable success of women composers in contemporary music.

    Same thing goes for conducting, BTW — It’s a specific extension of musicianship, not a separate, exalted calling that a great, female musician would be incapable of. As we can see now that women are being allowed to do it.

    If we dial back the worship of great composers, we can better account for someone like Nadia Boulanger, one of the towering figures in 20th-century classical music, almost anyone would agree. While she chose not to focus on writing the mature works that might have raised her to the exalted rank of “great composer,” only a truly great musician could have had her success teaching hundreds of composers and instrumentalists. Boulanger might not have had such a broad and important impact on music, had she continued her composing/ conducting career with the single-minded determination with which she began it.

  42. Londonsea


    “To be a great composer you first have to be a great musician”

    To produce finely etched music demands a great ear, a large heart, a rich and deep personality

  43. Full disclosure: I’m male. OK, now that I’ve gotten that curse off my chest, I can proceed with commenting on this blog entry.

    Like the author of his article, I have been privileged with an education and life rich in music of the best kind. Also, like the author, I’m an “unknown composers” music nerd. For this reason, I know the names and often the music of more women composers (I know, it’s an oxymoron) than most music professionals (I dare make this statement because when I ask them about various women composers, they’ve usually never heard of them).

    Frankly, someone making as stupid a statement as “in the past, so few women wrote music,” as Damian Thompson does in his article, immediately shows that the author is completely clueless about the subject he’s writing about. Had Mr. Thompson bothered to just do a simple Wikipedia search for “Women Composers” He would have found literally hundreds of names listed along with bios, evaluations and scores. If he had any interest in the subject he was writing about and less in his personal “opinions,” he might have done a bit of research – in Wikipedia at least fer chrissakes! – to produce an article that was slightly less puerile (I briefly considered using the word “juvenile,” but Mr. Thompson IS a man, so I accord him the respect of his gender).

    Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, mentioned at length by Mr. Thompson, are known even by people with fairly limited knowledge of classical music – a category which Mr. Thompson clearly belongs to – because they’re hard to miss when you read a book about “The” Schumann and “The” Mendelssohn in books and program notes. I’ve had CDs of their chamber music and songs for years. Amy Beach is probably a stretch for people with sketchy knowledge of composers other than the “3 great Bs.” I didn’t about her or her music until Naxos issued CDs of her Piano Concerto and her songs, but living in the US, you eventually come across her name one way or the other.

    However, I must take my hat off to Mr. Thompson’s encyclopedic knowledge of music history when he mentions Ethel Smyth, Elizabeth Maconchy, Thea Musgrave and Judith Weir. Those are not names one comes across when reading The Mail on Sunday or the Washington Post. Perhaps Mr. Thompson came across their names when sitting in a psychiatrist’s waiting room and erroneously picking up The Atlantic when the thought he was picking up The National Review. Oh… wait… aren’t all of those “female” composers from the UK? I think I understand now; it’s the “Amy Beach Syndrome.” There are just some names of female composers one can’t avoid even if one wants to since they’re part of the national cultural dialogue. My bad.

    Perhaps Mr. Thompson will appreciate that Sappho was held in such high esteem by her contemporaries and posterity that her works were not only entered into the Library in Alexandria in toto, but that Cicero recorded that her statue was in the main assembly hall in Syracuse, Sicily, then one of the largest and most important ports on the Mediterranean coast. “But she was a poet and there ARE some female poets who weren’t half bad” Mr. Thompson might retort. Yes, but in Sappho’s day poetry was sung or declaimed to musical accompaniment by the poet. Probably not too differently than the poetry and music of the troubadours, like Maria de Ventadorn, one of the most famous of female troubadours in her day, would have done. Unfortunately, almost nothing of her output has survived, but ironically the only text of hers to be preserved is a single tensó or poetic debate (dated c. 1197). The question at issue in the debate was this: once a man has succeeded in his plea to be accepted as a lady’s lover, does he thereafter become her equal, or does he remain her servant? Maria takes the latter view. Clearly, she knew how to state the true value of a woman’s worth in both poetry and music.

    As much as I enjoy an exercise in sarcastic writing, I suppose I must return to a more prosaic style to get my point across. Being a baroque music buff, I have just about every CD in existence of Barbara Strozzi’s compositions. The quality of her music shows that she studied with Cavalli, and quite possibly Monteverdi, too, with excellent results. Her cantatas for solo voice are among the finest written in the mid-17th century by any composer. Her Opus 1 Madrigals (the composition “diploma” requirement instituted by the Gabrielis in Venice in the late 16th century) don’t trail Schutz’s Op. 1, and Schutz’s works are not bad Italian madrigals by half. Whether they can stand comparison with Monteverdi’s Op. 1 can be debated, I suppose, but if someone thinks they fall short, I’d say no shorter than the difference between winning and losing Super Bowl XLIX (did I mention I’m an American Football buff as well…?).

    Another personal favorite of mine is a bit more recent: Grażyna Bacewicz. While not overly well-known outside of Poland, one can argue that she was the last of the great composer-soloists of both the violin. Her violin concerti nos. 2-7 are remarkably fine, as are her two cello concerti, her works for symphony and string orchestra, 8 string quartets and many pieces for violin and piano and piano alone. I wouldn’t rank her behind Shostakovich, or Prokofiev and Stravinsky in their “classical’ modes (though of course their masterpieces would be difficult for any composer to equal). Her late atonal and serial style is a worthy competitor to Lutoslawski and Penderecki’s output in the 1940s to 60s. Certainly, her work is superior to other, more famous, male composers who were her contemporaries, like, e.g., Hindemith. Comparative analysis of composers is a tricky business, however, so I won’t stick my neck out too far.

    I’ll limit myself to just these two extended examples, though I’d like to give Nadia Boulanger and Vítězslava Kaprálová honorable mention; had they not died so young, they, too, could easily have rivaled the male composers of their time. And Hildegard von Bingen must undoubtedly be counted as the greatest composer in the monophonic style, though I usually don’t pick up the phone if anyone from outside the Nostre Dame School area code shows up on caller ID. There are, of course, many more worth of mention even with the limited access that we have to recordings or scores of their music. Once more of the compositions of women composers from the baroque, classical and romantic eras becomes available, we will surely have to revise our take on males in music history. If anyone is curious, they can at least look up the list in Wikipedia for starters.

    I’ll admit that the Second Viennese-Darmstadt-(and after)-style composers mostly aren’t my cup of tea. I’m not a fan of Gubaidulina, Higdon, Saariaho, Monk et al., but that’s just a matter of personal taste. Others can evaluate their importance among contemporary composers better than me. I will say – scant praise that it may be – that they don’t sound any more offensive to my ears than their male colleagues. This statement may place me alongside Mr. Thompson’s in respectability rating, but, like him, I will not renege on my right to write something that may seem extremely stupid to some. I will not betray the male sex entirely!

    Wasting too much indignation and ire on Mr. Thompson’s ill-informed scribbling would be to give his article far too much weight. It should be treated in much the same way as presidential candidate Ben Carson’s statement “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation, I absolutely would not agree with that.” Worth a good laugh if it weren’t so pathetically bigoted, the punishment lies within the words.

    • Thanks so much for this wide-ranging and entertaining comment.

    • could you please tell me what the “3 great Bs” are ??

      • Alex

        Hi sanaya,

        “Could you please tell me what the “3 great Bs” are ??”

        The 3 great B’s are Berg, Boulez and Birtwistle.

      • Sam

        Not what Sanaya, but who.

        Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. :)

      • Sam

        (Sorry if this is a double post, but I wasn’t sure if my original reply made it through, so I did this one too.)

        Not what Sanaya but rather, who. The “Three B’s” are Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Hope this clears it up a bit. :)

      • PlanetPlangentPlantagenet

        Since “Bs” is often a euphemism for “bitches” and we are talking about women composers, how about Anne Louise Brillon de Jouy, Juliane Benda, and Cecilia Maria Barthélemon, whose concert arias are the equal of Mozart’s?

        Alternatively, there’s also Byrd, Billings, and Balbastre.

        [The expected answer is “Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.”]

  44. Your piece elighted, inspired and enriched me – thank you!

  45. Sorry for the type. I meant
    “Your piece delighted, inspired and enriched me – thank you!”

  46. Sorry again, I meant “typo”!

  47. thepighasacurlytail

    I imagine if it were “her”-story instead of “his”-tory, the world would know of more accomplished female composers.

  48. craignicol

    And here was me thinking the reason there aren’t more famous female composers was because, for a big part of history, many women were excluded, although some managed to publish under their husband’s name. Which sucks but it’s one way to play the system.

  49. reinertorheit

    How old are you? Eleven?


  50. Sarah Belham

    Emily, did you not read the 1989 Spectator article proving that Bruckner was a girl? Now what? Her 10th was to be called the “Fuckwipe” Symphony (“Fickwisch”) so you know more than you are letting on!

  51. The whole thing comes down to chance and circumstance…and history ain’t over. The mere fact that the greatest violinists, pianists, et al recording and working the circuit today are women should tell you something.

    • Sam

      I think it comes down to simply what paying audiences want to hear and how teachers and critics influence that, more so than chance and circumstance.

      The reason there is an interest now in women in anything, not just the more conservative areas of the arts, is that more women can afford to pay for and attend on their own the types art being done by women artists.

      Pop music reflects that, if classical music itself has not quite yet.

      • PlanetPlangentPlantagenet

        There is a collection of essays by Erica Jong called “What Women Want,” and in one of them, she points out that she and her contemporaries were pretty much the first generation of women who did not have to choose between writing and motherhood, if not marriage, Harriet Beecher Stowe aside. I suspect that that also applies to music.

        • Sam

          My great grandmother (born in 1906 and married in the twenties) worked full time and raised a family with two daughters. Both her daughters went on to become college educated (one became an R.N. the other (my grandmother) got a business degree and started and ran her own (all women) business up until she retired in the nineties). My great grandmother’s granddaughters (to include my mom) were all college educated and all of them raised families.

          So I bristle a bit at the idea that it is an either/or choice, either you have a career or kids.

          Having said that, raising a family is certainly equal to a full time job (and then some) and it takes an extra special person to fulfill familial obligations and go on to have a career (and especially so, a demanding one). There’s no doubt it has limitted a great deal many women who didn’t have the opportunities a support my mother, grandmother, and ggrandma did.

  52. Reblogged this on Nina's Soap Bubble Box and commented:
    It’s like Christopher Hitchen saying women are not funny – and then listing various types of women as exceptions to the not funny rule as if women is what is left after all descriptors are removed. they are just perspectives that inform the female experience

    which continues to be to work twice as hard for half the recognition

    • Hitch did not say women weren’t funny – he did allude to them not listening, though, *ahem* ;) but I digress – he said they didn’t need to be funny, from a biological (read: reproductive) sense. Men need to be funny because we don’t pick our mates. Women do the choosing, and so can afford not to be funny and still get laid. In the same way as men have always written songs and poetry in order to woo women, women never had a need to do such things, even if some had the desire to do so. For the same reason women can’t throw a ball or play pool, if you practice something, you get good at it, if you don’t need to do something, you probably won’t. Some women can do these things very well, but they probably had brothers, and they are the exception. Men aren’t very good at knitting. Those who have practiced, though, are just as good as any woman; I think the same can be said about music or anything else for that matter.

      • PlanetPlangentPlantagenet

        Ever heard of a dude named Kaffe Fasset? He’s big in knitting circles.

        • No, I haven’t. But I wrote,
          “Men aren’t very good at knitting. Those who have practiced, though, are just as good as any woman…”
          Now, name another man who knits. Go ahead, I dare ya’ (no Googlin’.)

          • I just have to jump in here cuz my amazing reader Dave Assemany, one of the founders of Save Our Symphony in Detroit, knit me a golden shawl and mailed it to me. I love it and cried when I got it because it was so gorgeous. OK, just had to throw my personal experience in there, haha. Carry on –

            • :O
              Ok, ok, needlepoint then.
              I bet it’s lovely!

              • PlanetPlangentPlantagenet

                The fun part is that a lot of this is not subject to proof. For example, my father did needlepoint, but since I have no intention of putting his name here, you’ll have to take that on faith.

                For another famous needlepointing man, I submit Rosey Grier, perhaps best known today for singing “It’s All Right to Cry” in the movie “Free to Be You and Me,” but also a football star from way back

          • Sailors on the old sailing ships plying the Europe-Asia routes were often accomplished knitters. They knit goods that they could trade at the outbound ports for goods they could sell when they got back home.

            • There’s an old addage in Scandinavia:
              When boats were made of wood, the men had to be made of steel. Now that boats are made of steel, the men are made of wood.
              So I guess ‘real men’ do knit, after all.
              Thanks for setting me straight.
              (It doesn’t change the above argument, though. We are, as a gender, out of knitting practice, for the most part.)

          • PlanetPlangentPlantagenet

            In past centuries, most men who had jobs in which they had a lot of free time knit–that’s how they got their stockings, after all.

            And it’s a little disingenuous to say “same reason women can’t throw a ball or play pool,” and then admit that there _are_ women who can do these things. I’m not a fitness freak myself, but I have any number of friends who advocate “—- like a girl,” whether that’s lift, fight, throw, or whatever–the idea is to do those things well, including putting the effort into learning how.

      • the purpose of humour is to cope with life (especially when one isn’t getting laid lol), so Hitchen’s premise was flawed to connect it primarily to mating. I was glad to discover him, he was the first person I heard of who also thought of Mother Teresa as evil.

        • I don’t disagree (even though when I’m not getting laid, I don’t usually feel like laughing lol,) but life CAN be dealt with without humour, whereas there is no life without reproduction. I think his emphasis was on the primacy of the matter (he wasn’t a very sexy debater – probably a master, though.)
          She was quite the little troll, eh!

  53. Great article. I minored in music in college, and was always a bit irritated in the lack of female representation in the canon. That’s history in general for you–written and compiled by European white men. So I took a History of Women in Music course. And that bothered me–that I had to take a separate course just to learn about female composers. Like the world “composer” is default male, so “female” must be placed before it in order to make the specification. It irks me almost as much as cartoon characters who get a pink bow slapped on their heads and suddenly they’re female. Anyway, we raised the issue in class about whether there should be History of Women in Music classes at all, because while it is creating awareness of the forgotten geniuses, it is still serving to separate male from female, the default from the “special cases”. But since women’s history is so lacking in regular classrooms, I felt it was necessary to have women’s history specific courses to “catch up” to the male-dominated history we know well. Eventually, when women’s history is finally taken seriously and isn’t just a side subject you can take in college for funsies, we can merge the two histories into one.

  54. well, Mary Lou Williams was a great composer. You can look it up.

  55. Thank you for this witty, angry post–it left me feeling angry and empowered! Until world-class universities and conservatories really opened up to women in the last 100 years or so, most of our female artists, scientists, and athletes came from families who were already established in the field. After all, how else were women supposed to find a decent teacher? Geniuses need teachers. Hell, even Mozart wasn’t self-taught. Virginia Woolf’s essay, “A Room of One’s Own” is all about the litany of challenges any woman seeking to enter the arts faced until the 1960s and 1970s when women decided they were done with this shit. The claims of anyone saying “Women can’t” is hogwash shored up complete ignorance of our cultural history. Thank you for calling this out and skewering it.

  56. A great resource for women in classical music studies is Das Sophie Drinker Institut in Germany. If you can’t read German, use Google Translate; it’s good enough to produce decent translations of the webpages. The website is:

  57. Reblogged this on realpriska's blog and commented:
    I enjoyed this article. I hope you do too :)

  58. Dear Song of a Lark,
    Thank you for your protest.
    It is more than a little surprising that well into the 21st Century a widely read publication like the Spectator would still publish an article on the basic inferiority of women. That a lack of success means a lack of talent in an area to which women have had little access in the past, and to which they still have very limited access, seems both naive and ill-informed.
    The Fondazione Donne in Musica, an international organization founded in 1978 to counter just such notions, has a network of “Women in Music organizations” and individual composers, performers, teachers, researchers and musicologists in 111 countries – there are more than 27000 participants in this network which has been recognised by UNESCO and by the EUC. We are always available to provide information about women in music, especially to writers who are lay people in the area they are presuming to judge. Unfortunately, we are not often contacted by such writers. In this short space, we cannot hope to provide the names and information about many great women composers of the past and present. Should the Spectator ever wish to publish a more informed article about music by women, we suggest they contact us.
    Patricia Adkins Chiti
    Fondazione Adkins Chiti: Donne in Musica
    PS We researched and published with the European Parliament the book “Key changes for women in music and the performing arts” (2014) which exposes how EU legislation should be helping women as composers and songwriters, and what they are really up against: recent statistics from French Culture Ministry confirm that notwithstanding the high numbers of contemporary women composers less than 3% of their work is presented by institutions receiving public money and directed for 98% of the time by men). Together with E:C:S:A (European Composer & Songwriter Alliance) have presented a recommendation to the European Commission (July 2015) “Recommendation on the Status of composers, songwriters, authors and creators of every form of music regarding the current lack of recognition of their role in culture and society and the discrimination, coercion, lack of equal opportunities and transparency in decision making processes to which they are subjected”. A large section of our Recommendation is dedicated to lack of transparency in decision making where women are concerned.

  59. I really love how debatable this is and how it’s an untouched topic broadly if thought of. Love the debate in the post and comments😊

  60. This reminds me of the crap going around a few years ago about how women can’t be funny. I believe Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay on it that got everyone talking, but it is an old idea.

    I suppose if women manage to do well in objectively comparable fields, there’s always incredibly subjective ones where they can still be considered inferior.

  61. This is brilliantly written.

  62. I do not care for who or what gender the composer is i can only agree with half of this since i love different types of music and with that sample song you posted it was actually okay. The thing that I agree with you is the defense that was used to change the A-level music syllabus of the Edexcel exam board. Music is not about gender, its about sound. when a song is put into a book to learn its done not because the composer was famous but because it is rich in theory. To learn music you need to learn theory. When they choose a song they look at, how advance is it, how is its dynamics, pitch, duration, rhythm, and tempo. who cares about the composer? when you think music who is realy the role model, the composer, or his music? When your learning music you learn from the song and not the composers gender, life, and past. The composer may have been inspired by something in that persons life to write that song but the fact remains that no matter how hard you try you are not that composer and chances are you wont be inspired by the same thing to write music. we learn music from theory of music we get inspired by ourselves. this is what i believe there are good women composers but the women composers added to that were for the wrong reasons. We learn songs to learn from them not there composers. I have never once cared about who wrote the song only about the song themselves ive learned songs from even japan that sound amazing and never once learned who wrote it or gave a care about it. yet i learned from that song. I dont need to know who composed it i need to know how it is played. Dynamics, pitch, duration, rhythm, and tempo, theory is what music is composer is just the person who knows how to use them and makes music.

  63. William C Wesley

    The field of classical music is one of the last holdovers where racism sexism nationalism and ancestor worship are still allowed. Its ironic since almost nothing about classical music as practiced today is as it was practiced in the past. Improvisation was a big part of it but is now no longer something “classical” musicians can do, the tuning of instruments was often just intonation or mean tone or well tempered (a combination of just and mean tone) and not 12 equal as it is now.The symphony was about 1/5th its current unwieldy obese size, more like a large but trim chamber orchestra. Instruments were constructed differently, they had better tone but less amplitude, strings were made of sheep gut, a much more organic sound.Classical was performed in flammable wooden concert halls with large deep pits dug beneath wooden stage floors in order to resonate even the lowest bass notes not in concrete monstrosities with terrible acoustics and microphones for resonators. Most of all Composers and performers pushed the boundaries of thier art and their craft, they didn’t fight against those boundaries. Racism, sexism religious intolerance and nationalism were cornerstones of the state and culture and the elite rule of royal blood made a kind of eugenic tyranny the norm. Classical music still represents the absolute authority of a racist sexist religiously intolerant “nationalistic” (western cultural) elite. Too bad so much good music is put to such bad ends by so many unenlightened people.

  64. I liked this so much. SO MUCH.

    It combined my love of writing and music with my annoyance at penised people constantly making judgements that those of us without suck at everything except making sandwiches.

  65. jsoleary

    Women performers are just as numerous as male ones. Women conductors and composers are catching up. Ranting about oppression sheds no light on the gap between the galaxy of great female writers and the lack (up to recently at least) of great female composers.

  66. jsoleary

    Why does no one mention living women composers such as Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Judith Weir (both of whom I have just discovered)?

  67. AMEN! Actually some of my favourite composers are women – Barbara Strozzi = AMAZING! Francesca Caccini is pretty great, too. I also love the works of Elena Kats-Chernin (a living Australian composer – well, all except her weird TV opera that she wrote recently – that was very disappointing). Rachel Portman, the film composer, is probably one of the most successful living composers, male or female. I find Clara’s non-vocal works uninteresting, but then I feel the same way about Verdi and Felix Mendelssohn’s non vocal works!. And we all need to remember that the canon does not equal greatness; people are often surprised to know that very few people had heard of Vivaldi 100 years ago, nor had most people ever heard a work by Gluck, CPE Bach, or Monteverdi before 1940. Greatness and fame are largely accidents of history… and when the history is written only by white men, well, human nature says you’re only going to get interest in white men.

  68. Pipes

    Wonderful Article. So glad I stumbled across it today while searching through different composers to put together a recital. I even emailed a living one! *gasp*. The comments got boring, but the essay: Fantastic.

  69. Pingback: It Happened! It Finally Happened! – 2BlueEyes

  70. Maximilian Lawrie

    I am writing an academic essay on the very broad issue of gender and music today and would be interested to hear your opinions on this: how women in other disciples of art, particularly literature (e.g. Christina Rossetti, George Elliot, etc.) managed to gain widespread acceptance and would be considered ‘great’, whereas in music of the same period there is nothing comparable to a ‘great’ woman composer. Is it something innate to the musicological discipline, is it pot luck, or is there a specific reason to do with the nature of music itself?

    • That’s a great question and I really don’t feel qualified to answer it in any detail. But I’ve wondered about it a lot myself. Maybe one aspect is that if women compose music, that means they have to be assertive and control men and tell them what to do. A man reading a book by a woman is a much more passive experience than a man performing the work a woman has written. But that’s just a guess.

      Also, we run into the question: what is a “great” composer? Who exactly defines what “greatness” means? Should the people who are deciding greatness (or who *have* decided greatness in the past) be the ones deciding greatness? It’s a rabbit hole.

    • Beth Garfinkel

      I suspect that it has to do with the nature of music as a commercial venture at the time (and still today): it requires the co-operation of a lot of individuals who have to have faith in you to begin with. One of the ways that composers become “great” is by having a large body of work, a fair bit of which is large-scale, which is why one of my favorite composers, Sigismondo d’India (early 17th-century Sicilian nobleman, singer, and composer) is relatively obscure now–he never wrote operas or oratorios. He must have been a good singer, at least to judge by what he wrote, he must have had lungs of steel. Or take this composer:

      She has a setting of the text “Fra un dolce deliro” that is worthy of Mozart, only it’s by her–but that’s just a song with piano. She also never wrote an opera, as far as we know, or if she did, it vanished without a trace.

  71. Natasha Gauthier

    “Throughout, the virtuoso passagework is straight out of the catalogue.” Right. Because, you know, women love catalogues. Amazing how historical woman composers aren’t programmed “because they just aren’t as great as Bach or Beethoven”, yet we have entire festivals devoted to guys like Hummel and César Cui. Bro, do you even Beethoven?

  72. Fem

    I don’t think anyone could say something is good or bad because it is the listener who will judge in the end. If some works are good they will become popular. Maybe the argument is for any good work a woman does there will be men who do it better.

    Another argument is in this age with continued liberal and 3rd wave feminism propaganda many are just getting repulsed by women and just hate their work to get back at feminists. Only when the media stops discussing the sex of the person can anyone focus on the work and not bother with gender only then we would have true equality based on merit.

    When I was younger I remember I used to play tomb raider and nothing triggered me, it was as if it’s any other game. Today i avoid it because I had enough with mindless female empowerment propaganda.

  73. I wonder what this guy would think about Hildegard von Bingen, or Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Marianna Martines, Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen, Augusta Holmès, Louise Farrenc, Dora Pejačević, Lili Boulanger, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Grazyna Bacewicz, Galina Ustvolskaya, not to talk about great living composers: Sofia Gubaidulina, Onutė Narbutaitė, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Sally Beamish, Gloria Coates, Joan Tower, Kaija Saariaho, Unsuk Chin, Jennifer Higdon, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, just to name those few in my list of over 1700 women who were and are composing classical music. Sarah Kirkland Snider wrote a year ago a must be read article about her experience: “Candy Floss and Merry-Go-Rounds: Female Composers, Gendered Language, and Emotion” in Also to read: Libby Larsen, Why are there so few women composers?

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