Can American Orchestras Do Better At Including Women Composers?

This is a follow-up to the recent widely-read entry In Which I Learn Why There Are No Great Women Composers. Liane Curtis got in touch with me during the hullabaloo, wondering if I would be interested in covering the grants made available by Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy. I didn’t have time to write anything this week, so I invited her to post a guest entry. According to her bio:

Liane Curtis is a musicologist and the founder and President of both The Rebecca Clarke Society, and Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, non-profit organizations which are based at the WSRC [Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University]. A former Fulbright Scholar, Liane has taught at a wide range of colleges and universities, including Wellesley, Ohio State, and (in 2011 and 2007) at Brandeis University. She has written for the San Francisco Examiner, Bay Windows, The Musical Times, The New Grove Dictionary of Music, the National Women’s Studies Association Journal, Women’s Enews, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and other publications. In October 2006, Liane was a Fellow in the National Endowment for the Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera.

An impressive resume, but for me the thing that stands out about Liane is that she Cares Deeply About This Stuff. About a year ago, when I was beginning my study of the Clarke viola sonata, I sent her an email asking where the manuscript was. She sent me a link to a PDF of it right away. Never mind I was a largely self-taught violist based out of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who had no plans to perform the piece publicly. (The manuscript, by the way, is fascinating – a must-read for any violist – and can be perused here.) She cares, and she was excited that I care, and that generous and free exchange of knowledge is hugely meaningful and exciting and awesome. Agree or disagree with any of her premises, she is a woman on a mission, and I appreciate that.

So here is her guest entry. If you’re connected with an organization that is looking for grants, take note! – Emily


Can American orchestras do better at including – rather than excluding – women composers???

And can the grants offered by Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy help?

by Guest Blogger Liane Curtis

The recent inflammatory article in the Spectator (by Damian Thompson – no link here so you don’t encourage the clickbait), squashed so deftly by Emily E. Hogstad in this blog, and on New Music Box, reveals an overt instance of how deep-seated, hostile bias against women composers continues to survive. While overtly sexist statements such as those in the Spectator article are not as common as they were in the past, these same values are played out routinely in the current practice of dismissing and ignoring music by women. In short, when we see many orchestras routinely programming NOT ONE  SINGLE work composed by a female in their entire season of classical orchestral programming, it is agreeing with Damian Thompson’s ignorant opinion that “there are no great women composers, [and] that’s because creative geniuses are rare and, in the past, so few women wrote music. There may be some in the future…” The orchestras that are in this group this season (2015-2016) include: the Cleveland Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Seattle Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony and Utah Symphony. Just to point out one grievous case, the San Francisco Symphony is based in the city that was the home of The Women’s Philharmonic for all of its 20-plus years. Much of their past extensive fan base is there and would be eager to hear works by women. But one of our WPA supporters tells me that the SFS has excluded women composers in 17 of its past 20 seasons. The SFS prides itself for its creative, inventive programming, but to be so emphatic in ignoring women makes one wonder if there is some deep-set misogyny there.

Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy has a program to try and change this widespread practice. We are offering Performance Grants to encourage US orchestras to program works by women. More information about our Grants is here – the deadline is October 15, but we feel the form is not difficult to fill out. And, gentle readers, WE NEED YOUR HELP – tell the staff of your favorite orchestras about these grants! The grants are available to all kinds of orchestras: student, youth, community, professional and semi-professional. Also tell the choruses, since the grant can be used for vocal ensembles that perform with orchestras! Tell the opera companies, too!

Josephine Lang, composer. Read about her here.

Fanny Mendelssohn, composer. Read more about her here.

Looking at the programming of U.S. orchestras, some are doing an excellent job of including works by living women, but in general there seems to be ignorance of any female composer born before, say, Sofia Gubaidulina.  We hope that Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy can help by providing advice and information about repertoire. We have made up this list which emphasizes historic composers, and features many scores that can be examined online, and heard via YouTube or other sites. And we are happy to talk with orchestral staff about what kind of piece they might need for their programming (

Some orchestra managers continue to think that there is either no interest in women or that there are very few suitable works written by women. This actually just happened: in response to being offered information about Performance Grants, an orchestral administrator tells us that their ensemble does not have any “repertoire” suitable for our “criteria” (our criteria being that orchestras program one or two works by women sometime in the 2016-2017 calendar years). This seems to echo the words of the music critic George Upton, who in 1880 condemned women of the future as he dismissed women of the past, stating “It does not seem likely that woman will ever originate music …. She will always be the recipient and interpreter, but there is little hope she will be the creator.”  Please help us convince such administrators, that this attitude is WRONG. We can help them find plenty of truly great works by women, and also, as Ms. Hogstad emphasized, “If that incendiary Spectator article actually had anything to teach us, it’s that there IS intense interest in female composers!”


Filed under Guest Blogs, Women In Music

2 responses to “Can American Orchestras Do Better At Including Women Composers?

  1. Here is the deal with SFS: their commitment to new or unusual music is mostly marketing, and if you are a living composer, it helps to be named Adams or Bates.

  2. Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has commissioned 10 works to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Six of the ten are written by women.

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