BBC Proms - I am a woman, I am a composer

There has been much quite justified comment about the absence of women composers at this year's BBC Proms, including the following post by Jenny Fowler on the listserv of the International Alliance of Women in Music.

Dear All, The BBC Proms in London, is the biggest music festival in the world: 85 concerts, well over 100 composers, over 50 conductors, and so on. Since 1989 I have been doing a survey of women in the Proms. In 2006 there are 105 composers including 27 living composers in the Proms. All men. 52 conductors. All men. Only 14% of instrumental soloists are women. So I wrote an article, published in Classical Music, called "Where are the Women"?

However, I would like now to report on the reactions so far. I sent copies of my article to some music journalists and invited them to publicise the issue. And wow, it has taken off! I was whisked to the BBC studios to make a comment on a main early evening news programme on Radio 4. The Director of the Proms, has been having to make rather limp statements in defense. And, by the way, saying that he only chooses pieces on merit can sound pretty insulting too. (But what else can he say?) He has been caught entirely by surprise not having been aware of the total lack of women this year. And neither was anyone else aware of it in all the extensive Proms publicity both by the BBC and by independent journalists. On the contrary, the BBC had been boasting about how their coverage of contemporary music was doing so much for living composers, providing opprotunies, including commissions, exposure, new audiences etc.

One consequence of note, is that when other women composers have been asked for comments and reactions, some of them decided not to make any comments at all, and others made comments such as: "I wouldn't want to be selected as part of a quota". It is interesting to do a gender reversal on that. The Proms are playing 27 living women composers and no men. Men composers are reluctant to comment. Or again, if I could reverse another comment which was quoted:
"There are some hot male composing talents coming up. In 50 years time the Proms season will always include work by men".

On An Overgrown Path is totally agrees with these comments, and in fact highlighted the absence of women composers back at the beginning of May. But saying '105 composers including 27 living composers in the Proms. All men' is actually wrong. On Saturday in the Prom that starts at 2.30pm the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain and Scotland are performing an a cappella work by Thea Musgrave, in a concert that also includes works by Alan Hovhaness and Steven Sametz.

Thea Musgrave (right) was born in Edinburgh in 1928. She studied at the University of Edinburgh, and then spent four years as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger at the Conservatoire in Paris. In 1970 she became Guest Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and her musical activities became increasingly centred in the United States. In 1971 she married the American violist and opera conductor Peter Mark, and has lived in the U.S. since 1972.

The Koussevitzky Award was awarded to Thea Musgrave in 1974, and this resulted in the composition of Space Play. After its London premier the work was performed in New York by the Lincoln Center Chamber Players. She was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships in 1974-75 and 1982-83. As Distinguished Professor at Queens College, City University of New York between 1987 and 2002 Thea Musgrave worked with many gifted young student composers. Her compositions include orchestral, choral, operatic, and chamber works. She has achieved widespread recognition by joint commissions such as Harriet, the Woman Called Moses (1985) commissioned by the Royal Opera House, London and Virginia Opera (where her husband is Artistic Director), and Simón Bolívar for Los Angeles Music Centre Opera and Scottish Opera. Thea Musgrave is frequently interviewed and questioned about being a "woman" composer, to which she has replied: "Yes, I am a woman; and I am a composer. But rarely at the same time."

Now playing - Thea Musgrave Helios - Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra played by Nicholas Daniel (left) with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Kraemer (sleeve image at head of article). This highly recommended CD from the enterprising contemporary music label NME offers four Musgrave works - Memento Vitae , Concerto in Homage to Beethoven (1970), Night Music (1969), The Season (1988) and Helios (1994). The perfect introduction to a very rewarding composer.

Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
Now take An Overgrown Path to a profile of
the first woman to conduct a BBC Prom


Civic Center said…
I heard "Mary, Queen of Scots" by Musgrave in the 1970s when the San Francisco Opera did a "chamber opera" version of it at a local Broadway house. It was an absolutely wonderful piece and I've always wondered what happened to the composer AND to the opera.

Thanks for the reminder. And the musical sexism is just that at this point, especially when it comes to contemporary composers.

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