Stories about “the 1%” abound in the media, but today I would like to shine a light on a far less reported, though far more relevant for this site’s purposes, statistic: the 1.7%.
Our own Sarah Baer crunched the numbers (provided by the League of American Orchestras) and determined that out of over 12,000 individual performances of orchestral pieces in the US during the 2008-2009 season, only 109 were works by female composers. Taking into account that ensembles may have performed some of these 109 works more than once, Sarah concluded that (at most) women composers were heard in concert halls a paltry 1.7% of the time. As a point of comparison, Beethoven’s compositions alone comprised 6.8% of the overall repertoire, with 872 scheduled performances.
Of course the LAO lists are not a “perfect view” of who and what was heard because (a) they are dependent on voluntary participation by League members and (b) women composers, and for that matter, any composers who don’t fall into the Dead, White, Male categories are more likely to be played by smaller/regional ensembles who may not be members of the LAO. Nevertheless, even if incomplete, this snapshot provides an important set of data for analyzing and discussing performance trends and the overall climate of gender representation.
The Standard Repertoire Remains Limited
What initially leapt out at Sarah was how limited the standard repertoire still is. Less than 3,000 (2,738 to be exact) compositions comprised 12,688 individual performances, indicating that the “same few (though favored) pieces” are heard throughout the concert season in orchestras across the country.”
And of the 821 composers who were heard, 58 of them were women, for a whopping 7%. Of that 58, “only five women were born before 1920: Amy Beach, Lili Boulanger, Cecile Chaminade, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Germaine Tailleferre.” (Sarah’s analysis is accompanied by several charts that make these disparities all the more stark.)
With 11 scheduled performances, Jennifer Higdon’s Grammy-Award winning Percussion Concerto was the most performed work by a woman. Higdon’s Violin Concerto, a 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner written for Hilary Hahn, tied for runner-up with Gabriela Lena Frank’s Illapa: Tone Poem for Flute and Orchestra, each with six performances.
How Come Dead Only Means Forgotten for Women?
While Higdon’s success, and that of Joan Tower (both are ranked in the Top Twenty most frequently performed living American composers—male or female) is certainly a bright spot on the contemporary performance landscape, it is also indicative of the trend that in order for a female composer to be heard, she must routinely advocate for her work—which presupposes she must be alive to promote her work. The reverse is true for male composers, the “most popular of whom are long since dead and buried.” So the LAO data underscores the absolute necessity of advocating for historical women composers, or their music will be permanently lost to the listening public.
Kudos to the Phoenix Symphony, the Berkeley Symphony and the American Composers Orchestra who each performed five works by women. As Sarah noted, however, all of Phoenix’s choices were by the aforementioned Higdon, while Berkeley included historical works by Lili Boulanger and Germaine Tailleferre. Kudos as well to the eight university/college and three youth orchestras (out of a grand total of 67) who selected compositions by women.
So where do all these facts and figures leave women composers? Still facing incredibly stiff headwinds, despite making some modest progress. And while there are certainly understandable reasons for the ongoing gender disparity in today’s orchestral performances, are there really 12,579 of them? I come back to that jaw-dropping statistic of 1.7%. To anyone who would argue that the inclusion of more female composers would somehow mean the sacrifice of the great works of the Western canon I would quote that number—1.7%. It is a shocking number. An indefensible number. A number that must be repeated, over and over—until it changes.