The Long, LONG Arc of History

With the debut of Margaret Ruthven Lang’s Dramatic Overture in 1893, the world changed: never before had an orchestral work composed by a woman been performed on the American stage.  The intervening 119 years have brought monumental social change, much of it due to the ever-increasing participation of women in all aspects of society.  But what of women in classical music?  Concerning female composers, it seems accurate to say that change is frustratingly slow.  Can this perception about their long arc of history be clearly spelled out and quantified?

Our resident researcher Sarah Baer pored over eight seasons (2000-2008) of repertoire data collected and provided by the League of American Orchestras to try to assess what the current landscape for female composers is, as well as to suss out any notable trends that might give us a window into the future.

As noted in analyses for both the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 seasons, the LAO data, while the most comprehensive available, is still a limited lens.  Not only does it depend on voluntary reporting by its member orchestras, it under-represents smaller regional and university ensembles who tend to seek out more diverse programming.  One must remember, however, that the standard repertoire of large symphony orchestras serves as a beacon to the listening public, signaling what deserves to be heard, and understood by the average layperson about the canon of the Western Classical Music tradition.  So despite its limitations, the information provided by the LAO is of great significance.

The (Sorta) Good News
First, some good news: there were roughly 530 performances of works by women composers (exclusive of multiple performances by the same ensemble in a calendar year) over the course of eight seasons.  Some 300 pieces by 126 composers ranging from Fanny Mendelssohn to Melissa Wagner were played by 218 diverse ensembles from Honolulu to Brooklyn, and the fly-over country in between.

While in 2000-01 there were only 21 orchestral performances of works by woman, out of a total of more than 10,000 overall, that number ballooned in 2005-06 to 138, before dropping back in the 2007-08 season to 116 performances of individual works.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which has been honored by Gramophone as the greatest American ensemble, led all others by performing 14 works by women over the course of eight seasons (2000-2008).  The only other ensemble in double-digits was runner-up Cleveland with 11.

The Not-So-Good News
Rounding out the Big Five orchestras, Philadelphia contributed nine performances penned by women, New York seven, and Boston— which, back in 1893, was first in the nation to challenge the male composer stranglehold — just five.  Other top-tier orchestras like Baltimore and Houston, Cincinnati and Dallas, had equally poor showings, with three and two performances, respectively.

Which means that the bulk of performances of women composers are by lesser-heard, often cash-strapped, smaller ensembles that can only manage a few concerts each season.

And even with the near-Herculean efforts of these regional and youth orchestras, the math is still lousy for women.  In 2007-08 the LAO reported a total of 16,343 individual performances, 116 by women, for an overall representation of 0.7 percent.  If you’ve never seen what 0.7% looks like represented by a pie chart, click here.

The Trends
As has been noted in other years’ analyses, historical women composers consistently draw the short straw: only 16% of the women composers played during this eight-year period were born before 1920.  And of the 300 works performed, just 10% were by historical women.

So contemporary works, and just two in particular, by Jennifer Higdon and Joan Tower, dominate the programming of women composers.  Medium and smaller-budget ensembles performed either Tower’s Made in America and Blue Cathedral with such frequency that they were the two most-played pieces for the years 2000-2008.

Why did these two achieve such popularity?  According to Sarah’s research, Made in America was part of a “large-scale commissioning project, involving 65 smaller-budget orchestras, making history as the largest consortium commission in America—itself an important distinction.”  It also incorporates the familiar melody of “America, the Beautiful” as thematic material, which may invite more listeners.

Higdon’s Blue Cathedral, while not a commissioned work, has its own unique emotional resonance; it is dedicated to the memory of her brother, who died at age 33 from melanoma.  The deeply personal significance of the work, to both the composer and audience, may forge a special connection that extends beyond the musical.

While the ability of contemporary composers to advocate for their work certainly contributes to their popularity with the conductors and artistic directors who make the majority of programming decisions, so too does the power of soloists.  A full third of the total works by women composers featured soloists who chose to include them in their working repertoires, traveling with them throughout the country.  In 2009 both Hilary Hahn and Anne-Sophie Mutter premiered violin concerti by Higdon and Sofia Gubaidulina, respectively, and in 2011 Hahn herself commissioned 27 new short-form works that she will perform on tour through 2013, and subsequently record.

It is indeed a difficult balancing act to on the one hand laud the painstaking progress women composers have made, while lamenting the “lousy math” that still confounds them at seemingly every turn.  Similarly, in celebrating the breakthrough of a handful of contemporary composers, we must not allow their success to diminish our dedication to championing the compositions of historical women, who cannot advocate for themselves.

But balance we must, if we are to bend, bend, bend that lengthy arc.