Last year I reported on the work by UK record label Drama Musica and its project partner DONNE, Women in Music, who conducted a gender balance study of the 2018/19 orchestral season of 15 top orchestras. The results were startling: of the 3524 works, 82 were by female composers, 3442 by male. That is 2.3% vs. 97.7%. In total only 5.3% of concerts included works by women composers.
The organisations have just carried out the same study on the 2019/20 concert season. The results (see also infographic) showed only a small improvement (which is anyway too early to call a trend):
-123 of 1500 concerts include at least one piece by a woman composer. That is 8.2% of the total.
-At these concerts, 3997 musical works will be performed. 142 were written by women composers, 3855 were written by male composers. That is 3.6% vs. 96.4%.
Soprano Gabriella Di Laccio, founder and curator of DONNE, Women in Music, commented on the findings:
It is very difficult to find excuses for not having works by women composers present in every concert. There are thousands of music scores now widely available and the quality of the music is unquestionable. As artists, I truly believe we should always try to cultivate curiosity in our audiences, to open their eyes to a much richer and diverse musical world. It is possible and it is an incredibly enriching artistic experience for everyone. Plus, we will be supporting diverse role models for future generations. What could be better than that?
The research was carried out by studying the repertoire of fairly mainstream orchestras: Royal Concertgebouw, Berliner Philharmoniker, Vienna Philharmoniker, London Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Dresden Staatskapelle, Boston Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra and São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. By ‘mainstream’ I mean orchestras that are likely to focus on core ‘canonic’ repertoire, with a smattering of new music. This seems an important consideration when reaching for conclusions about this data. Core repertoire tends to be male since traditionally, rightly or wrongly, composing has been a male occupation. This makes it seem difficult to achieve gender parity for orchestral groups that focus on older works.
There is one caveat, however. Those women who were working as composers were not always taken seriously, not afforded the same opportunities. Take Alma Mahler, whose more famous husband discouraged her composing. This in turn helped to ensure that the handful of works she did write were, for a long while, forgotten. Nowadays the experience of listening to one of her songs (see video, below) makes one wonder what else we have lost. A complete reassessment of our core repertoire of the type being carried out by Drama Musica seems, therefore, long overdue—heaven knows knows what marvels it might turn up. It would also mean that there are opportunities to redress historic gender imbalances.
Moving to the present day, I would be fascinated to see this research carried out upon contemporary music ensembles. That would give us a much better understanding of where we are headed. Whilst I am queasy about enforcing strict 50/50 gender balances in music or anything else (equality of opportunity seems better—apologies if I sound like Jordan Peterson), it seems a healthy loose goal. And, who knows, perhaps we might even discover that composing is actually more innately feminine. A couple of hundred years of feminine gender bias would go a long way towards correcting the sins of the past.