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Why are we still talking about women composers?

This month, The Stoller Hall begins This Woman’s Work – a series of events between now and spring 2019, celebrating women in music as performers, teachers, learners, and especially as composers. It’s partly a celebration of Clara Schumann’s bicentenary; the wife of Robert Schumann, Clara was also a prolific composer in her own right. It’s also part of the 50th anniversary of Chetham’s School of Music; when it reformed as a specialist music school in 1969, the school also welcomed female students for the first time. But 200 years after Schumann’s birth, and 50 years after those first girls arrived, is there really still a need to talk about women composers – are they not, by now, simply composers?

We talked to three of the women involved in the series; composer Laura Rossi, whose Carpe Vitam has its world première on Thursday 15 November, to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage – Debra King, director of Brighter Sound, whose Both Sides Now project is celebrating women in music across the North – and Emma-Ruth Richards, who is in the process of writing a new work, especially commissioned by The Stoller Hall, for International Women’s Day in 2019.

‘I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose – there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?’ – Clara Schumann

Laura Rossi

Emma Ruth

Debra King

It’s been 200 years since Clara Schumann felt that ‘a woman must not desire to compose.’ What has changed?

Debra Major societal shifts such as the industrial revolution and the feminist movement have transformed society. Yet it’s still distressing to contemplate the PRS’s current statistics, showing that this year, only 2% of music creators are women living in the North, and 14% women across the UK.  Only 17% of record labels are majority owned by women (AIM) and 32% of employees across the industry are female (CC Skills) 

Laura So much has changed since then, and particularly in the last year - notably the Keychange initiative, founded by the PRS Foundation where many festivals, including the BBC Proms, Liverpool Sound City and Aldeburgh Opera Festival have pledged a 50/50 gender split in their lineups by 2022. 

Why do we still need to highlight the work of women in music, when we’re supposed to live in an equal society?

Emma-Ruth The fact that we still need to have the conversation about gender equality is proof that we still have a problem. Gender inequality and bias, sexism and misogyny aren’t just confined to the music industry – they are still ingrained in our society and our culture at an implicit, subconscious level, and rooted in their very foundations. However, being an industry that’s still very male-dominated, music has more than its fair share of gender issues. Conversations about improving gender equality are so much more frequent and visible than just a few years ago, which is in itself a measure of how far we’ve come. Women and men are finding their voices on the subject, and the confidence to address it publicly. There are also some fantastic initiatives for women in music, which are providing opportunities for networking, training and highlighting the achievements of women in the industry.

Laura I think part of the reason there still aren't loads of women composers is due to lack of role models, so it’s brilliant to highlight fantastic classical composers such as Clara Schumann as well as new composers like Emma-Ruth, Nicola LeFanu, Sally Beamish and Grace Williams.

Debra The gender gap is an issue and has been prevalent across our programmes at Brighter Sound for a number of years - it is something we see mirrored across the broader music landscape.  We need to support young and emerging artists and future industry professionals who are pioneering and challenging in their practise.  We know there are great people out there but are also aware of the challenges that relate to gender and geography in this sector. 

What excites you most about your involvement with This Woman’s Work?

Laura The subject matter is very topical right now, but there’s still a lot more that needs to change, and we need more role models to inspire and even out the numbers of working women - especially in film and music. Just 3% of last year’s feature film scores were written by women, and early pioneering women film makers have been written out of history.

As a woman composer I find it very important to have other female role models, as it’s easy to feel uncomfortable when you are the only women in the room - and that can make you lose your confidence. I am still often the only woman in a film meeting or film dub.  It is equally important for boys to learn about inspirational women so that stereotypes aren’t formed.

Debra It feels closely aligned to our Both Sides Now programme at Brighter Sound - based around positive forward facing action - reframing perceptions , challenging stereotypes and influencing change. 

Emma-Ruth I think a lot about how my music is going to come across to the performers and it is therefore a particular honour to be writing for The Albany Trio who are not only amazing performers but also musicians who are passionate about understanding new music and its creators.

This Woman’s Work begins with Carpe Vitam by Laura Rossi on Thursday 15 November.

Find out more at http://stollerhall.com/festivals/this-womans-work/

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200 years ago, Clara Schumann was born in Vienna. 100 years later, some women won the right to vote in British elections. Yet in 2018, only one female composer featured in Classic FM’s 300-strong ‘Hall of Fame’.

International Women's Day 2019 This Woman's Work
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International Women's Day 2019 This Woman's Work

On International Women's Day 2019, join us to celebrate Clara Schumann and her legacy in a special event featuring the all-female Albany Piano Trio and the talented young singers of RNCM performing a selection of Schumann's most celebrated vocal works. The evening concludes with the world première of a brand new commission by Emma-Ruth Richards for the Albany Piano Trio, exploring grief, beauty, acceptance and transformation.

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