A-level music to include female composers after student’s campaign

Jessy McCabe, 17, noticed that Edexcel’s A-level music syllabus featured 63 male composers and no female ones. She contacted Edexcel to make it aware of the situation, but despite the board’s insistence that the music course aims to let students “engage in and extend the appreciation of the diverse and dynamic heritage of music”, its head of music seemed reluctant to implement any changes. In response to an email from Jessy, the head of music wrote: “Given that female composers were not prominent in the western classical tradition (or others for that matter), there would be very few female composers that could be included.”

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As I write this, Bjork is on the radio as one of BBC Radio 3’s Composers of the Week.

I’m not a big fan of “tokenism”, which in this case would involve including female composers because they were female rather than because they were good/influential. Fortunately there are lots of female composers worthy of discussion, partly on their own merits. Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn (listen above), Hildegard of Bingen, Judith Weir, Sally Beamish and Ethel Smyth spring to mind. (The last three are British – Judith Weir is currently Master of the Queen’s Music).

Comparatively speaking there aren’t many women composers – and that’s not because women can’t compose, but because of a range of social factors. One of the factors is the lack of evidence of women composers which, as Jessy McCabe points out in her campaign, means a lack of inspiration and role models for her and her peers. This in turn contributes to the ongoing lack of role models. The only way out of that is to include more women as examples of composers. If that meant including substandard composers, that would be tokenism. But the examples I’ve listed are not substandard.

But thinking about it further, it wouldn’t matter if they weren’t good/influential: often their treatment warrants discussion of the role of women in composition. Gustav Mahler famously banned his wife, Alma, from continuing with composition as a condition of their marriage. Great composer, rubbish husband.


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