On Female Composers


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the history of classical music is a predominantly white male effort. I find it weird that I never questioned this until a few years ago. It wasn't a good or a bad thing, it was just a fact, like water being wet. A debate about whether female composers should be more present in concert programs has been going on in Finnish media this year, and this question has been circling in my own head for a while, too. A great summary on the different views can be heard - in Finnish - from Yle Areena: Kare Eskola has a radio program Välilevyjä in which he comments on the matter. (The other episodes are awesome, too.) My view is that yes, womens voices should be more present. Why, you might ask. What I'm wondering is - why not.

When I was 19, my vocal teacher wanted me to sing Er, der Herrlichste von Allen by Schumann. I disliked the song from the beginning and found it hard to relate to the poem. The woman seemed like such a submissive idiot, crawling in mud in front of a god-like hero lover. I still don't like the song - now I just have more reasons to find it problematic. For me the main issue is that both the music and the text are written by adult men trying to relate to the feelings of a young girl. The whole cycle, Frauenliebe und -leben, is built on this extremely common foundation: a woman being portrayed through the eyes of men. Whereas Winterreise and other big romantic song cycles deal with the deep and dark stuff going on in the philosophical mind of man, Frauenliebe und -leben is about finding a guy, getting married, and then dealing with his death. Six songs were enough to sum up a womans entire existence, focusing solely on how she feels about men. I do not object to men writing about women (or to women writing about men), but what I thoroughly despise is that this particular song cycle is still being presented as the female view of things. IT'S NOT THE FUCKING FEMALE VIEW - THE CREATORS WERE BOTH MALE. THE FEMALE VIEW IS MISSING FROM ALMOST THE ENTIRE CLASSICAL MUSIC CANON BECAUSE WE WEREN'T INVITED TO THE PARTY UNTIL YESTERDAY.

(Oops, got a bit upset there. It's just really hard to talk about this calmly because I'm so overwhelmingly angry at the entire Western Civilisation.)

My personal anger aside, here are some thoughts on why I think more female composers works should be a bigger part - or at least some kind of part - of our concert repertoire.

The people who think we're fine as we are often use the same argument: if we start adding female composers works to the programs for equality's sake, the quality of the music will diminish. The E in front of quality suddenly makes the latter disappear. The problem with this argument is that most of the music I'd like to perform is extremely hard to find. So how did we know it's shit again? We haven't even heard it. One answer to this is that if the music was good, it would've become famous already. For me this seems like horseshit - becoming famous depends on so many factors. And even Bach himself, the mighty God of Music, was quite unpopular at one time. I wonder what would've happened to the canon we hold so dear if the musicians who rediscovered his stuff had decided that since Bach was forgotten once, he should stay that way. I'm not saying that every unknown female composer is a forgotten genious, but one of them might be. Bach was.

Got sidetracked, again. What I wanted to say earlier in the midst of my anger was that many Finnish female composers works from the 20th century have not been recorded or even published, so I would argue that these equality critics are not acquainted with even a fraction of the feminine music out there. It is disheartening that these compositions are cast aside as inferior and uninteresting before they're even given a chance.

I'm currently spending a lot of time researching and planning concerts with only female composers music. Why? Because I think it deserves to be heard, and the way to make it heard is to play it, not rant about it. (As satisfying as ranting might be.) I want to perform music created by women and composed to texts written by women because it's a viewpoint I'm interested in. Because it's so rare, unfamiliar and hard to find. Because I've spent most of my career studying the male stuff and I'd like to see what else is out there. The unquestionably great music written by men has always had plenty of attention, and I'm not suggesting it shouldn't. It could, however, make room for others too. In my concerts it will.