This Women's World

A few years ago, pianist and professor Sylvie Beaudette conducted an experiment.

In her music history class at Eastman, she played pieces by male and female composers from each major era side by side without revealing the composers' gender. She paired an opera excerpt by Monteverdi with a cantata excerpt by Francesca Caccini. She compared music of Couperin (a man) with that of Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (a woman). She contrasted a German lied by Robert Schumann with Josephine Lang's, and she paired chamber music by Ernest Bloch with a piece by Rebecca Clarke.

 She told her students to listen to each set and to guess which piece sounded "feminine."

"In each case, two-thirds of the students guessed wrong," Beaudette said. "Music is not gendered." If you think otherwise, she reasons, you'd have to agree that Mozart and Debussy music sound "feminine" whereas Libby Larson's bold, structured compositions sound "masculine." Nonsense.  (Test yourself here.)

So why is women’s music still scarce in the concert hall?

Until the mid-19th century, few women had the time and societal permission to write symphonies, and those who attempted it often slammed into the prejudice that they were simply incapable of the complex, abstract thought necessary to create serious music.

"When they did compose," Beaudette says, "they had to be twice as good to be noticed."

That all changed in the twentieth century. The passage of the 19th Amendment, fueled by events in Seneca Falls, New York, and the women's liberation movement of the '60s and '70s flung open doors for women in all fields. In 1900, about two hundred American women were writing music. By 1985, their number exceeded two thousand.

Since 1983, six female composers have been awarded the Pultizer Prize in music, including Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Shulamit Ran, Melinda Wagner, Jennifer Higdon, and Caroline Shaw.    

This year Julia Wolfe won for Anthracite Fields, described by the Pulitzer board as “a powerful oratorio for chorus and sextet evoking Pennsylvania coal-mining life around the turn of the 20th Century.”  Commissioned through Meet the Composer’s Commissioning Music/USA program, it was premiered on April 26, 2014 in Philadelphia by the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Mendelssohn Club Chorus.  (Learn more about the work here.)

WXXI has made a special effort to seek out the best recordings of women’s compositions.  Every March we celebrate Women in History Month. Last November, host Mona Seghatoleslami produced a nationally-syndicated special showcasing women composers from the Baroque era, performed by Pegasus Early Music, recorded live at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church. (Listen here.)

About about a year ago, I decided to conduct my own experiment -- to seek out more women’s work for our public radio audience in Rochester. I pledged to play at least one piece every morning.  It hasn’t been hard to do, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of our music library.  I’m looking forward to discovering more with you.

Because women’s music is worth it.