International Women’s Day (IWD) offers an unmissable opportunity to shine a light on an area of human endeavour where women’s role has traditionally been too much in the shadows. This year, with our recent Music Department refurbishment in mind, we have chosen to celebrate the contribution of women to music composition. The hashtag for IWD 2019 – #Balance for Better –fits beautifully with this. IWD is not about claiming that women are better than men are but, rather, proclaiming that balance (or diversity, to put it another way) is better than narrow exclusivity.
Men have, it almost goes without saying, achieved amazing things in music. (Just think of Byrd, Bach(s), Buxtehude, Beethoven, Brahms, Bizet, Bruckner, Berlioz, Bartok, Barber, Britten, Bernstein, Birtwhistle, the Beatles and Bowie – without moving from one letter of the alphabet!) Women have, however historically found it very difficult to get any of their music heard. This has been true for all sorts of reasons – to do with the way money, power and time were distributed in society and to do with deep cultural attitudes, which disapproved of women taking the limelight.
It has been easy, then, to study and enjoy music (especially classical music) without ever meeting any women composers and easy to believe that women just aren’t there in the tradition. Jessy McCabe, the student whose high-profile challenge, a few years ago, of Edexcel on its exclusion of any women composers from its A Level Music Specification, hit a chord (ouch!) with a mass audience and, since then, change has come rapidly. Jessy’s action (backed by our own CEO, Cheryl Giovannoni) was a brilliant example of the power of persuasion – which we can all take inspiration from – and opened a doorway into a new world in which women composers, past and present, are popping up everywhere.
From Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century nun, writer, composer and a true pioneer, to the current luminaries of the composing scene, many of whom (Anne Dudley, Rachel Portman and Anoushka Shankar, for example) we have been celebrating in school over the last few weeks, we have discovered a plethora of prodigies to counterbalance the traditional canon.
Allied to this, IWD is also a perfect platform to celebrate the wealth of composing talent and originality we have in our midst, as our own students enjoy the opportunities in school to express their ideas and hone their skills, assisted by the recent addition of a state-of-the-art Music Technology Studio. We were, for example, delighted to hear Théa Deacon’s own original composition, inspired by a masterclass with Kerry Andrew at a Summer School at the Purcell School, in Assembly a few weeks ago.
Finally, Mrs Care’s specially created film focusing on the many women in key roles within the contemporary scene was a timely reminder of just what a vibrant professional field the British music industry is for young women to enter, at a time when many schools are easing music and other creative arts into the margins of their curriculum.
When sharing my own personal A-Z of women composers with the girls today, I left Y blank – with a challenge that said ‘Y could stand for You!’