One. There is one work by a woman listed on the DipABRSM repertoire list.
There are more works by known gay male composers than women on the list.
I’ve been teaching a while, across a range of exam boards, and this doesn’t feel atypical. I’ve not done a proper count through the whole singing syllabus, but given that the vast majority of those taking singing lessons, and therefore singing exams are women, isn’t it time we got to sing words and melodies written by people like us?
There is not actually a shortage of women composers. Women have been writing music for as long as women have existed. In oral societies, women are often guardians of the songs of the culture, singing as they work and passing them on to their children. Women have had a surprisingly successful role in writing hymns and educational works for children. And women have continued to compose music in all genres against a background of systemic prejudice.
We need to see more music by, well, anyone but straight white men on our exam syllabi. The exam syllabi are the backbone of private music education in the UK, and make up a large part of the works that students encounter in their learning. By failing to include women, LGBTQ composers and people of colour, we are quietly telling the majority of our learners that composing is not for them. Perhaps even that music is not for them.
March is Women’s History Month and so I want to highlight five women this week who have written beautiful, exciting and inspiring vocal music throughout history. I hope this is a starting point for you to go out and find more female composers to listen to and perform.
Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677)
Imagine a world where women aren’t even the leading ladies. That’s a role for boys, or men who still sing like boys (don’t think about that bit too hard). Barbara Strozzi lived in Venice in the 17th century, and she was said to be the most prolific composer in the city state.
We don’t know much about her early life, but historians believe she was already an accomplished musician by the age of 12. Her father was known to be an accomplished poet and librettist, and Barbara benefitted from his help. He arranged for her to study with a leading composer of the time, Francesco Cavalli, and once she was older, her father began to promote her work.
Strozzi gained a reputation as a talented soprano and her first book of songs was published in 1644. Unusually for the time, Strozzi wrote mainly secular works for voice. She wrote her own lyrics, which are excellent in their own right.
Her works are challenging, so would fit well on a diploma syllabus. Listen to Lagrime Me performed here by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847)
Doesn’t it just drive you mad when someone else gets the credit for your work? For a long time, huge amounts of work by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel was attributed to her brother, Felix.
In the 19th Century, women struggled to publish works under their own names. Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) all published their work anonymously or pseudonymously. For female composers, their work was often published along with that of a male relative. Clara Schumann is another example.
Thankfully, we now know that Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel wrote lover 450 pieces including five volumes of lieder (German song). Her music is expressive and experimental, often considered more so than her brother’s works.
Shockingly, ABRSM used to have five works by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel on their graded syllabus, and all of them were removed in the last revision. Both Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann deserve to be sitting alongside their male relatives for singers to enjoy.
Listen to this setting of a moving poem about missing a loved one:
Florence Price (1887-1953)
Like Fanny before her, Florence Price had to hide her identity too. Born in Arkansas in 1887, Price was the child of Black father and white mother, and is recorded as passing as Mexican to avoid racial discrimination. Later, she and her family fled the South, moving to Chicago to avoid the racist Jim Crow laws Despite these challenges, Price trained at the New England Conservatory of Music and developed a successful career as a composer. She became the first female African-American composer of symphonic music.
Price’s music draws on her African-American heritage and committed Christian faith. She blends spirituals, blues and European romanticism in her music to create complex and engaging music.
I first discovered Price after looking to get hold of some more music by Black and other minority composers. There was only one available volume – An Anthology of Art Songs by Black American Composers, first published in 1977. I’ve yet to find a more up-to-date volume, or one for British composers.
By including more Black, Asian and Latine composers on the syllabus, exam boards will need to ensure their work is published, making it more accessible for everyone.
This short song, Song to the Dark Virgin is included in the collection I own:
Madeleine Dring (1923-1977)
Ah, now we’re into one of the few stalwart female composers on the exam lists. Thanks to a setting of poems by John Betjeman and some Shakespeare songs, Madeleine Dring’s works are some of the few by a female composer to appear across the upper grades.
Dring began her career attending the junior department at the Royal College of Music, studying piano and violin. She then studied composition at the junior department before progressing to study a degree there. A traditional route, but not a stifling one.
Dring is a composer after my own heart as she also studied mime, drama and singing. Many of her creative projects were for stage, radio and television. Lots of her works are short – art songs, cabaret songs and piano pieces.
I love her songs for their artistic settings with glorious piano accompaniments that combine beautifully with the voice.
This is my favourite song of hers to sing – A Bay in Anglesey
Thea Musgrave (b. 1928)
Thea Musgrave has the dubious honour of being that one female composer on the DipABRSM repertoire lists. Two songs from her work “A Suite O’ Bairnsongs”.
Musgrave began her musical career in earnest studying at the University of Edinburgh, and then in Paris under Nadia Boulanger. She now lives in the USA, but continues to compose works about Scotland.
Musgrave has composed several operas, often choosing to focus on historical figures. Having a look at her website shows an astonishing quantity and variety of works, including dozens of songs.
This is the first song in A Suite O’ Bairnsongs – sung in English rather than Scots
As part of my on-going reflections on my teaching, I try to keep the music I am using with my students as diverse as possible. It’s not always easy, and I still find myself falling into a rut of the songs I know. It’s a process!
I plan to keep advocating for exam boards, schools and music institutions to widen their syllabus and include more than just straight white men. These women and so many others are worthy of sitting alongside Beethoven, Mozart and Handel in our classrooms and on our playlists.
Whoever your favourite composers are, I hope one of more of these amazing women will find a place in your affections.