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Why has there been a lack of female composers in the ABRSM syllabus for so long?

Since the 12th Century, women have made a significant contribution to classical music yet this has been considerably overlooked. A recent survey found that the ABRSM (one of the worlds leading music exam boards) included only 4.4% female composers in their selected exam pieces from 1999 to 2019. In an academic world that has pushed for gender equality, it is nothing short of shocking that the exam board has not created a balance in their music selection for male and female composers. This begs the question- Why?

Traditional Western Classical music has long been seen as a man’s world for centuries. Only in recent times have we seen women take upon the role of conducting world class orchestras. Marin Alsop made history when she became the first female conductor of a major US symphony orchestra in 2007. It is astonishing to think it took until the 21st century for preconceived attitudes in classical music to change. While it is welcome to celebrate women taking the central position on the podium as orchestral conductors, there is still a long way to go for any gender balance in the profession. A survey only back in 2014 found that from a list of the top 150 conductors in the world, only five were women.

Vasily Petrenko

Sadly, there is still a minority in the classical industry who still hold sexist views such as the Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko who stated “orchestras react better when they have a man in front of them and a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things.”

Old fashioned attitudes about female composers are encouragingly changing. In recent times we have seen the celebrated success of many contemporary women composers such as Unsuk Chin, Sally Beamish, and Judith Weir.

Judith Weir

However, the point that needs stressing here is that there have always been incredibly talented women composers since the 12th century, it is just they have not been celebrated and have somehow not received the attention or noteworthiness of male counterparts. It is not helpful that exam boards such as the ABRSM have not taken the opportunity to right this wrong and select pieces with greater gender balance, and introduce young learners to women composers who they may have never heard of before.

Recently, Classic FM have published an article called “21 of the greatest women composers in classical music”. Unfortunately, only a few are household names. Yet some of these composers, even dating back to the 12th Century such as Hildegard von Bingen have written over 70 works. Other composers listed are Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, Isabella Leonarda, Louise Farrenc, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Teresa Carreno, Cecile Chaminade, Amy Beach, Germaine Tailleferre, Lili Boulanger, Ethel Smyth, and Rachel Portman. Of course this is only a list of the very best, there are many more notable women composers- click here

So it is not as if ABRSM has so little material to choose from women composers, in fact quite the opposite, it would be hard to narrow down the vast talent. However, as Danielle de Niese put it so well in 2018: “The mechanisms of the classical music industry have long been a patriarchy. Music is a living thing, and any composer lives via the oxygen of performance, on stage, over the airwaves and through publishing. Did all those concert promoters, opera directors, orchestra managers and radio controllers simply forget to provide platforms for women? Without a platform, music as a living art form dies”.

However, with all the criticism of the ABRSM that I have stated above with their reluctance to include women composers, their most recent piano syllabus released in July 2020 indicates a significant change. With considerable pressure from teachers and pupils to include a much more gender balanced syllabus, it seems the exam board have listened and the tide is changing. Even though many will question why it took until 2020 for this change, we must not let this detract from the fact change has been achieved and we must welcome and congratulate the exam board in this progressive move.

David Barton, a music educator from UK created the graph below showing the gender balance of women and men composers in the new syllabus. A few things can be concluded from this graph. Firstly, it is good there is now a far higher representation of women composers, way above 4.4%. However, it appears that women composers are underrepresented in the higher grades. Grades 6 to 8 are considered to be more advanced and exam boards usually select sophisticated and often challenging repertoire. Pupils therefore, live with these pieces for sometimes well over a year, so it is disappointing women composers have been underrepresented at this level. However, it is extremely welcome that young learners embarking on their musical journey in the early grades will accept the normality of seeing the name of a woman composer in the top right of the score. Perhaps it is this generation that in the future will endeavour for complete equality.

Click here for David Barton's full review of the ABRSM new syllabus.

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