Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre

The Effects of the Gendered Musical Canon

Guest Author, The Reverend Professor June Boyce-Tillman writes about the effect that the lack of female composers in music syllabuses had on a young child’s aspirations…

An Education

I was brought up on the grade examinations in the 1950s and 60s, which I later combined with O’ and A’ level Music and a degree in Music from Oxford University.

When I started piano aged seven, I did play some pieces by women composers. My favourite was a collection of pieces by Yvonne Adair entitled Little Dog Tales: each simple accessible piece had a description of a particular sort of dog that it described. I still cherish my much-loved copy.

There were, in my memory, pieces by Jessie Furze in the early grades but, as the pieces became more challenging, women composers disappeared from the syllabus.

It seemed children would like ‘characteristic piano pieces’ but, as they grew up, they would prefer pieces called sonatas and suites, which women did not apparently write.

I do not remember listening to any recordings by female composers in school, although we did sing some part-songs composed or arranged by women.

At university, women disappeared completely. I left university knowing a great deal about the so-called canon of great male composers, but the hidden curriculum had completely disempowered me by presenting me with no role models.

Although as a young child I had composed, I gradually lost any confidence in my ability in this area. The hidden curriculum had been extremely powerful.

The Journey

I went to work in schools to challenge this by initiating composing activities with my 7 to 11-year-old pupils. All were capable of generating musical ideas and I went on to develop the composing / improvising curriculum in schools.

The notion that this might be included in the graded examination system was rejected in the 1980s: the examination system had already been codified into realising the works of others. Even here, work had not been done to investigate and unearth the works of women composers like Elisabetta de Gambarini, Fanny Mendelssohn, Barbara Strozzi, Jane Savage and Clara Schumann, all of whom wrote complex works that could have been part of the higher grades.

They were being rediscovered, but the boards preferred the revival of lesser-known works by ‘famous’ composers.

Meanwhile, in the wider world of music making, the folk world was filled with female singer-songwriters; I abandoned the classical tradition, went up to Cecil Sharp House with my folk guitar, learned my four chords and sang songs by Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. The role models were there and I could be re-empowered.

I was in my 40s when I found the medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen. At last, I had located the classical role model I needed. This discovery opened up my hidden and damaged composing skill and in the last half of my life, I have created many pieces, several of them based on Hildegard’s work.

Hildegard of Bingen

It was actually in a psychiatric hospital, in the middle of what was then called a nervous breakdown, that I started to compose again around the ideas of the women mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. I was also fortunate to meet the composer Michael Finnissy as part of a continuing professional development project, who had an amazingly affirming effect on my composing journey.

As I mentioned, women composers were being discovered during this period, but they were often regarded as a sort of byway off the main road of the canon. Indeed, in a European conservatoire, in the year 2000, I found female students still being told that women make babies and men make works of art because women’s brains are smaller!

They were amazed and empowered ,  just as I had been, by hearing the pieces of Hildegard.

Challenging Values

These ideas still lurk in the unconscious of our society; although the regular bearing of children did make composing less easy for women, there are examples of women composers for many instruments, including the ones popular in the graded exam syllabuses. However, they did require work to find them, although now many are recorded and published.

The argument often runs that it does not matter who writes the music but whether the music is well-written: the implication is still that women’s works are not as good as men’s — an argument based, in general, on centuries of unquestioned tradition. But who decides the criteria for what is good?

I have, in this article, described the effect of meeting a dearth of female composers on a young woman who composed as a youngster but was gradually disempowered by the canon. How it led her to assume a role of teaching and composing for the youngest children but not aspiring to join the upper echelons of the composing world.

Fanny Mendelssohn
Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)

Is the problem that women did not compose or that they did it worse than men? Or is it that the weight of the false premises that underpin the structure of the canonical set of male composers is so well entrenched that, whenever the issue is raised, the ingrained prejudices bite in to resist the invading women (or different ethnic groups, classes or other groups not part of the dominant culture)? Do we only ‘like what we know’, or is education about empowering everyone to realise their potential?

What are the values that underpin our music education?

June Boyce-Tillman

Rev Prof June Boyce-Tillman MBE, PhD, FRSA, FHEA is Professor of Applied Music at the University of Winchester and Extraordinary Professor at the North West University, South Africa

This article first appeared in London College of Music’s Forte magazine, Spring 2017.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, published author and composer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful private teaching studio.