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Women in the Classical Music Industry Face Centuries of Silence

From the first Women’s March in January of 2017 to the rise in prominence of #MeToo, it is clear that women have been making great strides in the fight for representation.

In the world of the arts, the obstacles facing female directors, actors, and writers have started to reach an awareness in the mainstream. But in the world of classical, few know that years of prejudice and discrimination still prevent female composers from reaching the same level of success as their male counterparts.

Despite facing an industry fraught with sexism and harassment, the number of female classical musicians has grown steadily in the past few decades. But the women who write music struggle to get their compositions played, and are often disregarded for older, and more established, male composers. In the 2014-2015 season, only 1.8 percent of the music played by the 22 leading orchestras in the United States was composed by women, according to statistics published by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The Metropolitan Opera has, in all of its history, produced only two operas written by women. In the 2018-2019 season, neither the Chicago Symphony Orchestra nor the Philadelphia Orchestra will play a single composition by a woman. Last spring, the community band I play in held a concert with solely female composers and a female guest conductor. Prior to that concert, I realized that in the nine years I have been playing in ensembles, I could count the number of times I have played a piece composed by a woman on one hand.

In an industry that takes pride in centuries of history and tradition, a push for diversity can certainly unsettle its white male elite. Historically, women were not considered capable of writing music, and the women that did were not recognized for their work. Clara Schumann, widely viewed as one of the most talented female composers in history, was not even considered a composer until decades after her death in 1896. Instead, she was recognized as a talented concert pianist, while her accomplishments in composition were completely minimized.

Film composition, while a much newer industry, is not much better. Out of the top-grossing 250 films from the past three years, only 2 percent were scored by women. In 90 years, women have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score 7 times, and just two of those women have won.

There are many reasons for why the composition industry is so male-dominated. The biggest and most obvious obstacle to diversifying classical music lies within its devotion to tradition. High-profile operas and orchestras prefer to stick with what works. Directors and production companies will keep well-known composers on their roster, and continue to work with those same composers again and again. This makes it difficult for any up-and-coming composers, including female composers and composers of color, to get the attention they need to establish themselves. Like many other male-dominated industries, diversity is also an issue from the start: gender ratios in composition conservatories reflect the lack of women finding success in the industry.

The diversity problem in classical music composition is not invisible, however. Of the past eight Pulitzer Prizes for music, four have gone to women, and national music organizations like Opera America and the League of American Orchestras have recently awarded grants to female composers, with the goal of helping more women get their music on stage. And with the long history of sexism in the classical music industry, it will likely take the combined efforts of these organizations working with female composers to get their voices, and their music, heard.


Carolyn Ford is a Copy Editor at The Rational Creature. They study English and Gender and Sexuality studies at NYU with a particular interest in queer coming-of-age narratives.


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