Thinking Out Loud: Where are the female composers? | KBIA

Thinking Out Loud: Where are the female composers?

Mar 17, 2014

Settle in to listen to an hour of classical music on the radio and you'll mostly hear the works of male composers. It isn't that women do not compose in the classical genre, so why don't we hear them more often? KBIA's Ariel Morrision recently asked two local women what's behind the gender imbalance in classical compositions.

Ayako Tsuruta was a recent guest on KBIA's Thinking Out Loud. She discussed the experience of being a female in a male-dominated classical music field.
Credit Facebook/Odyssey Chamber Music Series

Ariel's guests on Thinking Out Loud were Claire Major from the Missouri Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and Odyssey Chamber Music Series Artistic Director Ayako Tsututa. The program originally aired in advance of an hour of work by female composers sponsored on KBIA by Missouri NOW.

While some female composers, like Romantic era composer Fanny Mandelssohn-Hensel and contemporary artist Rachel Portman, have made a living writing, publishing and performing their works, the history of classical music includes discrimination that often kept women from performing, publishing and even documenting their craft.

For example, take the story of 19th century female composer Alma Mahler. Missouri NOW's Claire Major explains:

I love (her husband) Gustav Mahler's music, but when I found out that as a condition of Alma marrying Gustav he forbade her from composing. For some reason she went ahead with the marriage. Certainly, she helped him a great deal in his composing career, but I wonder what would have happened if she had been allowed to write music along with him in that marriage. That would have been a wonderful productive music marriage that unfortunately didn't happen.

Asked about changing conditions for women in classical music, Major added:

For centuries, women have been accepted as singers but much less so as instrumentalists. In the late half of last century there started to be a lot of female composers. The Vienna Philharmonic only in the last couple of years allowed women to play in the orchestra. As a lantern and a beacon to other organizations, why can't they allow women? Now, they implement blind auditions and female membership in orchestras has shot up.

A local female enjoying great success in classical performance and a recording career is Ayako Tsuruta. Tsuruta is the Artistic Director of Columbia's Odyssey Chamber Music Series. Asked how conditions have changed for women in classical music in recent years, Tsuruta said that:

Male composers have been in existence for hundreds of years compared to what little we know of female composers. Today, we are sufficiently able to self-market ourselves. Hollywood actresses talk about limiting roles. It is similar with women composers, but to actually have their work published is entirely something else.

Despite female classical composers historically being short-changed in terms of getting their work published and performed, Tsuruta is optimistic about the future. She said that to succeed as a classical performer today women must:

...find different organizations that support your interests. NOW is wonderful because it supports the minority group who are trying to support themselves... It's important that these working women don't give up and get discouraged. Have faith and do what's really important, what really calls to your artistic appeal.

Listen to Thinking Out Loud each Tuesday evening at 6:30 on 91.3fm KBIA.