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Bach, Beethoven, and…Beach?

Modern symphonies are blessed with an almost unbelievable volume and variety of repertoire spanning several hundred years. In any creative field with a large body of work, a great deal of it is bound to be ignored, forgotten, or lost completely. And for women, who were historically marginalized as composers, the exposure their contributions receive remains vanishingly small.

After attending a string of performances from three different orchestras last month, I started wondering about just how diverse a typical orchestral repertoire really is. I decided to undertake a modest repertoire analysis, using the listings found in the 2013-14 pre-season announcements of seven major American orchestras. All orchestras selected are very active and have repertoire sizes ranging from 70 to 140 pieces for the season. The most startling result of my (admittedly surface-level) analysis was that of 529 distinct compositions performed, only six were written by women. A single orchestra performed three of those pieces, and all but one were world premieres. Three percent of the distinct composers presented were women. I’d like to reiterate that this is a small sample of the most active American orchestras and does not represent the entire field.

Why has it been so difficult to raise the profile of female composers? One difficulty is that what is considered ‘standard repertoire’ is extremely slow to change. It is very rare for a new work to enter regular rotation, and it seems unlikely that there will ever be another composer who gets as much exposure as Beethoven or Mozart. So while the number of active female composers has risen significantly over the past 40 years, they face the same struggles that all composers do — maintaining continued relevance in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. It’s probably even more difficult to resurrect older works. There are dozens of nearly forgotten women who made important contributions to the historical repertoire, but were never fully appreciated in their day, and hence never developed lasting reputations. In my opinion, some works by Louise Ferrenc (1804 – 1875) and Amy Beach (1867 – 1944) should be considered as important to the standard repertoire as Schubert’s or Tchaikovsky’s, but without regular performances, their magnificent pieces are unlikely to ever be more than curiosities enjoyed by a few fortunate audiences.

I know I am not the first person to point this out, but I’d like to add my voice to the mix as someone who would appreciate more gender diversity in orchestral programming. It is heartening to see so many new works composed by women, but it’s still a tiny fraction of the total. Between 30 and 50 percent of symphony audience members we have surveyed in the last few years have indicated that “discovering something new” is one of the more important reasons for attending — isn’t it time we started making a conscious effort to include more compositions by women, both new and old?

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