Women composers on the A-level syllabus

19th August 2015 | Daily Life, Musings | 3 comments

17-year-old Jessy McCabe’s petition for more women composers to be  on the A-level music syllabus has been in the news today. It has generated quite a lot of interest and discussion, too. Good for her.

The Independent asked if I had any comments to add, and some of my observations are included in their article (to appear in the paper on Thursday 20 August).

If only there were a simple way to remedy the lack of women composers on the A-level syllabus! But the whole issue is extremely complex, as ‘gender studies’ experts keep reminding us. Women have often composed, but their music has equally often been suppressed by societies which believed it was not women’s ‘proper sphere’ to be creating works of music when they could be minding the children, cooking the dinner, supervising the servants, entertaining their husbands’ friends and business associates, or merely looking decorative. Even fathers, mothers and brothers conspired to convince young female would-be composers that it was unacceptable for a women to ‘expose herself to comment on the platform’, to borrow Oscar Wilde’s phrase. Composing great music takes time, dedication, support of various kinds, and the ability to work peacefully for long periods, undisturbed by demands and distractions. This has hardly ever been possible for women, either then or now.

It’s often pointed out that there are great women writers of past centuries, but writing novels is a little different from writing music. Writing a book is usually a private activity, to be read in private too. Music on the other hand is often written to be performed publicly, sometimes by large numbers of musicians in front of large audiences. That takes the composer into a public realm not considered seemly for women in previous eras.

It wasn’t really until the 19th century that women could begin to hope to have their music published and performed publicly. I’ve learned that Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, was a fine composer but was discouraged by her own family from developing her skills, and in any case she had to give up composing when she married a widower and became responsible for looking after his children. Supposing that Nannerl was in any way as talented as her brother Wolfgang, it’s sad to think about what we’ve lost there.

In Robert Schumann’s diaries there’s an entry where he writes, apparently without irony, that his young wife Clara was really a very promising composer, but unfortunately would not be able to develop her talent because of her domestic duties and responsibilities, ‘as she well knows’.

In 1891 the editor of ‘The Women’s Journal’ tackled the issue of why there were no great female composers. Her comments seem unanswerable, and still depressingly relevant today:

‘When women have had for several centuries the same advantages of liberty, education and social encouragement in the use of their brains that men have, it will be right to argue their mental inferiority if they have not produced their fair share of genius. But it is hardly reasonable to expect women during a few years of half liberty and half education to produce at once specimens of genius equal to the choicest men of all ages.’


  1. Cora Cooper

    Thank you for this post! For these same reasons in the violin world, I spent nine years collecting pieces written by women for a graded anthology of violin music written by women. So availability wouldn’t be an excuse anymore, each of the four volumes has music for a different level of student, from beginners to advanced. I’m working on a version for viola now, and Mary Cohen has contributed three great pieces. I hope these volumes will help tip the balance someday!

    • Susan Tomes

      Well done Cora! I’m pleased to see Mary Cohen’s name there too – Mary is a wonderful educator.

  2. peterv

    There is a major difference between writing novels and composing: to be a good composer requires detailed technical knowledge of instruments and ensembles, which is usually only got by hanging around musicians and orchestras and hearing them play your music. Similarly to be a good playwright is only possible if you get to see your early plays acted. Hence we have lots of women novelists in the 19th century and yet almost no women playwrights, because society discouraged women from getting the practical exposure to the theatre they would have needed.

    There were very strong female composers in the 19th century – eg, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Louise Farrenc. And Farrenc puts paid to the silly but still common notion that women could not write for large forces – her symphonies are the equal of those of Robert Schumann or Felix Mendelssohn. The continuing neglect of her symphonies and her superb chamber music can only be due to discrimination.


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