Rethinking the canon

Music by women composers represent only a small part of the Western canon, in spite of important contributions which date back to at least the Middle Ages. A new project by UBC faculty and alumni is helping to change that.
 

By Graham MacDonald

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UBC School of Music's Dr. Laurel Parsons (MA’91, PhD’03) and Dr. Brenda Ravenscroft (PhD’93) of McGill University are the editors of Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers, a four-volume series of essays devoted to the study of music written by women composers. The first volume, which features essays on concert music composed between 1960 and 2000, recently won the Society for Music Theory’s 2018 award for Outstanding Multi-Author Publication. With the release of the second volume fast approaching, we sat down with Parsons to discuss the project.
 

Laurel, how did the project come about?

I did my dissertation on the music of Elisabeth Lutyens, who was a British composer. I started reading about how influential she was on British music of the time, but I couldn’t find anything more specific about how she was influential. I decided I would explore her music for my dissertation. At the same time, I started noticing how few papers there were on music by women. After tracking this for many years, it became clear to me that we had to do something to improve the representation of composers who were women in our discipline.

When complete, there will be four volumes of essays on approximately 35 composers from the middle ages, with Hildegard of Bingen, up to 2014. The four volumes will be mostly 20th and 21st century music, but the volume that we have coming up will be music from the middle ages to 1900. Our final volume will be electro acoustic, experimental, and multimedia music.

 

In the first volume you write that, between 1994 and 2013, only 23 out of 1524 papers published in eight peer-reviewed journals were about music composed by women. How did you interpret these numbers?

We weren’t surprised at all because we’ve been tracking them informally for years. This confirmed what we already knew. Although it’s rather stark when you start looking at numbers like this – even 23 seemed like more than we expected.

 

Can you talk about what your experience was like as a music student and, what kinds of music tend to make up the classical canon?

 Dr. Brenda Ravenscroft, left, and Dr. Laurel Parsons, right

Dr. Brenda Ravenscroft, left, and Dr. Laurel Parsons, right

There’s so much wonderful music that you learn as a student and there’s so much wonderful music that you learn in university. Not to take anything away from that, but once you start looking for music by women, or people who are not white men, in particular because classical music is such a Eurocentric discipline, it really becomes shocking to see how narrow that representation of composers really is. It wasn’t that women weren’t composing; there is a long history of women composing from the Middle Ages until now. But they definitely were composing less frequently than men because they didn’t have the same opportunities.

 

Each essay begins with a biography of the composer. How important is biography to this project, and what role does it play in how we listen to this music?

Many people have not heard of these composers, so it was necessary to provide a little bit of background on who these women were. The more we did this, the more we have seen how extraordinary these women were, and are. For example, when we go through music school, we’re often taught about Clara [Schumann, nee] Wieck as a young woman having this domineering father — Friedrich Wieck — and the influence he had on her relationship with Robert Schumann. But we never hear about her mother. In reading Nancy Reich’s book on legendary concert pianist and composer Clara Schumann, we learned that Clara’s mother had briefly performed as a concert pianist. After the birth of her fifth child, she took Clara and the baby and left what may have been an abusive marriage, but Friedrich forcibly retrieved the children and raised them himself. So Clara’s mother had been an extraordinary musician in her own right, but it’s a remarkable part of the story that we never hear. We also want to highlight these women independently of their husbands, or their brothers. It’s often the way we hear about these women. 

 

Is the balance of representation changing in music scholarship?

It is changing a little bit, but it is still slow to change. So we would like to move it along. What we’re hoping with this project is that it provides ideas for music theory instructors in university music programs to come up with their own lesson plans based on these chapters, so they can incorporate them into their classes. And we hope that radio broadcasters might use this as a sourcebook of ideas for programming and giving them ideas about what they might say about the work that they’re broadcasting.

 

What is the impact that you hope for this project?
We see ourselves as contributing to a larger movement. There are many people involved in the cycle that is musical activity. You have teachers, you have students, you have performers, you have broadcasters, you have listeners. There are lots of places you can enter that cycle. So as music theorists, this is what we can do. We hope to inspire more activity and it’s great to see some of that happening. There are websites now, musictheoryexamplesbywomen.com for example, where theory instructors who want to incorporate music by women into their courses can find score examples of various compositional techniques. It’s exciting to see those online resources happening, and it’s exciting to see concerts of music by women.

We began this project as a kind of compensatory analysis, trying to rectify an imbalance.  Through this we’ve learned about so many composers we had never heard of,  and we’ve heard so much music that we didn’t know was out there. It’s been tremendously exciting for us to hear this fresh repertoire that we feel anybody can to enjoy,  and we should be hearing this music, not in order to create some political balance, because it’s really good music! It’s an exciting venture of discovery, not just political duty.  We want to share that with our readers and with anyone who’s interested in discovering what they’ve been missing.
 

Watch out Dr. Parsons and Prof. Ravenscroft on the next episode of On That Note, the School of Music podcast, out later this month.