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Female Composers and their Treatment Across History

History  In our society, how do we deal with the problem of sexism in classical music? Why have there been no great female classical composers? Why throughout music history textbooks is emphasis only placed on Western, male composers and not on celebrating diversity in classical music with both female and male composers of every race and orientation? What are we doing to reimagine our relationship with togetherness throughout western music history? In this research proposal I attempt to answer these questions by examining and exploring sources, historical examples, tracing the direction of classical music through history, and what we are doing to change our future’s outcome.

This subject is important to me personally because as female violinist in classical music in the twenty-first century, how many problems do I face that maybe my predecessors didn’t have? I will be using a combination of sources and comparing and contrasting male and female composers from different centuries to try and find a solution to this question.

I will be digging into the deeper question of why history has not been encouraging of diversity until more recently, but specifically focusing on female composers by taking a historiographical take of their treatment in history.

The significance of this essay will not only impact the classical music scene, but ultimately will prompt individuals to ask questions in every profession about sexism and gender equality to make a strong stand for women in our society today, not just classical music. I want to pursue the idea that female composers’ acts of resistance against societal sexism throughout history were not always open and visible to others, yet it still existed.

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How their underlying resistance against the sexism of their time has affected us today (Hollander and Einwoner, 2004), and what specifically women have done throughout history to combat this issue and how they used underlying activities to break through to equality.

The essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Composers? Psychological Theories, Past and Present” by Eugene Gates, discusses multiple scientific theories and ideas as to why women composers have been not appeared and have been under-played in history. It discusses several theories including, “theory of urges”, the variability hypothesis, and the theory of different brain activity based on biological sex. Science is a good way to start asking questions, but it can’t solve a societal problem. The goal isn’t separation but integration of female composers into western music history. Through the Hensel/Mendelssohn dichotomy (the vast difference of opportunities presented to musical sibilings Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel based on geneder-discrimination) we can see the dynamic underscores of gender-linked disadvantages with repeat performances (composers given the opportunity to publicly perform their music more than once), gender-linked evaluation, and the sexual aesthetics of music (Citron, 1990).

The concept of resistance is one that has never been clearly defined by both scholars in academia and in society. In the essay, “Conceptualizing Resistance” by Jocelyn A. Hollander and Rachael L. Einwohner, the authors attempt to clarify the issues surrounding this subject by “review[ing] and synthesiz[ing] the diverse literatures that invoke the concept of resistance”. This informative essay summarizes the various ways resistance is seen in society. A core element is recognition. Although not always open and visible, acts of resistance vary in their visibility. Some are intended to be recognized and others purposefully concealed. Throughout history, women have been quietly resisting sexism in society. I want to explore their methods and in particular, which individuals stood out and why. Researching through the progression of history of the exceptional tenacity demanded of women who wanted to participate in public music making and fight for equal rights has been awe-inspiring. If musical women survive in history at all, it is rather through lingering memories of their performing skills than of their compositions, or as educators conserving tradition rather than as innovators struggling to construct a personal and musical identity. The old-fashioned idea of a male-dominted culture needs to be left in the past.

The notion of feminism has been controversial to embrace by society and I will be taking a deep look into the pros and cons of feminism in classical music and the impact it has played to women composers, conductors, and instrumentalists. New research has concentrated on source documentation to the neglect of theory and the ‘who’ and ‘what’ of conventional historical narrative in order to rewrite women into it, rather than adapting now-familiar feminist concepts to data gathering and interpretation (Citron, 1990).

My main method of research will be through the cross-examination of male and female composers from the same time period and see what made the male composers flourish, and the female composers disappear from history. I will delve into the history and background and compare and contrast the lives of Franz and Clara Schumann, Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, and Amy Beach and George Gershwin. This research coupled with information from my sources will allow me to answer the question of why women composers are so under-represented in classical music. On interesting point I found is that all of my sources are written by women – to me this shows the importance of my topic to women today and how sexism and gender-prejudicism does still exist.

A barrier that may exist in my research is the thought that although female composers aren’t as well known as male, they’re not entirely absent from history. That is not the issue I am trying to solve. My question is directed towards history as a whole and how it’s only been within the past century that women are finally starting to receive the credit they deserve for their talents as not only performers, but as innovators, composers, and a foundational part of music as a whole. Although evidence is pointing us towards the ‘appalling’ sexism in classical music, we have become more tolerant of it. This tension is the opposite of a problem–I need to figure out what this tension is, and how I can highlight the solution to this problem.

Our society is so full of hate and xenophobia that this issue is barely scratching the surface of what gigantic changes need to actually be done – not just discussed. I want to bring this subject to light because I don’t think the realization of just how far we’ve come, and so much farther we need to come in society has hit. We as musicians can begin to combat this issue by researching and performing pieces written by female classical composers. Commissioning up-and-coming female composers will encourage our next generation to become more inclusive. Those of us who teach music history, theory, and music appreciation must be actively incorporating material on female composers into the main body of textbooks, not residing in footnotes and special margins.

The implications sexism has on our society are appalling. Female composer need to be represented in classical music to the same degree that male composers are and through a deep study of gender roles, the importance of culture that society has always placed on gender norms, and the restraints women have held to their husbands and to a culture that didn’t have high expectations of women. Sexism and under-representation of women hasn’t disappeared since the baroque era, only changed its costume to better fit under the umbrella of society in our ever-changing world that needs to stop here, with us. We need to use the expression and freedom of music to bring to light the inequalities of women in music and recognize those who have faced oppression in history.

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Female Composers and their Treatment Across History. (2021, Apr 06). Retrieved from

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