Page 19 - Church Music Quarterly June 2019
P. 19

It was difficult to be a woman composer in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Musicologist Matthew Head explains that, referring to Germany, ‘patterns of exclusion and hierarchy served the economic interest and cultural capital of a professional, male elite.’ Elsewhere, Jean-Jacques Rousseau helped to perpetuate this myth by proclaiming, in an essay published in Amsterdam in 1758: ‘Women, in general, possess no artistic sensibility.’ Rousseau’s influential words had a profound effect on people’s opinions of women’s ability to thrive in the arts.
In Victorian England, where social mores affected every aspect of life in polite society, women became restricted not only by the expectations of society but also by their own ingrained beliefs in what was first seemly and second actually achievable by a woman. No more so than in the almost entirely male world
of the church. While women occasionally fulfilled
the role of assistant organist, it was men who were
in charge of the music, and the vast majority of sacred composers of the time were those men who were thus employed as Organist and Master of the Choristers.
It is possible to ascertain the standard of these choirs by considering the repertoire being composed for them by their choirmasters. Famous examples of this, such as the story about how S.S. Wesley wrote/ arranged Blessed be the God and Father for one bass and a treble line, demonstrate how the repertoire was tailored to the forces available, and how the organist- composers of the late 18th and 19th centuries worked.
The belief that women were inferior to men continued into the 20th century, making it difficult for women to publish their compositions. Elizabeth Maconchy remembers Lesley Boosey of Boosey and Hawkes being particularly hostile, refusing to take on what she offered and saying the only thing they would consider publishing by a ‘young lady’ was ‘a few songs’. Even harder to break into was the resolutely all-male domain of church employment. It was not until 2007 that Church of England cathedrals started appointing women to their senior music posts, and
to this day there are still only a handful of women fulfilling this role.
In 1987, the now woefully out-of-date International Encyclopaedia of Women Composers listed some 6,000 entries and, thereafter, there has been a steady stream of publications about women composers, and of women composers’ anthologies. Now, an estimated 40% of all living composers are women, and they have composed a vast amount of sacred vocal music either for use in the liturgy or for concert performance.
However, it is taking a long time for their music to become established in the repertoire of our schools, colleges, churches and cathedrals. The organization Multitude of Voyces noticed the dearth of sacred music anthologies of women composers and, to make it easier for choir directors to programme women composers, will bring out the first such anthology in late 2019. Louise Stewart explains further: ‘we noticed how underrepresented women’s compositions are in music for the liturgy and considered the many reasons why that might be. Weeks, months even, can go by without the music lists of our churches and cathedrals containing
any such works. In order to address this underrepresentation, we decided in 2017 to devise a service for International Women’s Day in which all of the music was composed by women, including the commissioning of new works. We have just had our third highly successful service, with fresh repertoire each time, of course. It is our intention to publish, soon, a series of anthologies of women’s sacred music compositions so as to make the sourcing of such repertoire easier for everyone.’
As a choir director, this is an initiative I welcome.
It is important that the choristers in the choirs
I conduct grow up singing music composed by women and men. I am sure that my colleagues who are responsible for choosing repertoire for their choirs will also welcome sacred music by women becoming more easily accessible, and will take advantage of
the opportunity to redress the balance in their
choirs too. I look forward to a time when the music
of our schools, churches and cathedrals is more representative of women’s compositions, and that these are not only programmed once a year on International Women’s Day! I feel sure that this time will come soon, and eagerly await the publication
of the Multitude of Voyces’ sacred anthologies,
which will make this easier still.

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