âOH YASSSSS!!!â the composer Alexandra Gardner tweeted on Monday afternoon, voicing a sentiment shared in the more progressive precincts of the classical-music world. The Pulitzer Prize for Music had just been awarded to Du Yun for her opera âAngelâs Bone,â beating out the finalists Ashley Fure and Kate Soper in what proved to be a historic year for the prize. Since 1943, only fourteen finalists for the music Pulitzer have been women, and only seven women have won. This year, for the first time in the prizeâs seventy-four-year history, all three finalists were women.
Conversations about gender and diversity in contemporary composition have intensified in recent months, prompted in part by the Metropolitan Operaâs staging, last fall, of Kaija Saariahoâs âLâAmour de Loinââthe first opera by a female composer to be produced by the company in more than a century. Last year was a notable year for women in classical music more broadly: Julia Wolfe won a MacArthur âgeniusâ grant, Debora L. Spar became the first female president of Lincoln Center, and the conductor Mirga GraÅ¾inytÄ-Tyla was appointed music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony. In December, the Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed declared 2016 to be classical musicâs âyear of the woman.â The hashtag #HearAllComposers, a social-media campaign advocating against gender, race, and socio-economic discrimination in contemporary music, has galvanized members of the classical-music community. Following the Pulitzer news this week, some wondered whether the all-female lineup might signal a permanent shift in the stodgily male profession.
This is not the first time that such a sea change has been heralded. In 1984, the Times critic Donal Henahan wrote that âthis was the year of the woman in music,â and cited such achievements as the first-ever Pulitzer awarded to a female composer, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, who received the prize in 1983. But progress has not continued apace in the decades since. In the season spanning 2004 and 2005, the League of American Orchestras reported that just one per cent of music played by its member orchestras was written by women. Although the group no longer compiles such statistics, the reporter Ricky OâBannon calculated that, among the eighty-nine American orchestras surveyed, 1.7 per cent of works performed in 2015 and 2016 were composed by women. When the journalist Brian Lauritzen documented the gender breakdown of American orchestrasâ upcoming seasons, he found that the New York Philharmonic has so far programmed forty men and one woman. Other major organizationsâthe National Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, and Los Angeles Operaâhave thus far included no works by women whatsoever in their next seasons. As troubling as the exclusion of living women from the symphonic repertory is the complete absence of women from the past. OâBannonâs findings reveal that not a single major American orchestra performed a work by a deceased female composer in its 2015-16 season: nothing by Florence Price, Amy Beach, orÂ Germaine Tailleferre.
Itâs possible that women are still struggling for parity because masculine tropes of âgeniusâ are more prevalent in classical music than in any other art form. As the musicologist Marcia J. Citron argued in a seminal 1990 article, female composers were long barred at every juncture from entering the profession, owing in part to the essentialist notion that women could not, in Citronâs words, âcontrol emotion with logic and reason, masculine attributes requisite for composition.â Women were systematically denied access to compositional training and musical performances, and were castigated by critics for writing music that was either too feebly feminine or too unbecomingly masculine. The belief that women lack compositional abilityâperpetuated across the centuries, despite the substantial contributions made by composers from Hildegard von Bingen and Barbara Strozzi to Fanny Mendelssohn Henselâwas most pointedly summed up by the conductor Thomas Beecham, who said, in the early nineteen-forties, âThere are no women composers, never have been and possibly never will be.â
Others have perpetuated the same attitudes more subtly. In 1945, the third Pulitzer Prize in Music was awarded to Aaron Copland, for his iconic American ballet âAppalachian Spring.â Throughout his life, Copland wondered about the âhistorically poor showingâ of women composers. In 1960, he asked, âIs it possible that there is a mysterious element in the nature of musical creativity that runs counter to the nature of the feminine mind?â (An astute observer who regularly reported on younger generations of composers in his lectures and books, Copland willfully overlooked his own immediate colleagues, including Louise Talma and Vivian Fineâthe latter a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1983âas well as his teacher Nadia Boulangerâs sister Lili, the first woman to be awarded the coveted Prix de Rome.) Such patrician speculationsâwhat the musicologist Erin K. Maher recently described, in a tweet, as the â âIâd support women composers if only they existed and were goodâ cardââhave not disappeared today, even if they are seldom uttered in public.
One of the strengths of classical music is its preservationist streak, and the omission of women from the canon has a powerful impact on the culture of contemporary composition. Saariaho has said that when she was studying in her native Finland in the nineteen-seventies, she had no awareness of any previous generations of women who might serve as role models. âThe images I had of a composer made me think that I could not externally or internally correspond to those images,â she said. The world of composition can, at times, be meritocratic to a fault. Shulamit Ranâthe second female composer, after Zwilich, to be awarded the Pulitzerâonce told the scholar Jennifer Kelly, âI have many women composers that studied with me, and on the rare occasion that a young woman composer would make the case, âOh, women composers have to keep together,â what I say is, âJust concentrate on composingâÂ ââas if centuries of systematic exclusion could be overcome through mere talent and grit.
Today there are women in the industry working to insure that the next generation has a different experience. Last summer, Ashley Fure helped organize Gender Research in Darmstadt, a series of âfeminist activismâ events to reckon with the history of gendered exclusion at the Darmstadt music festival, the center of the European musical avant-garde for more than seventy years. âThis is not an extreme position or an interesting ideaâfrankly, Iâm totally embarrassed to have to stand up here and pretend like Iâm spearheading some kind of novel movement,â Fure has said. In another effort, four composersâincluding Missy Mazzoli, whose opera âBreaking the Wavesâ was widely seen as a strong Pulitzer candidateâhave launched the Luna Composition Lab, a mentoring program for young women.
But until womenâs work is given visibility in classical musicâs most powerful corners, inequities will persist. Though Fureâs âBound to the Bowâ was presented as part of the New York Philharmonic Biennialâand performed by the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestraâthe other two finalists for the Pulitzer, Du Yunâs âAngelâs Boneâ and Soperâs âIpsa Dixit,â were mounted by the Prototype Festival and Wet Ink Ensemble: the kind of scrappy startup organizations that take diversity more seriously than do major institutions. The dizzying range of musical talent among this yearâs three Pulitzer finalistsâfrom Du Yunâs eerie precision andÂ Fureâs snarling intensity to Soperâs philosophical exegesesâshould be treated not as a victory but as a clarion call. A shrewd orchestra could easily give over an entire festival to their music. At the very least, they should play it.