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The Proms 2006 - Where are the Women?
The 2006 season of the BBC Proms has been published . This year
the Proms are bigger than ever, and cover a broader field. There
are 58 main evening Proms and 9 late evening Proms all in the Royal
Albert Hall, and all broadcast on Radio 3 and on BBC television.
In addition there are 6 daytime Proms in the RAH, 8 chamber music
Proms in the Cadogan Hall, and, for the first time, 4 Saturday matinee
Proms in the Cadogan. There are also 5 "Proms in the Park".
As well as being broadcast in the UK, many of these concerts are
heard and seen all over the world. The BBC Proms season is the biggest
music festival on the globe.
So where are the women? The 2006 Proms include no women composers
and no women conductors.
There is always a significant proportion of contemporary music in
a Proms season. Indeed, in an introductory article in this years
Proms booklet, Paul Driver comments on the marginalisation and ignorance
in our society of living composers as contrasted with writers and
visual artists. His remedy? "Go to the Proms!". As he
says: "Here connections are drawn, contexts proliferate, and
a forum for todays composers exists that genuinely reaches
a large public - a global one, indeed - and seems uniquely able
to persuade people to put music at the forefront of their minds."
The article concludes: "One thing is sure, though. Thanks to
the Proms, the prospects for new music, and its wider appreciation,
are hugely enhanced." In the 2006 Proms there are 27 living
composers featured and many others only recently dead. All of them
are men. The 2006 "forum for todays composers" and
"prospects for new music" are not for women, it seems.
For some years past I have been doing a survey of the numbers of
women represented in the BBC Proms for the organisation Women in
Music. I chose the Proms to survey, not only because it is the largest
music festival in the world, but also because the BBC generally
has a good record with regard to women. For instance the BBC orchestras
employed women in all sections long before the other main European
symphony orchestras employed any. When I compared the Proms with
other music festivals in UK I found that it was fairly typical,
and certainly not the worst in its inclusion of repertoire by women.
However, in other UK festivals which have a significant proportion
of contemporary music, the numbers of women composers - as one would
expect - have been expanding in recent years. This makes the absence
of any women in the 2006 Proms very surprising. Given the rising
number of smaller chamber concerts in the Proms it is especially
What proportion of women should one expect? The British Music Information
Centre which represents contemporary composers in the UK lists some
17 - 20 % women. Music centres in some countries have up to 25%
women, although others have considerably less than UK.
So what proportion of women composers have been featured in Proms
seasons since 1989 (when I first started counting)? All of those
seasons included works of over 100 composers (up to 126 in 2002).
1989 to 1993 all had one woman composer in each year (less than
1%). After that the numbers mostly went up to 5, although 1996 had
no women at all. From 2000, the numbers have been: 3, 3, 3, 5, 2,
4. These numbers must be qualified in that most of these women composers
were included in late-night or lunch-time concerts, rather than
in the main evening series. In 2001 all 3 women composers were in
evening concerts and one was a BBC commission. In 2003 there were
also some BBC commissions or co-commissions given to women. However,
last year when there were 17 living British composers being played,
16 of them were men. There were 9 BBC commissions and co-commissions.
All men. This year, no women at all.
Women conductors are even more scarce. The figures since 1989 range
from 0-2, with the exception of 2000 when there were 3 (but only
one in a full evening concert). In contrast, the total number of
conductors in each season is exceptionally large. They range from
43 to 64. Women instrumental soloists range from 9% to 25%. In 2006
there are 9 out of 62 (about 14%).
To what extent do these figures represent a genuine lack of women
at the top from which to choose? For me, it all began in 1989 when
I was leafing through the Proms booklet of that year, and was struck
by the contrast between the pages listing singers - half of whose
photos were of women - gifted, famous, glamorous women - and the
pages listing composers, instrumental soloists and conductors, most
of whom were men. I have never heard anyone claim that, among singers,
women are inferior to men - in technique, in musicianship, in personality,
ambition, dedication, drive, and "seriousness" or any
of the other qualities which might be needed for an international
career. Yet these are all reasons which are given to explain the
imbalance in numbers between men and women who reach the top in
other areas of music-making. Clearly there are fewer women at the
top in every field except singing. It is surely therefore even more
important that our main music festivals should engage some of the
outstanding women musicians who are available.
Numbers, of course, are a crude way of vetting concert programming.
A season of programmes needs to follow some basic themes and cross-references
which may not admit other considerations to take precedence. One
would expect peaks and troughs in particular categories of works.
This does not explain the consistently low numbers of women. It
does not address the possibility of change. The lack of new commissions
given to women, compared to men, is particularly dismal.
One of the themes in most recent Proms has been a recognition
of composer anniversaries. 2006 is the 100th year of the birth of
Elizabeth Lutyens and Grace Williams. Neither composer is represented
in the 2006 season. Anniversaries which are acknowledged are: Mozart
(250), Shostakovich (100), Dutilleux (90), Henze (80), Kurtag (80),
Feldman (80), Steve Reich (70), Colin Matthews (60) and Marin Marais
(350). The Queen (a woman) is given an 80th birthday tribute by
the Poet Laureate and the Master of the Queens Music (both
The BBC is funded by the public, and should be avoiding discrimination.
Indeed it should be leading the way to the future. In an article
in the Proms booklet, Lincoln Abbotts emphasises the many ways in
which the BBC is expanding the learning experience of the Proms.
As he says: "the Proms play a pivotal role in introducing classical
music to a huge new audience. Our learning programme sits at the
core of this intense two months of musical activity." In the
light of the ever expanding, educative, and otherwise exciting BBC
Proms seasons, I repeat: Where are the women?
© Jennifer Fowler, May 2006.
This article was first published in Classical Music (Rhinegold Publishing
Ltd, London WC2H, www.rhinegold.co.uk, 8 July 2006) Republished
Jennifer Fowler is a free-lance composer, originally from Western
Australia, and resident in London UK, since 1969.
After I had written the article above, but before it was published,
the Director of the Proms, Nicholas Kenyon, heralded the 2006 season
with various triumphant announcements: "We have an amazing
richness of new and recent work in each Proms season". "Giving
composers an opportunity to be heard has [always] been a vital component
of the Proms mix." "We want to perform that service
(i.e. opportunities) for an outstanding new generation of living
Surprisingly, no-one spotted the lack of women until I mentioned
it. Certainly, in boasting of what the Proms does for living composers
Nicholas Kenyon showed no sign of noticing the omission.
However, after the publication of my article on 8th July, there
was an explosion of interest. The issue was taken up by a number
of journalists, including Ivan Hewitt in the Daily Telegraph, and
Richard Morrison in The Times. The omission of women was mentioned
by many other commentators - indeed, nearly every time the Proms
were mentioned at all, although it was usually treated as something
accidental and untypical which applied to this year only. Nicholas
Kenyon was quoted defending himself in such statements as: "We
achieve balance over several seasons, not every season".
During the debate the term "positive discrimination"
kept cropping up. Why? My article was suggesting that the Proms
had not been representing women fairly. Not that women wanted special
consideration. I think there is a confusion here. For most people
the norm is men composers. The inclusion of ANY women then seems
To achieve the balance mentioned by Nicholas Kenyon, some seasons
would need to include a greater than fair number of women in order
to make up for the years in which there are less. Would it even
be possible for the BBC to do that without an outcry? At any rate,
it hasnt happened yet.
One consequence of note is that when other women composers were
asked for their reactions, some of them decided not comment at all,
and others said: "I wouldnt want to be selected as part
of a quota."
It is interesting to do a gender reversal on that. The Proms includes
27 living women composers and no men. Men composers are reluctant
Again, if I could reverse another comment quoted: "There
are some hot male composing talents coming up. In 50 years time
the Proms season will always include work by men".