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 year’s 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 today’s 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 today’s 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 surprising.

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 Queen’s Music (both men).

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,, 8 July 2006) Republished with permission.
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 Prom’s mix.” “We want to perform that service (i.e. opportunities) for an outstanding new generation of living British composers”.

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 “positive”.

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 hasn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 to comment.

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”.

Jennifer Fowler