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A Festive Welcome From the Chairs!

The idea for this festival came from two annual recitals held in Christ’s chapel dedicated to music by female composers. We both loved the recitals and the breadth of music which we found at them, but realised that this was virtually the only time we would hear or perform music by women in Cambridge. The main university music society (CUMS) scheduled barely any music composed by women in the year 2017-18: considering the vast number of concerts it puts on, it programmed music by women in only one new music concert, with music by Barbara White and Judith Weir, and a short piece by Kaija Saariaho in one other concert. This tokenism regarding female composers is replicated across Cambridge music-making, yet we knew that there were many living female composers getting their works performed across the world, and a good deal of music from the past written by women (despite what the history books tend to tell us). How, at liberal Cambridge of all places, could there be so little music by women being performed?

We realised that these well-intentioned Christ’s recitals, whilst opening our minds to new composers we might not have heard of before, didn’t shift the status quo dramatically. We decided to try to rectify this by creating a whole term’s worth of events, where colleges, churches and other performance venues across the city could become host to concerts and recitals wholly given over to female composers. We began to gather a committee together, created facebook and twitter accounts, and were shocked by the large and positive reaction! It turns out there are very many performers and composers interested in a festival focusing on women and non-binary composers - we received emails from interested parties as far away as Australia!

Why, then, is music by women still an add-on (if featured at all) in concerts in Cambridge and beyond?

The most common argument raised against trying to perform more music by women is that there isn’t that much out there, and what there is isn’t that good. It is certainly true that fewer women had opportunities to compose than men. We are never going to have equal amounts of classical music to perform by men and women from before the twentieth century. However, the idea that there is very little music written by women is a longstanding historical falsification (albeit often an unwitting one), and the idea that it 'isn't good' often comes from methods of analysis created by men, and for music by men. There is plenty of very good music written by women that most of us don’t know about – and there are a number of reasons for this situation.

For one thing, we don’t know much music by women because we are not taught it. Our conductors, our soloists, our programmers, who went to music school of various descriptions, were all taught (almost) exclusively about music by men. For example, the Cambridge music tripos makes almost no mention of music by women – the illustrious Hildegard von Bingen does not appear in our medieval music course, and until this year, the second year twentieth-century course featured female composers only as an add-on in the final lecture.

So, if there are many historical female composers, why are they not in music curricula?

Musicology as a discipline arose in the nineteenth century, created by, and primarily for, men, at a time when women were widely (and legally) considered intellectually inferior to men. It seems hardly surprising that elements of this misogyny should have persisted. Although musicology is more gender balanced than before, we have all been brought up in this male-centred discipline. The gender studies movement in musicology which came to prominence in the 1980s has done much to change this, but music curricula are still far behind the times.

Another reason lies in the nature of our musical canon – the body of musical ‘works’ which we (by which we primarily mean socially enfranchised men) decide which music is worthy of performance. This canon is problematic in many ways, not least its prioritising of large-scale (traditionally Germanic) forms such as the symphony. Women were less likely than men to write large-scale genres, both because of limited opportunity to learn the skills needed to write for many instruments, and due to stereotypes about women being too ‘fragile’ and not intellectual enough to write in these large forms. By prioritising larger-scale orchestral genres, we have created a canon that is automatically exclusionary. This is not to say that women never wrote in larger-scale genres – as our forthcoming Selwyn and Trinity concerts can attest.

The nature of our canon is linked to the illusionary (but always masculine) concept of ‘genius’. Even when women did write in larger genres particularly associated with ‘genius’, they were rarely judged as such. In fact, women have traditionally been subjected to double standards of expectation: criticised for writing with too ‘masculine’ a style, but always excluded from the category of ‘genius’ because of their ‘female voice’.

This undervaluing of women’s work has huge consequences, not merely on the music we hear and perform (and which influences our composers), but on the future of composition by women as a whole. Jacqueline Letzter and Robert Adelson, in their book on female opera composers, refer to a ‘chronic cultural amnesia with regard to women composers’ (2001, p.2), where each successive generation of women think that they are alone as composers. This encourages the idea of a female composer as a rare event, marking an unusually talented woman, rather than showing that women are just as capable of composition as men. We should be publicising this music, to bring to light a lost tradition without which we are musically poorer, and to help give women greater confidence to compose.

Events like this, we hope, can quite literally change music history – both our perception of the past and the shaping of the future, in which women have and take up as many opportunities as men to compose. We want to help create a more inclusive musical world, where women and other minority groups have their voices heard and respected. We warmly invite you to engage with this festival in any way you can – whether by coming to the events themselves, entering the composing competition (if you are a Cambridge student/recent grad) or keeping up with our social media.

We are proud to be raising money for the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre, which offers vital support for women and girls who have experienced rape, childhood sexual abuse or any other form of sexual violence. We will be collecting for the charity at our events, but if you can’t make them (or would like to make a donation now), please do consider supporting at

Finally, we would like to extend a warm thanks to our generous sponsors for ensuring this festival can take place: to Redgate Software, the Cambridge Music Faculty, and Jesus and Christ’s colleges, who are celebrating 40 years since the admittance of women as students.

Thank you for your support, and have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Laura & Claire


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