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Blog Category: women in music

Female voices creating disharmony

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female voices creating disharmony
The decision by St Paul’s Cathedral to appoint its first fulltime female chorister, Carris Jones, has led a leading counter-tenor and conductor, Grayston Burgess, to comment, “This ‘politically correct’ decision appears to have been taken without a thought for the musical aspect or its consequence —the next logical step is to appoint another female alto to ‘balance’ the two sides of the choir”. (The Daily Telegraph).

The indignation in this I find hard to understand. As a clarinettist my expertise admittedly is in passing an airstream through a wooden tube rather than across vocal cords but the amount of energy that is extended to keep tradition for its own sake continues to confound me.

I can understand from certain points of view that in order to be faithful to the sound of the forces for which the music was originally written, in this case, an all-male choir may be needed but surely that is unnecessarily restricting and shouldn’t be imposed unilaterally. Are all cathedrals across the country to be exclusive clubs?

Why should generations of excellent female singers be prevented from contributing to a musical choral tradition and denied the benefit of the excellent musical education which often comes as part of the package?

There is much discussion about whether boys voices do really sound different, given the distortions of many acoustics but does it actually matter so very much, whatever your point of view? What is needed is strong and growing choirs able to tackle contemporary works by living composers as well as sustaining the traditional repertoire.

There is nothing new in the classical tradition of women singing men’s songs and it is even questionable whether some of the staples of cathedral music such as Tallis and Byrd were sung by all male choirs at all.

From a personal point of view, I believe that there is a purity of sound from the all-male choir that can be used effectively for performances of relevant music just as early instruments are also used to good effect for certain music. However, with a vibrant contemporary 21st century music scene I firmly believe we should be able to take advantage of using the combined voices of male and female as well. (I don’t think the BBC Singers or Harry Christopher’s 16 would be quite the same without the ladies!)

The church is having to look at all aspects of its traditions in the context of modern life, particularly as the 21st century progresses. Music is an area where the church is always exploring and trying to move forward, so it would seem to make complete sense to avail itself of the strength and vitality that the quality of voice of both male and female provides.

Geraldine Allen

Young Composer Voices in Cambridge

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Categories: british composers, composing today, contemporary classical music, live performance, women in music
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10th November saw An Evening of New Music curated by young composers Jay Richardson and Alex Woolf, under the aegis of Young Composers’ Network*. Jay is reading Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge and Alex is in his final year at St John’s College, Cambridge. Both already have impressive CVs which include performances with national orchestras and broadcasts on national radio.

So much for introductions – now down to the music. A programme for violin, oboe, horn, piano, dancer and percussion in various combinations presented work by 7 young composers from ages 15 to 20. It was meaty stuff with highly committed performances from all musicians.

Sorry to say the percussionist, Lucy Landymore, who was performing her own work was taken ill at the last minute and that part of the programme had to be abandoned.

The other young woman composer represented in the programme, Alexia Sloane, lost her sight at the age of 2, but nothing daunted, is a chorister, recorder player, flautist, pianist and composer, this last activity being completely internalised and only brought to the page by an amanuensis.

The points to make about this programme are first the fact that it took place, with professionalism, vigour, originality and candour – nothing inhibited about these creators.

The sweep of styles, language and emotion combined with the confidence and craft were all extremely impressive.

The cross-discipline content of poetry and dance brought added dimensions.

The sense of sharing, outreach and communication was palpable and generous.

The calibre of the audience lent further credence to the occasion with not a few Profs and Dons and a good number of other experienced and serious-minded attendees.

Yes, it was too long and yes the programme would have gained by including timings for each piece – in any new work, you need to know the arc of time and attention that you are following.

Entertaining – highly.
Challenging – satisfyingly.
Worthwhile – undoubtedly.

I know – I was there!
Sarah Rodgers

*Cambridge Young Composers’ Network was set up by Dr Frankie Williams to encourage young people to write music. Projects and opportunities are run in partnership with Aldeburgh Young Musicians, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge Youth Music, Hills Road Sixth Form College and the Faculties of Music and Education at the University of Cambridge. For more information, contact

Last Night in the hands of a woman!

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Categories: women in music

“The sound of a glass ceiling breaking.”  This is how the BBC Proms website describes the innovation of a woman conductor being appointed to take charge of the iconic The Last Night.  Marin Alsop, Chief Conductor of São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, first made her name in the UK as Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.  I remember attending a performance by Alsop and the BSO of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony when she drew an exhilarating performance from the players.

For The Last Night of the Proms she will steer the BBC Symphony Orchestra through a diet of Wagner, Bernstein, Vaughan Williams, Britten, more Bernstein, Massenet, Handel, Rossini – you get the picture! – plus the traditional items to get the last night prommers going.  No doubt they will have a lot of fun with her debut, too.

The Last Night opens with a world premiere commission from young English (woman) composer Anna Clyne.  To reciprocate the international exchange, Clyne is currently the Chicago Symphony’s Mead Composer-in-Residence through the 2013-14 season.  She describes herself as, “a composer of acoustic and electro-acoustic music, combining resonant soundscapes with propelling textures that weave, morph, and collide in dramatic explosions.”

Follow this link for a flavour.  Anna Clyne’s Night Ferry.

Few other women composers get a look-in at the 2013 Proms – just 6 from a list of 129 – how can that be?!  They are Diana Burrell, Tansy Davies, Sofia Gubaidulina, Imogen Holst (daughter of Gustav), Elizabeth Maconchy and Priaulx Rainier.  Well, at least we can claim that 50% of them are living which is more than can be said for the men!

Women composers are well-represented on tutti and the Lontano label on tutti in particular offers some very engaging recordings – Maconchy is the first name you will see.

The usual gender issues aside, this year’s Proms Festival is truly eclectic and has something for everyone. It really is worth browsing the website – – and if you can’t be there in person, the evening concert is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 every day and there will be lots of other radio and television broadcasts of many of the events.

I’m really pleased Marin Alsop has been given The Last Night of the Proms and on Saturday 7th September, I will be cheering her on from the safety of my sofa!

Sarah Rodgers

Women Composers in the Minority

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Categories: women in music

An interesting statistic came to light recently which claimed that of the 75,000 music-writers – composers, songwriters and lyricists – that are members of the UK royalty collecting society, PRS for Music, only 14% are women.

I think that this could relate to other genres rather than contemporary classical where there is a lot of exciting new music being created. Part of it was even discussed in breakfast time on radio 4 and there, it was emphasised quite correctly I think, that it is not so much whether they are women composers but whether they are good composers.

I remember quite vividly being told by my professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, that he felt it was more important for his male students to succeed as they had to support a family where as most of the women when they left would give up anyway, get married and have babies. Well not this person! Incidentally, I was also told that I would have a much better chance of succeeding as a classical clarinettist, if I did not speak with a Derbyshire accent and if I went to an Anglican Church rather than a Methodist Church – but hey that was a long time ago!

It did not deter me because in the end it was the playing of music that was important to me and let’s face it to the listener as well. I suppose what can make it more difficult is that not enough women get in at the highest level in order to influence decisions.

I am still one to support good compositions and good performers whether they are male or female. However, what is important to us at and on the impulse music website is to support composers and performers so that they are at least seen and heard. Just to even the balance a bit here is a link to women composers of a great range of styles on the tutti website.

Geraldine Allen

A spark has been lost from the world of opera

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Categories: british performers, women in music

I was very sorry to hear today that Marie Hayward Segal has passed away. Whenever I think of Marie I think of her laughter. She was on several musical committees with me and we would meet at various events and I would always be glad to see her as she would brighten up every occasion that she attended. Marie was a dramatic soprano and distinguished opera singer performing at the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and in Europe. She has died at the age of 72 and the music profession will greatly miss her. She is survived by her son Benjamin and her grandson George who was born just after her death.

Geraldine Allen

Remembering a great clarinet player

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Categories: british performers, clarinets, women in music

It seems like ages ago now that I was asked to write a biography on my fellow clarinettist and friend Georgina Dobree for the online edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. It has been published this month at The stuff of biography is by its nature the achievements of a lifetime but somehow you cannot convey the friendship and the laughter and the kindness of a person in such a formal setting. As well as being a terrific clarinettist, editor and publisher, Georgina was known by people in the clarinet world for her parties. Whenever there was a visiting clarinettist or bassett horn player in London there would inevitably be a party in her home to which all the clarinet fraternity would be invited too. Georgina in the 50’s and 60’s at the Darmstadt Festival intriduced more ground breaking contemporary music with composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies, Oliver Messiaen, Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez than most players will do in a lifetime. She was meticulous in researching editing and performing early music as well as commissioning new works. She died in 1998 having greatly enriched the clarinet repertoire and having been a wonderful supporter of music and players alike.

Geraldine Allen

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