Women Composers at the Proms
22 women composers were championed by the 2018 Proms as the festival reflected on the moment 100 years ago when some women got the vote.
Watch or listen to performances of their music at the 2018 Proms.
Florence Price (1887 – 1953) was an award-winning African-American classical composer. She is thought to have been the first woman symphonist of African-American heritage, and was certainly the first to have had her music performed by a leading orchestra.
Born in Arkansas, Price had her first music published by age 11. In 1903, she was accepted to the New England Conservatoire of Music, where she achieved a Double First and a piano teaching diploma. She was denied a place on the Music Teachers’ Association, however, because of the colour of her skin.
In 1925 and 1927 Price won the Holstein prize, and her Symphony No 1 in E minor was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1932. She achieved success at a time when restrictive Jim Crow laws were in place in the South and the "Harlem Renaissance" movement was taking flight.
So... what other female composers had you looked forward to hearing in the 2018 Proms? We took to the streets to ask some people who their favourites were.
How would you have fared?
Read on to find out more about the women composers featured in the 2018 Proms. Perhaps you'll find a favourite - or help inspire other budding women composers out there.
As an international artist, Anna Meredith’s music has been performed worldwide. Anna's sound is often called uncategorisable as she mixes many different musical worlds together including classical, pop and experimental rock.
This season, her work Five Telegrams opened the BBC Proms 2018 season at the First Night of the Proms.
In a unique coming together of music and digital projections, spectacular visuals were projected onto the external façade of the Royal Albert Hall by innovative designers 59 Productions, whilst Anna's score was transmitted from within the Royal Albert Hall, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, National Youth Choir of Great Britain and conductor, Sakari Oramo.
Tansy Davies (b.1973) is an English composer of contemporary classical music. She won the BBC Young Composers' Competition in 1996 and has written works for ensembles such as the London Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
Prom 15 opened in a sombre, contemplative mood with the world premiere of Tansy Davies’s What Did We See? – a meditation on death, healing and transcendence that builds on material from the composer’s recent 9/11-inspired opera Between Worlds.
Thea Musgrave (b.1928) is a Scottish composer and conductor of opera and classical music, carving out her career at a time when it was rare for a woman to be either. Born in Edinburgh, she studied first at Edinburgh University, then with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, before settling in London for a while, where her Concerto for Orchestra (and later her Concerto for Horn) established her distinctively dramatic-abstract style of instrumental writing.
In 1970 she became Guest Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and married American violist and conductor Peter Mark in 1971. Together they set up an opera company in Virginia, and have lived in the US ever since. From 1987 to 2002 she was Distinguished Professor at Queens College, City University of New York.
Throughout her career, Thea Musgrave has been the recipient of many notable awards including a CBE in 2002, two Guggenheim Fellowships, the 2018 Ivor Novello award for classical music and the Queen's Medal for Music in June 2018.
Marking Thea Musgrave’s 90th birthday, Prom 33: Brahms's A German Requiem opened with her dramatic Phoenix Rising. Much like Brahms’s tender, consoling requiem, Phoenix Rising also traces a journey from darkness to light, enacting the conflict both spatially and musically in some of the composer’s most dramatic writing.
Prom 49 saw the UK premiere of Agata Zubel's Fireworks, a celebration of freedom and of the present moment, written to mark the 100th anniversary of Polish independence.
It was performed by the European Youth Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda.
Alma Mahler (1879 - 1911) was a Viennese-born composer, author, editor and socialite. Musically active from her early years, she was the composer of at least 17 songs for voice and piano.
Alma married composer Gustav Mahler, who did not approve of her continuing to compose music. Eventually she fell into depression from being artistically stifled and while her marriage was struggling, she had an affair with Walter Gropius. In an attempt at reconciliation, Mahler started to encourage Alma's composing and helped prepare some of her compositions for publication, but died soon after in 1911.
Only a total of 17 songs by her survive. Fourteen were published during her lifetime, in three publications dated 1910, 1915, and 1924; it is unclear whether she continued composing at all after her last publication, especially as the chronology of her songs is difficult to establish because she did not date her manuscripts. Three additional songs were discovered in manuscript posthumously.
Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867 – 1944) was an American composer and pianist - and the first successful American female composer of large-scale art music. Her "Gaelic" Symphony, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1896, was the first symphony composed and published by an American woman.
Beach was also one of the first American composers to succeed without the benefit of European training, and one of the most respected and acclaimed American composers of her era. As a pianist, she was acclaimed for concerts she gave featuring her own music in the United States and in Germany.
Soprano, Golda Schultz performed 'I Send My Heart Up To Thee' by Amy Beach on BBC Proms Extra, along with pianist Joseph Middleton. The song is the third of a set of three songs set to words by the poet, Robert Browning.
Clara Schumann (1819 – 1896) was a German musician and composer, and is considered one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era. Hot-housed by her pushy and ambitious piano-teacher father, Friedrich Wieck, she made her concert debut aged nine and published her first opus only two years later.
Against her father's wishes, Clara married the composer Robert Schumann in 1840, and her career took a back seat to looking after Robert and their eight children. After Robert's death in 1856, Clara (now aged 36) resumed her concert career, but more or less stopped composing for good.
Clara’s 61-year concert career changed the format and repertoire of the piano recital and the tastes of the listening public. She produced over 60 works, including piano miniatures and songs, and also premiered other pieces by Johannes Brahms, notably the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel.
Her outstanding Piano Trio in G minor in particular has led many to think that without her family commitments and the social mores of her day constraining her development as a composer, she might perhaps have become one of the leading composers of the second half of the 19th century.
Joshua Bell played Clara Schumann's Romanze, Op 22 No 1, on BBC Proms Extra, accompanied by Sam Haywood, and Lauren Zhang played Clara Schumann's Scherzo No 1.
Dame Ethel Smyth
Despite her father's opposition to her making a career in music, Dame Ethel Smyth (1858 – 1944) refused to submit to Victorian expectations and was determined to become a composer. She studied with a private tutor, and then attended the Leipzig Conservatory, where she met many composers of the day.
Dame Ethel's compositions include songs, works for piano, chamber music, orchestral and concertante works, choral works, and operas, receiving praise from Thomas Beecham and George Bernard Shaw.
However, from 1913 onwards, Dame Ethel gradually began to lose her hearing and managed to complete only four more major works before deafness brought her composing career to an end.
In the centenary year of British women gaining the right to vote, Ethel Smyth’s evocative On the Cliffs of Cornwall (Prelude to Act 2) from The Wreckers featured in Prom 24: A Hero’s Life, and celebrated a key British composer who, as a suffragette, spent two months in Holloway Prison.
Women pioneers of sound
Prom 13 - Pioneers of Sound was a tribute to the legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – pioneers of experimental electronic music, and featured an array of work by women composers:
- Delia Derbyshire (1937 – 2001): Radiophonic Workshop pioneer Delia Derbyshire achieved cult status for her electronic arrangement of the Doctor Who TV theme – as well as new works inspired by the Radiophonic legacy. Delia is the composer of The Delian Mode, featured in Prom 13, and her work was also part of Still Point by Daphne Oram.
- Laurie Spiegel (b.1945): Seen by some as a pioneer of the New York new-music scene, American composer Laurie Spiegel is known primarily for her electronic-music compositions and her algorithmic composition software Music Mouse. She also plays the guitar and lute. Prom 13 saw the world premiere of her piece Only Night Thoughts.
- Suzanne Ciani (b.1946): Suzanne Ciani is an Italian American pianist, composer and sound designer who found early success with innovative electronic music and quadraphonic sound. Prom 13 saw her Improvisation on Four Sequences.
- Daphne Oram (1925 – 2003): British composer and electronic musician Daphne Oram was one of the first British composers to produce electronic sound and a pioneer of musique concrete in the UK.
Daphne was the creator of the Oramics technique for creating electronic sounds, co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and a central figure in the evolution of electronic music.
Besides being a musical innovator, she was the first woman to direct an electronic music studio, the first woman to set up a personal electronic music studio and the first woman to design and construct an electronic musical instrument.
Daphne Oram’s visionary Still Point filled the cavernous space of the Royal Albert Hall for the first time in the world premiere of a revised realisation based on recently discovered archive material, in Prom 13 with Shiva Feshareki on turntables.
Composed in 1949 – almost a decade before Oram co-founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – the piece was possibly the first to combine a live orchestra with live electronic manipulations.
Lili Boulanger and Morfydd Owen
In Prom 8, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and its Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård explored the music of two 20th-century female composers, whose early deaths cut their careers tragically short:
The first woman to win the coveted Prix de Rome, Lili Boulanger (1893 – 1918) and Wales’s Morfydd Owen (1891 – 1918), whose Nocturne showcases a sensuous and original musical voice.
Lili Boulanger's work was also featured in Prom 41: Edward Gardner conducts Elgar & Vaughan Williams with the compressed drama of her choral miniature Pour les funérailles d’un soldat.
Aged two, Lili Boulanger narrowly survived a severe bout of bronchial pneumonia, and was left with a much-reduced resistance to illness. Rarely in good health, she experienced little of real life.
The outbreak of war interrupted her residence at the Villa Medici in Rome, and Lili made it her duty to organise a morale-boosting supply of letters and parcels to Conservatoire students on military service. Despite this, she wrote most of her major works at this time.
Lili was intelligent with perfect pitch, growing up in a musical family with a fiercely protective Russian princess for a mother and a professional composition teacher for a sister. Without her sister Nadia’s support, Lili may not have achieved so much in a short time.
Lili Boulanger's last work, an economical setting of the Pie Jesu dictated to her sister from her deathbed, was a requiem for herself, coming to terms with the prospect of an early death through her music.
Women Composers at the Proms Chamber Music series
As part of the 2018 Proms Chamber Music series, eight women composers never previously commissioned by the BBC had world premieres of new works performed across the eight Proms At… Cadogan Hall lunchtime chamber music concerts:
The British-Lebanese composer Bushra El-Turk showcased a new song Crème Brûlée on a Tree, written in response to Bernstein’s witty recipe settings, La bonne cuisine. (Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 7: Bernstein on Broadway and Beyond)
Laura Mvula (b.1986):
Singer-songwriter Laura Mvula’s new commission Love Like A Lion was inspired by the Black Madonna in a Catalonian mountain monastery. (Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 6 – The Sense of An Ending)
Caroline Shaw (b.1982):
Caroline Shaw is a New York City-based violinist, singer, and composer. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 for her a cappella piece Partita for 8 Voices. Her works Second Essay: Echo and Third Essay: Ruby were featured in Proms at … Cadogan Hall 1.
Eve Risser (b.1982):
Genre-crossing French composer Eve Risser's music draws on jazz and and improvisation to create its edgy sound-world. Her work Furakèla was featured in Proms at … Cadogan Hall 2.
Jessica Wells (b.1974):
Australian composer Jessica Wells's BBC Commission Rhapsody for solo oud made it's world premiere. (Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 3)
Nina Šenk (b.1982):
Slovenian composer Nina Šenk's world premiere of Baca, a BBC Commision, used the same instrumental forces as Ravel’s vivacious Introduction and Allegro. (Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 8: Berliner Philharmoniker perform Debussy and Ravel)
Last Night of the Proms commission
Roxanna Panufnik received the coveted Last Night of the Proms commission, featuring Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light, which draws on complementary religious traditions.