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Female virtuosi

13 March 2015


THE impartiality of the BBC is a principle closely patrolled. Scripts and cue-sheets of producers and presenters will often carry a reminder of the disclaimer that the views expressed by X or Y are their own, and not those of the Corporation. So, when Radio 3 launched into what, to some, might represent a political cause, we entered interesting territory.

The cause was gender equality in classical music, prompted by International Women's Day last Sunday. A week of programming, with features on female musicians, led us up to the day itself, which was dedicated solely to the work of women composers. The righting of an obvious wrong, or political correctness gone mad? It appears that most of those prepared to express an opinion were all for it (no mean feat, since Radio 3 listeners can be a grumpy lot).

I should at this point admit to some partial interest in all of this: I was a guest on an eclectic edition of The Choir, which featured the girls' choir of St Catharine's College, Cambridge, and the all-female punk band Gaggle. Despite the fact that our host on this occasion was Sara Mohr-Pietsch, I am bound to report that her contribution to Music Matters, on Saturday, got closest to an appropriate sense of indignation regarding women's inclusion in music.

The particular focus of this report was the opportunities given to women composers in the 21st century. While the lack thereof in previous centuries is the job of cultural historians to investigate, the continuing deficit is something that all who are interested in the arts should concern themselves with. It was genuinely surprising to hear that six of the main music publishers have only between three per cent and 17 per cent women on their books. That many of these publishing houses are run by women points to the kind of gender segregations discussed here by Dr Christina Scharff; another instance is the proliferation of female music teachers in schools, and the lack of them in conservatoires.

I could have done with more of this type of analysis - not least because the music profession offers interesting case-studies in gender inequality. This is not to belittle the historical features that reminded us of the ways in which women have contributed to, and been excluded from, classical music-making across the centuries.

In The Sunday Feature: Convent to concert hall, Dr Kate Kennedy introduced us to four instrumental virtuosi whose careers blazed a trail, starting with the 18th-century Venetian violinist Maddalena Lombardini. The story here is about Maddalena's education in the Ospedale della Mendicanti, where orphan girls were trained in a conservatoire atmosphere.

In the 19th century, an 18-year-old French cellist, Lise Cristianti, gave concerts in Leipzig; and, in the 20th century, the English cellist Beatrice Harrison was Elgar's favoured performer of his Cello Concerto.

The quartet concluded with the violist and composer of chamber music Rebecca Clarke - although many believed that "Rebecca Clarke" was a pseudonym for a man, since women were known to be capable of composing only light ditties.

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