The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why do symphony orchestras program so few women composers – and often none? | July 26, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

The summer is rolling along.

Soon August will be here, and then September with the new concert season.

Looking over the programs, which feature new music and living composers, for the next season at the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO), The Ear was reminded of a recent story.

It came from National Public Radio (NPR) and was about why so few women composers – or even no women composers – are being programmed at major national and regional symphony orchestras.

One major exception is Jennifer Higdon (below), the Curtis Institute teacher who has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award, who has been performed by the MSO and who is quoted in the story.

Here is a link to the story:

Now, The Ear likes the 2018-19 season at the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) for many reasons he will go into another time. He thinks it is a big improvement over last year, probably because it also celebrates the 25th anniversary of John DeMain’s tenure as the artistic director. And it does open with the “Fanfare Ritmico” by Jennifer Higdon. But you still won’t find major works by Higdon or other women composers.

Here is a link:

And the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) also has an interesting and appealing season that includes some unusual features, including a recorder soloist and a repeat performance of a two-piano concerto that the WCO commissioned and premiered a couple of seasons ago. But, again, there are no women composers:

The UW Symphony Orchestra, which last year performed a work by Caroline Shaw (below), hasn’t yet released its new schedule of programs.

If The Ear’s memory is correct, certain local chamber music and vocal groups — the Willy Street Chamber Players and the Oakwood Chamber Players come to mind — do a better job at programming works by women and composers of color, although there is still room to improve.

And it sure seems to The Ear that Wisconsin Public Radio has started to make a concerted effort to program more works by women.

What do you make of the lack of women composers?

Would you like to see more works by women composers programmed — say, Higdon’s violin and viola concertos? (You can hear the slow second movement of the Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Do you think programming more women composers would boost, lessen or not affect attendance?

Do you have suggestions for specific composers and specific works?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. Speaking personally, I attend orchestra concerts (or any concerts of classical music) for musical reasons, not gender reasons. Concert repertoire should be selected the same way players in major orchestras are selected: by “blind” audition, with issues of quality being the primary focus. Performers and listeners promoting other points of focus for music selection should be able to answer two philosophical questions dispassionately:
    1) am I willing, or unwilling, to make qualitative judgements about works of art based on the value of the works themselves, without being influenced by aspects of the lives of the creators’ of those works?
    2) Can I give logical reasons for selecting works for reasons other than the inherent quality of the works?

    Peter Schmalz

    Comment by Peter Schmalz — July 28, 2018 @ 6:29 pm

  2. Symphony orchestra music directors and conductors are one of the chief “gatekeepers” to classical music. The fact that so many are male also means that the music they choose, by and large, is also by males.

    It is no coincidence that one of the major forces for programming woman composers is a woman conductor: Marin Alsop.

    Wouldn’t it be refreshing if Madison had a female symphony conductor? (there are some great ones out there and they are far more innovative than the present one). When has the present conductor ever led a piece by Amy Beach, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Lili Boulanger, Florence Price etc.?

    Comment by fflambeau — July 27, 2018 @ 11:08 pm

  3. May I add a heretical comment on this topic? I think Tim sums up the major problem well; although I do remember recently hearing some beautiful works by, ie, Clara Schumann. Over a long life, I have made repeated efforts to listen to contemporary music. There is no doubt of the talent and skill in much 20th Century modern music, but I must confess music speaks directly to my emotions and heart, and if there is no pleasure in listening, I have rather reluctantly concluded, there is still much of the earlier masters to explore. Also, there is a reason for the endurance of the so-called “Warhorses” of the 15th to early 20th century music. I do understand why the players enjoy more challenging works, and composers do not wish to repeat ideas already covered so well. I still feel sorry, but no longer guilty about my ordinary taste!

    Comment by William Duff — July 27, 2018 @ 7:54 pm

  4. may I

    Comment by William Duff — July 27, 2018 @ 7:51 pm

  5. My reaction to this is that Classical symphonic music is already a relatively small niche in the world of music, and contemporary Classical music is really a very small niche within the Classical realm. Since most female composers are contemporary, it isn’t surprising to me that female composers are very rarely programmed — ALL contemporary Classical music is by and large ignored, although there do exist adventurous symphonic groups, sprinkled throughout the US, that make an effort to present Classical music of our time. The only “solution” I see is to understand how those models work, and proceed accordingly.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — July 27, 2018 @ 7:58 am

    • I think you are wrong to assume that “most female composers are contemporary…. .” Clara Schumann was a better pianist than her husband and she was a great composer; then there is Amy Beach who is a neglected American female composer. Neither are contemporaries and there are other examples.

      I suspect that the problem is due to the “gatekeepers” of Classical music: a mix of academics, critics, and yes, music directors of symphonies (who are especially unwilling to make changes).

      In this spirit, 25 years is far too long for any but the most talented to be in a job. Madison’s Maestro should have been released decades ago: his programming is pathetic.

      Comment by fflambeau — July 27, 2018 @ 9:08 pm

  6. Jacob,

    You mention Jennifer Higdon and then go on to say the MSO has no works programmed by women composers in 2018/19.

    The first work on the opening concert is indeed by Ms. Higdon, her “Fanfare Ritmico” which has been recorded by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

    Comment by Robert Palmer — July 26, 2018 @ 11:15 am

    • Bob
      You are completely right!
      Somehow I overlooked it.
      I regret the error and apologize and will modify the post right now.
      Thank you for the correction.
      In addition to the upcoming fanfare, I think the MSO also performed Higdon’s “Blue Cathedral” a few seasons ago.
      But the point about not programming major works by many women composers still stands.
      Best wishes,

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 26, 2018 @ 11:37 am

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