General

Reflections on repertoire on International Women’s Day 2021

When I was having piano lessons as a child/teenager from the early 1970s to the mid-80s I never played any piano music by women composers, except perhaps some very rudimentary pieces by Fanny Waterman (though I cannot recall any). I learnt music from the “core canon” – pieces by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn and Debussy – all written by dead, white male composers.

And when I was studying music at O- and A-level I never, if my memory serves me correctly, encountered any women composers or their works, except Fanny Mendelssohn, briefly, and only in the context of her brother Felix. (I had very little exposure to contemporary music in my studies as well, but that’s another story….) I never questioned it at the time; I practiced the piano music I was assigned by my teacher, and studied the scores of the set pieces for O- and A-Level Music (both works by Beethoven).

In recent years, the narrowness of music syllabuses has, fortunately, been challenged and today GCSE music courses and graded music exam repertoire lists represent the more enlightened, more diverse and more equal times we live in. The three major UK music exam boards – the ABRSM, Trinity College London (TCL) and London College of Music (LCM) – have in their latest graded piano exam syllabuses gone to considerable lengths to include music by women composers, both living and dead.

In my teaching – and indeed in my own playing – I have always sought a broader range of repertoire. Too often, students of all ages approach classical music with the misconception that it was all written by dead white men in periwigs, and, as a teacher, I believe one has a responsibility to encourage students to explore the wider shores of the repertoire, thus debunking that tired old trope. And music exam boards also have a responsibility to offer a broad range of music, reflecting the diversity of the pianist’s repertoire – and the diversity of those who wrote, and write, for the instrument.

Of the three main UK music exam boards, London College of Music is the trailblazer in this respect (for which I can claim some direct input as I was involved in the selection of pieces for the current syllabus). From Grade 1 right through to the diploma syllabus, LCM offers a refreshingly varied and imaginative selection of repertoire which will introduce students to a broad range of musical styles and genres, with a decent percentage of pieces by female, BAME and contemporary composers as well as works from the core canon.

There is of course a danger, when seeking greater diversity and equality in exam syllabuses, and also concert programmes, that the inclusion of music by female composers leads to tokenism, and so for this reason, I believe that, ultimately, music should be included on the basis of its quality, regardless of who composed it.

Further resources:

DONNE – Women in Music

A charitable foundation that aims to make a positive change and to readdress the gender inequality within the music industry. Its main goal is to celebrate, advance and amplify women in music so that they are seen, heard and appreciated for their talent so they can leave a legacy of inspiration for future generations.

DONNE, WOMEN IN MUSIC (donne-uk.org)

Piano Music, She Wrote

A database of music by women composers that is found on imslp.org, compiled by pianists Sandra Mogensen and Erica Sipes

Access to Piano Music, She Wrote spreadsheet

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