Women at the Symphony (Part 1)

When was the last time you went to a subscription concert at a major symphony orchestra and heard a program of pieces all composed by women? When was the last time you heard a program of pieces written exclusively by men?

Like most people, my respective answers to those questions are “never” and “almost always.”

Let’s look at the numbers for the current 2018/19 orchestra season. Of the 21 American orchestras with the largest operating budgets, four groups programmed zero works by women on their regular series concerts (Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and Pittsburgh). The Philadelphia Orchestra initially programmed zero pieces by women as well, but after public outrage added two pieces by women to the season. The Cleveland Orchestra, which this year fired two principal chair male musicians for allegations of sexual misconduct towards women, programmed just one piece written by a woman. Of the major orchestras, the Minnesota Orchestra will play the most music by women this year, programming eight pieces.

Only 3.4% of the pieces heard this season at those top 21 orchestras are by women. This is an insulting percentage as is, but compare it to the 5.9% of pieces programmed that are by Beethoven alone and the scope of the problem becomes clearer. Pieces by women are not being played in the highest levels of classical music.

What’s causing this huge imbalance? A reason often given is that until relatively recently in history, women couldn’t make a living composing. Therefore, since few women composed during the industry-defining Classical and Romantic Eras, the canon of Western art music is completely male. In other words, the music doesn’t exist. But is that true?

“That’s absurdly incorrect,” says Civic Orchestra of Chicago harp Ellie Kirk, who serves on the board for 5th Wave Collective, a Chicago-based ensemble dedicated to performing exclusively pieces by women. “There are incredible works all throughout musical history that weren’t recognized as the gems they are because of the societal circumstances in which they were written.”

Moreover, when we look at music written by living composers, we should expect to see more equal representation. But this season, of the music performed written by living composers, only 10.8% of pieces are by women. Ellie explains that male composers have been systematically favored throughout history, and those systems are still in place.

Clockwise, from left, 5th Wave Collective:
Concert at Chicago Temple, September 2018. | Performance at Den Theatre, November 2018. |executive board L-R: Gordon Doale-Wellman, Ellie Kirk, Ashley Ertz, and Mika Allison.

“The systems we’ve grown up in are centered on male composers,” Kirk adds. “The fact that we can’t name many female composers doesn’t prove their nonexistence. Rather, it proves that there’s a hole in our knowledge. We don’t learn pieces by women in school, and hardly ever hear them in the concert hall. It’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.”

One way musicians can address the gender imbalance in orchestral programming is by stepping outside of traditional orchestral organizations to form independent ensembles. 5th Wave Collective, founded by oboists Ashley Ertz and Mika Allison and named in reference to the waves of feminism throughout history, performs and promotes music by women, both from the past and for the future. In addition to presenting concerts of works by women, the group is creating a database of music so that other ensembles who are looking to program music by women can more easily find composers and pieces. 5th Wave (which includes many current and past Civic members) presented its first concert in April 2018. Since then they have presented works by 51 women. This season all 21 major orchestras combined will have played works by just 35 women.


A common reason for leaving women off orchestra programs is the ever-looming bottom line: Relatively unknown women won’t fill seats the way Beethoven or Mahler can, and music directors may consider it irresponsible to program something less known in place of a popular piece that could embolden ticket revenue.  But ultimately the music director makes programming decisions, and they have the power to advocate for women composers, talk with donors about diversifying the season, and cultivate relationships with living women composers. Marin Alsop, Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony and the only woman conductor of a major American orchestra (see this excellent article by Carmen Abelson about women conductors), has these words for her fellow music directors: “Unless we actively try to change the landscape, I don’t think it’s going to change on its own.”

Jennifer Higdon is one of the few women composers to be regularly programmed on orchestra seasons, and she is a fierce advocate for her colleagues. “The way of thinking in orchestras is so built on an old tradition,” she told NPR. “They just assume that there are certain pieces they need to program, certain composers that have been done time and time again, and they just don’t think about programming women.”

Alsop cautions orchestras not to program one or two works by women and consider that enough. “You can’t give up just because the box is ticked,” she says. “If only one woman gets a chance ever, and she fails, then the door gets closed.”

What can an audience member do? Ellie Kirk believes that “everyone must have a role – musicians, audience members, music directors, and donors alike. We all have to actively work together in order for women to have equitable representation in the concert hall.” She suggests calling or writing orchestras if you notice they rarely program women, and supporting smaller groups who do present more diverse programs.

Higdon agrees. “If you want to hear something by a woman, say something. There’s a lot of fantastic music out there, why miss out on it?”

By Civic Fellow and viola Rebecca Boelzner


Hear 5th Wave Collective at the final performance of their inaugural season in a program titled Orchestral Evolutions, featuring music by Amy Beach, Rene Orth, Errollyn Wallen, and the winner of 5th Wave’s first ever juried call for scores. June 13th at 7:00 PM at DePaul University’s new Gannon Concert Hall.

Learn more about 5th Wave Collective at www.5thwavecollective.com.


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