Male dominance and darn-right mysoginism have, sadly, been bound to the world of western classical music since its ecclesiastical conception many hundreds of years ago. The patriarchal highlights-reel includes such gems as Leopold Mozart’s insistence that his fabulously talented daughter Nannerl stay behind in Salzburg whilst her brother, the young Wolfgang was whisked off to Italy on yet another musical adventure – or a letter from Gustav Mahler to his composer-wife Alma, in which he dutifully mansplanes 'the role of composer – the worker’s role – falls to me. Yours is that of a loving companion.' Even as recently as 2017, conductor Mariss Jansons let slip that seeing a woman on the podium was not his 'cup of tea'.
Of the 29 contemporary composers featured in last year’s Proms, just eight were female
Thankfully, this remarkable imbalance is finally being redressed. A sweep of initiatives coinciding with International Women’s Day last month include Trinity Laban’s ‘Venus Blazing’ – a commitment to feature female composers in exactly half of its concert programmes in the 2018/19 season, whilst the BBC Proms has pledged to give half of its commissions to women by 2022. And rightly so, for of the 29 contemporary composers featured in last year’s Proms, just eight were female. However – a closer look at the same set of composers reveals an equally disturbing pattern…
The majority (13), as you would expect for a British festival, are from the UK and Ireland, and of these 13 composers, 12 are white. The exception – 33 year-old Hannah Kendall, daughter of 1st generation Guyanese immigrants – was the sole flag-bearer for British compositional diversity in the Proms 2017. Of course, in a country where over 87% of the UK population is caucasian, the odds are stacked against, but that makes it no less intimidating for non-white composers to make their mark. Interestingly, Kendall herself told the Guardian that 'any challenges I had were never to do with race' – and perhaps this is a sign of changing perceptions. The Chineke! Orchestra was set up in 2015 by Chi Chi Nwanoku to help to dispel any remaining myth that classical music is a white-person’s game, and was in fact the orchestra that performed Kendall’s piece Spark Catchers at the Proms last summer – encouraging evidence indeed for the evolving normalisation of ethnic diversity within classical music. But this is not simply ‘problem solved’.
‘People can’t tell what’s good anymore, so they fall back on labels – on the quantifiable.'
One of the Chineke!’s rising stars is BBC Young Musician winner Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the state-school educated cellist whose humble alma mater is often appropriated to present him as shining example of the class-conquering underdog. Now, in no way do I wish to diminish his achievements or those of his equally talented siblings, but it should be pointed out that the Kanneh-Masons were brought up in a house where classical instruments and education were readily available, by parents who could afford to nurture their talent.
In fact, further investigation into our British Prom composers reveals that nine out of 13 attended independent schools – remarkable considering that the independent sector educates just 6.5% of UK school children. Even Essex-born Arsenal fan Mark-Anthony Turnage, often peddled as a ‘working class lad’ admits that this image was 'seriously overdone in the press … in fact I grew up with lots of books and music in the house. My dad sang and my mum played the piano.' Indeed, every one of them received private instrumental tuition from a young age, and every one went on to Higher Education – five at Oxbridge no less (institutions not well-known for their working-class alumni).
Private music tuition averages at £31 an hour across the UK – £40 in London
Even amongst the up-and-coming of the composition world there is a distinctive whiff of exclusivity. All four winners of the 2017 BBC Proms Inspire Young Composers competition go to either a specialist music school or junior conservatoire Saturday school. These institutions are fee-paying, or in some cases offer bursaries on musical merit – merit that will have been expensively earned from an early age. I spoke to conductor and teacher Sam Poppleton, who believes that this ‘hot housing’ of middle-class talent is excluding those without access to any formal tuition and the resulting exam results: 'I think there’s also a problem of doubt. People can’t tell what’s good anymore, so they fall back on labels – on the quantifiable.' So whilst the likes of Kendall, Chineke! and the Kanneh-Masons are doing a huge amount to breakdown the visual gender and racial stereotypes within classical music, the door to the Composition Club remains firmly shut to those who don’t have early access to music lessons, or go to one of the many schools where music is gradually being squeezed out of the curriculum.
Recent figures by the Incorporated Society of Musicians show that private music tuition averages at £31 an hour across the UK – £40 in London. That’s before you factor in the price of sheet music and the instruments themselves. For aspiring disabled musicians the cost of instruments can be eye-wateringly expensive – £15,000 even for a saxophone adapted for one hand. For those looking to schools for an introduction to music, prospects are becoming ever bleaker. A survey of 1,200 secondary schools by the BBC showed that a terrifying 90% had cut back on lesson time, staff or facilities in at least one creative subject. Last year researchers at Sussex University’s School of Education and Social Work even warned 'music could face extinction in secondary schools.' Now, more than ever, children of lesser means will have to rely on the part state-funded music hubs and outreach programmes such as Julian Lloyd Webber’s Sistema UK - institutions already spread thin. Sadly, it remains difficult to imagine the Composition Club opening its doors to the less fortunate any time soon. And whilst the Patriarchy within classical musical has finally been toppled, the high walls of the Kyriarchy remain indefinitely intact.