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The female composers you should be listening to on International Women’s Day

Almost all classical music you hear on radio or in concert was composed by a man – so here’s a playlist of female composers to listen to on International Women’s Day – and beyond.

In 2019, just 3.6 per cent of classical music performed worldwide was written by women. In 2020 that figure rose to five per cent – the highest on record.

These statistics shocked classical musician Ellie Consta when she came across them. It hadn’t been until Consta began writing string parts for friends in the pop industry during the first lockdown that she started becoming aware of the gender gap that exists in the classical music industry.

“I was shocked at myself that I’d never realised that practically all the pieces I’d played were written by dead white men,” she says. “The first time I played a piece written by a woman, I was 24.”

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This lit a fire and inspired Consta to form Her Ensemble: a string orchestra aiming to make a positive impact on the gender gap in the industry by creating space for musicians of marginalised genders – the first of its kind in the UK.

The free form group aims to make some noise about female composers of the past and work with current artists who share the collective’s commitment to equality.

And they are doing it in style.

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While female members of orchestras are often told to cover their skin, remove piercings, keep their hair a natural colour and hide their queerness, Ellie says that with Her Ensemble she “wanted to create a place for people of marginalised genders to feel they can be accepted just as they are, flourish and express themselves.”

As well as music, fashion has been instrumental to this – with a casual suit-clothing theme allowing the pioneering orchestra to play around with gender stereotypes.

Violist and Her Ensemble member Christine Anderson explains: “When I was growing up and seeing orchestras play they looked a certain way and it tended to be that the ladies were wearing long black dresses and you just never questioned that.

“The first time we all put on a suit we felt pretty badass, which is cool. In other industries women wearing suits may not be such a shock, but in orchestras it’s something that you never really see.”

To mark this years International Women’s Day on Tuesday, Her Ensemble is presenting their Forgotten in History showcase at Manchester’s Carole Nash Hall, a unique concert celebrating over 2,000 years of women composers.

Combining aspects of the pop and classical music industries, the programme features a series of arrangements and compositions from throughout history up to the present day.

Ahead of the concert, Consta and Anderson told us about some of these unsung and/or forgotten composers and the music that feature in the show, and encourage everyone to get listening to them on International Women’s Day and beyond.

Jessie Montgomery 

The Forgotten in History showcase begins with a composition by Jessie Montgomery – a modern-day New York composer, violinist and educator. The piece Her Ensemble have selected to play is called Starburst.

In line with its name, Starburst features exploding musical gestures juxtaposed with fleeting melodies in an attempt to create a multidimensional soundscape.

“Our lighting technician Belinda Best has designed lots of shining lights like stars to go all around the stage as we play,” Consta says.

Hildegard Von Bingen

Hildegard Von Bingen was a German composer from the 1100s which – as Consta says – “makes her one of the first female composers”. Over the course of her life, Von Bingen composed over 77 unique works of music (alongside her extensive work as a writer, philosopher, mystic and visionary). For the concert, Her Ensemble have chosen to arrange their own version of her O Virtus Sapientie, adding electronics to modernise this early piece.

Angela Morley

As one of the first openly transgender female composers, Angel Morley has left more than a musical legacy.

Reverie – the composition Her Ensemble will be playing on the night – was written for violin and strings at the request of the BBC, who wanted a new piece to be recorded for the BBC Concert Orchestra to be played during a Radio 3 interview Angela gave to presenter Brian Kay in 2005, just 4 years before her death.

Anna Meredith

Anna Meredith is a present-day Scottish composer and performer of acoustic and electronic music, former composer in residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, also winning the Scottish Album of the Year in 2016.

While fellow Scot Anderson thinks all the music in the Forgotten in History programme is amazing, she confesses: “I love Anna Meredith’s Tuggemo – it’s an absolutely incredible piece with electronics that’s kind of dance-y and just really fun to play.”

Meredith’s music also brings back happy memories for Anderson because at around 15 years old when she went on her first tour with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland she played one of Meredith’s pieces, which was the first time she had performed as part of a proper symphony orchestra. “So it’s really exciting to be playing another piece by her.”

Florence Price

Consta explains that “Florence Price was the first African-American woman to be recognised as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra.”

Over lockdown, Her Ensemble recorded an extract of Price’s string quartet in G major, arranged for string and orchestra and they are looking forward to performing this live for the concert.

Her Ensemble will perform ‘Forgotten in History’ at Carole Nash Hall, Manchester, in celebration of International Women’s Day on 8th March. Tickets are priced at £6-15 and are available here. Her Ensemble release ‘Forgive Yourself’ with Caitlyn Scarlett on 18th March.

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