Women in classical music have made enormous strides since 1839, when a disenchanted Clara Schumann confided in her diary that “I once thought that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose.”
While it is no longer shocking to see women in the role of commanding soloist or orchestral musician, they are still woefully underrepresented as composers. A recent study from King’s College London reported that while 71% of music teachers are women, the number drops to 8% when the subject is composition. In the US, the situation is slightly better, with WQXR’s Q2 Radio estimating the number of women composition teachers at 15%.
For the Melodia Women’s Choir of NYC, a 28-voice ensemble that works exclusively with women musicians, the historic gender segregation of classical music has had a compound limiting effect on the repertoire available for performance. “Women’s choirs used to be a rarity, which means that many of the great composers never wrote for this combination of voices,” explains Cynthia Powell, Melodia’s Artistic Director. “Plus, much of the music that had been written for treble voices in the past was for children’s choirs, which is not an ideal match in terms of timbre and subject matter for adult women.”
To help remedy this situation, Melodia launched its Women Composer Commissioning Program Competition six years ago. Inaugural winner Chris Lastovicka, whose piece Notes Upon the Breeze premiered in November 2009, was thrilled with the opportunity to write for Melodia, saying, “Melodia made an excellent recording of my piece, which a composer can never take for granted. It directly led to an opportunity to write a new work for the Eastman Women’s Chorus that will be premiered this month.”
Nina Siniakova, who won the competition in 2012, and whose piece From the Four Winds was premiered by Melodia in April 2013, won a residency at Flushing Town Hall and was featured on WQXR’s Q2 radio as a result of her collaboration with Melodia, which she called “talented, dedicated performers whose unique, clear sound made my piece sound exactly as I imagined it while I was composing.”
Melodia has also commissioned works from Errollyn Wallen, Allison Sniffin, Christina Whitten Thomas and Sally Lamb McCune outside the scope of the competition, but Melodia’s Executive Director Jenny Clarke explains that the competition format “has allowed Melodia to meet and explore the work of many talented women composers whom we didn’t previously know, and has brought a unique freshness to our repertoire.”
Melodia is currently accepting applications for the third round of its Composition Competition, which receives support from the Sorel Organization. The deadline for entry is April 15, 2015. It is open to all U.S.-based women composers and there is no fee to enter. Click here for complete details on the Melodia Women Composer Commissioning Program Competition.
A Larger Movement
Melodia is part of a growing movement to expand and enrich the SSA/SSAA repertoire with music written by women for women’s voices. Other notable groups who share Melodia’s mission to support and nurture women musicians and composers.
Concord Women’s Chorus: Now in its 53rd season, this venerable Boston ensemble has always made performing music by women composers—both historical and contemporary—a priority.
Cornell University Chorus: Each year since 2003, this university ensemble has premiered a new work by a woman composer with text by a woman writer as part of their commissioning program informally called “No Whining, No Flowers.”
Eastman Women’s Chorus: Dedicated to “the performance of beautiful and compelling repertoire created with real women’s voices in mind,” this conservatory choir collaborates frequently with contemporary women composers and presents an annual concert each year titled, “By Women, For Women, Benefiting Women.”
Twin Cities Women’s Choir: This 16-member Minnesota chamber choir regularly commissions women composers through the annual Mary Bussman Emerging Female Composer competition.
Beyond the world of women’s choirs, other interesting opportunities for composing women include:
- Opera America's new program, Opera Grants for Female Composers
- The Detroit Symphony’s Elaine Lebenbom Award for Female Composers
- The New York Women Composers’ Seed Money Grant for Recordings
- The Women Composers Festival of Hartford, which holds an open score call each fall for its March festival
- The Women's Philharmonic Advocacy’s performance grants for orchestras that program female composers
Amanda MacBlane is a freelance editor, writer and translator.