Recital Representation: Making Space for Women Composers

Learn how to include more works by women composers in your recitals as a student and as a voice teacher.

Every music major takes a journey through the senior recital experience before graduation. Choosing recital repertoire is an art form that many wonderful artists have been chronicling for decades. Programming voice recitals today is more challenging than ever as we address equitable topics with socially just momentum. 

Our history of classical vocal repertoire is very white and male dominated, so how do we keep what works but also make space for more music that hasn’t been included in the canon? Can the barrel of the “canon” be made larger? It must. Our tried-and-true repertoire is beloved for all the right pedagogical and musical reasons. And, yet, there is a wealth of lesser-known repertoire, specifically art songs by women composers for all voice types. 

The NASM (National Association of Schools of Music) guidelines outline junior and senior recital requirements as demonstrating proficiency in the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary styles including lyric diction proficiency in Italian, German, French, and English languages. There are seemingly unlimited sub-genres within these styles and excellent cases for singing in additional languages such as Spanish, Russian, Czech, Portuguese, and much more. With all of these options, how do composers get considered for the final program? 

Many voice teachers opt for traditional “top 10” composers for their students. We know that young singers will learn how to sing a phrase with Schubert Lieder, exercise vocal agility with Purcell, test their legato with Bellini—and navigating Debussy’s convergence of poetry and tone color is a black-tie occasion. So, how do we make space for lesser-known composers in classical vocal education when time is limited and young voices need the tried-and-true training for student recitals? 

My first suggestion is to remedy the “lesser-known” obstacle and let’s get schooled. When we know more work by women composers, we will bring it into the canon of vocal recital repertoire. Read on for five thoughts about how to make space for music by women composers.

 

  1. Perform music by women on purpose.

Plan to fulfill academic recital requirements by programming at least one song by a female composer. When we learn songs by women composers, we learn their point of view and deem them relevant. We can make some literal noise for the women who shared a part of themselves in our music history. Representation of women on recital programs begins with the study of their music.

 

  1. Assign songs by women composers every semester.

Or more than one. Fanny Mendelssohn isn’t our only option! Ruth Bader Ginsburg was once asked when will there be enough women on the Supreme Court? She famously answered, “When there are nine.” Undergraduate students today do not have to sing a program of all women composers, but we have done a disservice when we facilitate a music degree bereft of any music by women composers. And yes, baritones and tenors, I’m including you in this advisory.

 Certainly, there is a solid vocal music education to be had encompassing solely male composers—but like a hot date, vocal repertoire is more enjoyable when the topics cover more than just an old guy’s depression (unless that date is attending a recital of Winterreise—and in that case you should just marry the guy and listen happily ever after).

 

  1. Buy anthologies of music by women.

Scores by women composers are typically hard to find, and publishers of classical music need to make a living—so musical consumers must create a demand for more music by women. The new collection of 24 Italian Songs & Arias by Women Composers is a breath of fresh air when you’ve been teaching “Tu lo sai” for “too long time.” Buy the recently published anthologies and show publishers the money! 

Hildegard Publishing Company is a wonderful organization to support. Their mission is to “seek out and publish compositions by women composers which display the highest level of excellence and musical merit.” You can purchase music on their website (www.Hildegard.com) Or you can #GetItFromGlendower. My most used Hildegard anthologies include these:

  • Seven Songs by Clara Schumann
  • Art Songs and Spirituals by African American Women Composers
  • 24 Italian Songs & Arias by Women Composers
  • First Solos: Songs by Women Composers, Volumes 1-3 (high, medium, and low voices) 

 

 

 

  1. Discuss music by women in the classroom, not just the studio.

For university voice teachers that also teach theory, music history, vocal literature, and opera history, consider adding women to your syllabus and spend some class time on lesser-known works by women. Their compositions are often overlooked because they were not promoted in their time, not hailed, or perhaps not even published. We might have to work a little harder to find music by women in genres we are teaching, but our efforts are probably not even close to commensurate with the efforts these composers faced with the gender bias of their generations. That gender bias continues to lurk in the shadows and will only truly fade away when we consciously promote, study, and perform the work of women on a regular basis.

If you are in a class that feels like a dead white dude cover club (no offense, Handel), pick a woman composer for your next project and help promote equality in the curriculum. The stories of women composers typically include overcoming some form of adversity, which will make your research paper a real page turner.

 

  1. Research these gals.

Falling in love with a melody is a great reason to sing a song. How many of us are reading this very issue of Classical Singer because “Après un rêve” made us swoon? Maybe that gut reaction could be categorized as “Vocal Literature 101,” but for “Upper Division Vocal Lit” we are charged with investigating the genre and including music by women. 

For a handful of the masters, you need look no further than Wikipedia to see if their spouses published any compositions (see the Schumanns, the Mahlers, the Rossinis, to name a few). For others, you might find composers that studied with the same teacher, or you might follow the poetry (Goethe, Verlaine, Emily Dickinson, etc.) and listen to a new setting by a female composer. Many undergrads learn Mozart’s setting of “Das Veilchen,” but have you heard Clara Schumann’s setting of the same poem? This leads us to a game called “Look it up!” This game delights voice teachers and it is all the rage in music libraries—trust me.

Look it up!

 

Listen:

If you are ready to up your game on female composers, you can seek out a plethora of recordings on YouTube, and my recommendation du jour is Annick Massis–Viardot: 10 Songs. https://youtu.be/cUNZSHSqMZM

 

Scroll:

If scrolling for news is more your speed, consider joining the Facebook group “Women Composers of Classical Music.” 

 

Print:

Or, if you are ready to familiarize yourself with a new song right now, download the sheet music for a beautiful song a tenor student brought to me this year: “Within Thy Heart” by Amy Beach. This song is an adjudicator’s dream: it is short and melodic yet serves up just enough harmonic color to keep theory nerds interested. Amy Beach’s music is in the public domain and available for free download on www.imslp.org.

Christi Amonson

Soprano Christi Amonson is an assistant professor of voice and director of opera initiative at Augusta University and a teaching artist in residence for the summer Festival de Ópera San Luis in Mexico. She earned her DMA at the University of Arizona, her MM in voice at the Manhattan School of Music, and her BM in music education at the University of Idaho. Amonson is an active singer, writer, and member of NATS and NOA. She lives in Augusta, Georgia, with her husband and three daughters.