Women Composers Follow Up

This page contains replies to some of the points raised at the RMA conference in response to my paper on women composers (either in the session or in subsequent discussions)…

How do you collect the data?

It depends on the data. This article discusses data collection more broadly, with some examples from the women composer sources.

Might the IMSLP data be biased by the ‘popular’ market?

The hypothesis here is that women were more likely to write in ‘popular’ domestic genres (songs and piano pieces in particular), and that these works are under-represented on IMSLP compared to more ‘serious’ music.

There may well be some truth in this, although it is difficult to quantify. There were many women writing ‘serious’ music and many men writing ‘popular’ music, and there is a fair amount of domestic music of various kinds on IMSLP. It also seems to be the case that most other sources tend to disregard those composers who only wrote lightweight popular music. So, if there is a gender/domestic bias on IMSLP compared to other sources, I would be surprised if it accounts for very much of the fourfold difference between the 10% of composers who were women, and the 2½% of works on IMSLP by women.

It is, however, almost certainly correlated with the more general problem of women’s music being less likely to survive (domestic sheet music is probably rather less likely to survive than ‘serious’ works), although this is a bigger issue.

Is there any data on improvisation by early women composers?

There are certainly individual early women composers – Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, for example – who were known for their improvisational skills, but I don’t know of any large scale data on this.

A quick search of the Oxford Music Online biographies of women reveals that the text "improvis" appears in 65 entries (out of 800), including six born before 1850: Bettina Brentano (1785), Maria Brizzi Giorgi (1775), Anna Caroline Oury (1808), Maria Anna Countess Stubenberg (1821), Delphine von Schauroth (1814), and Clara Schumann (1819). However, the text does not appear in OMO’s entry for Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665), so there are probably several others also missing from this selection. A search involving several biographical sources would be required to create a more complete list.

How many women have been listed in different editions of Grove/Oxford Music Online?

This would be an interesting analysis, although it would be time consuming to go through the various printed editions. Perhaps the quickest way of getting a rough answer would be to take a random sample of, say, 100 women listed in the current OMO and then to look them up in previous editions of Grove. This would indicate how the numbers had increased over time, although it would not pick up any names that had been removed.

It would also be possible to analyse the publication dates (in print and online) that are stated at the start of each OMO biographical article. I do not have this data to hand, but it seems that the majority of articles date from the launch of OMO, so this might not tell us much.

As an aside, it is not even clear how many women composers there are in the up-to-date version of OMO. When I did the analysis for this paper, I found about 800 names on OMO’s ‘list of women composers’. However I also found another 300 or so women composers’ biographies in OMO that were not on that list – for example by searching for female first names, or looking for the words "her" or "she" early in the article – so OMO’s own list is not accurate.

These questions are rarely straightforward!

Cite this article as: Gustar, A.J. 'Women Composers Follow Up' in Statistics in Historical Musicology, 24th September 2018, https://musichistorystats.com/women-composers-follow-up/.

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