Women Composers: Sources and Bias

Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)

There is a lot of interest at the moment in women composers. Until recently, women were a small minority of the composing population, but in working with large datasets, I encounter a surprisingly large number of female names (although it is often frustratingly difficult to find out any details about them). In the nineteenth century, for example, perhaps 1-2% of published music was written by women.1 Whilst that is an embarrassingly small proportion, it still equates to a substantial body of music by many hundreds of women composers – most of whom have since sunk into obscurity. There are of course many more from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.2

There are actually some very good resources for researching historical women composers and their works. Here are a few examples:

Source Comments
Ebel (1910)3 Biographical articles on over 700 female composers. In French. Available at archive.org.
Cohen (1987)4 Biographical articles and works lists, plus other tables, photographs etc. Covers around 6,200 composers.
Fuller (1994)5 Biographical articles and discussion of works for around 100 British and North American women composers.
Wikipedia A long list of links to articles on over 1,200 female composers.
Oxford Music Online A long list of biographical articles on around 800 women composers, although a subscription is required to access them.
Musik und Gender  This German site contains over 500 articles on women composers, with links to other material.
Kapralova  A listing of almost 600 names, with links to further information about many of them.
IMSLP  Over 400 names, with links to further information and copies of their works.
Women of Note Information about many female composers, including extensive works lists and details of publications.
Archiv Frau and Musik A previous long alphabetical list of 1,500 women composers with dates seems to have disappeared from the website, but there are still several useful links to other sources on women composers. [The previous lists are still available on the internet archive – e.g. here is the list of names starting with A.]
Orchestral Works  This PDF file (in German) gives details of almost 800 orchestral works by 160 women.
Choral Music  Details of over 350 choral works by 200 women.
Women’s Song Database Database of almost 20,000 songs by 2,500 women composers. More information here.
Hildegard  Publisher specialising in women’s music, with biographical articles.
Furore  Publisher specialising in women’s music, with biographical articles on over 150 composers.
Unsung Composers  Forum containing discussions on obscure composers, including several about women and their music.
Distaff Side  Article with information on a number of relatively little-known British women composers.

In a future article I will discuss extracting information from these sources and producing a merged list (largely as an example of how messy a process this usually is!), but it is fairly clear that there are several thousand names here. And this only scratches the surface: it is easy to find more women composers who are not in these datasets – simply go to one of the big printed music datasets, pick a common female name such as Maria, Anna, or Charlotte, and search. The chances are that you will find lots of women composers that are not included in any of the above lists.6

An obvious thing to do is to compare the population of women composers with that of male composers. On the face of it, this should be straightforward. However, there are some subtle sources of potential bias that we must bear in mind when making any comparisons.

Researchers have given women composers a lot of attention in recent years – probably proportionately more than has been given to comparable male composers.7 So if more time has been spent, per head, searching for female composers than for their male counterparts, it is quite possible that our data tends to overstate the proportion of women composers.

On the other hand, this bias may be offset by the fact that women composers are inherently harder to find in historical sources. Many women changed their name on marriage, while many wrote under (male or female) pseudonyms, or used only initials. In many sources, women composers can only be recognised by their forenames – not all of which are unambiguously female.8 Women also tend to be underrepresented in contemporary official records, reviews, and critical or scholarly writing. And of course there are the problems women had in getting their music disseminated to the public by publication or non-domestic performance. These factors suggest that our data may well understate the proportion of women.

There will be other factors too, such as the different representation of nationalities in the various sources. Other analyses I have done, for example, suggest that obscure composers from Britain or Germany are more likely to be mentioned in modern sources than their counterparts from, say, Spain or Russia. Similarly, compared to much of continental Europe, nineteenth-century Britain was more open to the idea of women instrumentalists, and this seems to have led to a greater relative number of female composers in Britain.

I have no idea which of these opposing sources of bias might be larger, or to what extent they impact on different comparisons between the sexes. It is even unclear how it would be possible to quantify these effects, although sometimes you get a feel for these things once you have explored the data more thoroughly. The important point, however, is that there is always potential bias, and it is often quite subtle and difficult or impossible to quantify. Of course, the same is true of most research, whether qualitative or quantitative, that uses historical sources. The important thing is to recognise it, and to use it as a way of understanding the sources and their context – even if it makes your conclusions more complicated.

Cite this article as: Gustar, A.J. 'Women Composers: Sources and Bias' in Statistics in Historical Musicology, 25th July 2017, https://musichistorystats.com/women-composers-sources-and-bias/.
  1. This estimate is based on an analysis of data in Hofmeister XIX, about which I will write more in a future post.
  2. See this article for a discussion of the current situation.
  3. Ebel, Otto. 1910. Les Femmes Compositeurs de Musique. Paris, P. Rosier
  4. Cohen, Aaron I. 1987. International Encyclopedia of Women Composers. (Second edition, 2 Volumes). New York, Books & Music.
  5. Fuller, Sophie. 1994. The Pandora Guide to Women Composers. London, Pandora.
  6. For example, Carlotta Cortopassi (mentioned in Pazdirek) does not seem to be there, and nor does Charlotte Oliver, who was the most published British woman in the nineteenth century German market, according to Hofmeister.
  7. ‘Comparable’ is a difficult and undefined concept here, but can be thought of in terms of dates, nationality, genres, level of output, number of performances or publications, contemporary reputation, etc.
  8. Think of Jean Sibelius and Camille Saint-Saëns, for example!

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