The forgotten women of the Proms


At the world's largest classical music festival, the work of female composers will comprise only 4 per cent of the programme. But as this data visualisation shows, female composers often featured more frequently in the early 20th century than they do today – and helped make the Proms the institution it is

27th July 2016
By Cath Sleeman

The 122nd season of the BBC Proms, the world's largest classical musical festival, is under way. Over the coming weeks, the concerts will showcase the works of more than 100 composers. But just eight of them will be women, and their work will comprise only around 4 per cent of the programme.

This small percentage is still an improvement on those years where not a single female composer was featured. But while the percentage of women has been broadly trending upwards since the 1980s, the number has not always been so small. Until the 1930s, female composers often featured more frequently than they do today. This group of women arguably contributed to the survival of the Proms, which is now a British institution, though they have largely been forgotten.

The role of these women in the Proms only emerged after analysis of the complete database of the approximately 50,000 works that make up the Proms record, which the BBC has made publicly available. We identified the gender of each composer by matching their name and birthdate to a music database, allowing the number of female composers to be tracked over time. (Efforts were taken to identify women who used a male pen name or who were referred to by the initials of their first name.)

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The results, visualised above, show that women featured more often in the programme during the early 20th century than in recent years. For example, the largest number of female composers in a season (19) occurred in 1909; and in the 1915 season works by female composers comprised the highest percentage of the programme (7.5 per cent).

While it's not possible to cover the works of all the 100 female composers that were performed at the Proms in its early years, their compositions have been described by some as ballads or 'light music', or by others as 'art songs'. Many of the women also wrote ballets, operas and musicals. Their compositions were popular.

Maude Valerie White, who had more than a hundred performances of her work performed at the Proms, was one of Britain’s leading songwriters of the Victorian period. Another, Guy d'Hardelot (the pen name of Helen Rhodes), was reported to have sold a million copies of her song Because by the time she died, in 1936. Teresa del Riego, who also reached the 100 mark, is reported to have sold 23,000 copies of her song O Dry Those Tears in the first six weeks of its release in 1901.

Within the Proms, the compositions by these and other women were typically placed in between orchestral works and tended to feature in the second part of each concert, which was shorter and devoted to lighter music. At worst, their work was seen as short popular filler and despite their real success, many struggled to be considered as serious composers.

Maude Valerie White's So We'll Go No More A Roving, sung by Felicity Lott

There may have also been financial motives for the inclusion of their work. Until 1927, the Proms received monetary support from the music publishers Chappell & Co. The company published works by many female composers, and their artists included all five women whose works were played most frequently at the Proms prior to 1950. Chappell pushed their own music at the Proms and sold the sheet music of their songs at the concerts.

The reign of Chappell came to an end in 1927 when it withdrew its financial support for the Proms and the BBC stepped in to secure the festival's future. The BBC made artistic changes to the second part of the programmes (where female composers were most often featured).

A reviewer in the Times described the changes, in August 1927:

The only scope for real improvement was in the second part of the programme, and the opportunity offered has been seized. We need no longer… seek refuge in the vestibule from 'platitunes' about June and little cottages, but can stay to enjoy songs by Schubert or Strauss or Parry.

By 1932, the BBC was reported to have "banished the shop ballads of the Chappell regime".

The inadvertent result of these programming changes was a sharp drop in the number of female composers appearing at the Proms, and since then their work has been largely forgotten. Maude Valerie White hasn't been heard at a Prom since 1940 and despite being the woman with the single largest number of works performed (she is in the top 100 even when male composers are included), she is very rarely mentioned in connection with the Proms' history. Among the other top five early female composers, Frances Allitsen and Liza Lehmann have both only been featured once since 1940.

Ethel Smyth

Interestingly, one early female composer is an exception to this trend. Dame Ethel Smyth is alone in being among the top 10 most popular female composers at the Proms both before and after 1940. Her compositions included a number of operas, orchestral works, chamber and instrumental pieces which do not fit the light music mould of other female composers. She also holds a variety of other firsts connected to the Proms. In 1913 she conducted a performance of her own work and in 1927, when the BBC broadcast their first Prom on radio, she delivered a 15-minute talk prior to the start of the concert.

Smyth was also a militant Suffragette. Her composition The March of the Women became an anthem of the women's suffrage movement; and the overture to her opera, The Boatswain's Mate (her most overtly feminist work) was performed at the Proms several times, though not since 1942. In her obituary, the Times observed that she "won her lifelong battle for the right of a woman to be not a woman-composer but just a composer, an artist to be taken as seriously as one of the opposite sex may expect to be taken."

Marin Alsop becomes the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, in 2013

The spirit of the suffrage movement lives on at the Proms via Jerusalem, the anthem, written by Sir Hubert Parry, that has been played at every Last Night of the Proms since 1953. Upon hearing the song, Millicent Fawcett, a prominent suffragist and president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, wrote to Parry expressing that "I wish indeed it might become the Women Voters' hymn, as you suggest." It also became the anthem of the Women's Institute.

While female composers have featured in the Proms since its inception, it has taken longer for women to appear in other roles. The first women were admitted as members of the orchestra in 1916, when 12 women replaced men on active service. Women players had previously been excluded from performing at the Proms as it was considered too strenuous for them. And although Dame Ethel Smyth conducted her own composition in 1913, it wasn't until 1984 that the first woman conducted a complete Prom, when Odaline de la Martinez took to the stage. The most recent 'first' took place in 2013, when Marin Alsop became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms. In her speech, she expressed shock that there can still be firsts for women.


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