Sound ideas for musical equality, but still no wider vision

The NCH’s female composer commissioning scheme is a small step in the right direction

Soprano Sylvia O’Brien performed at Sounding Out at Seanad Éireann

Soprano Sylvia O’Brien performed at Sounding Out at Seanad Éireann


A couple of years ago I found myself in discussion with a media researcher about a column I had written on gender balance in the arts. My conclusion posited that affirmative action and positive discrimination might be the only way forward.

The discussion with Hector – not his real name – was like a polite version of a 2018 Brexit argument. He just couldn’t see what the issue was, and, forget the arts, stood firm against the introduction of gender quotas for political parties in general elections. And let’s be clear. The quotas are not even strictly imposed quotas. It’s just that parties failing to meet the specified targets will lose half their state funding. Any party is still free to run a 100 per cent male ticket if that’s what it wants to do.

Hector held firm until I asked him to imagine the situation was the other way around. That men, for no particular reason, found it hard to get on the ticket for elections, were paid less than women, and clearly were less favoured in the higher echelons of politics and business.

It was a lightbulb moment. He would certainly be in favour of corrective measures to turn that kind of situation around. 

Well, the corrective action is under way, most notably at the National Concert Hall which, in conjunction with Sounding the Feminists, has started a Female Composer Series, and has announced commissioning schemes for both emerging and established female composers.

The Female Composer Series – which, I kid you not, is currently actually allowing works by men to squeeze out time that could have been devoted to women – is providing a platform for around a half dozen composers whose work I’ve never encountered in concert in Ireland before, as well as a much larger number whose names have only featured sporadically on concert programmes. 

The commissioning scheme is something else again, as it works on the basis that no men need apply. Concert series which concentrate exclusively on music by men are the norm rather than the exception. But the commissioning scheme, which will run for five years, is a truly decisive move of positive discrimination.

Dismal record

The wider context here is that the National Concert Hall itself really has a rather dismal record when it comes to the commissioning of new music. There was a time when the hall’s artistic policy declared support for “contemporary music, both Irish and international, by encouraging its performance as part of a balanced programme and by the commissioning of new works”.

Its current Strategy 2015-2020 document states that, “as the home of music in Ireland we host, commission, produce and present musical performances and other artistic, cultural and learning activities reflecting the highest standards of excellence.” 

The strategy makes no mention of commissioning works of music as opposed to performances, and you won’t find a single mention of composers in its pages, though they probably intended it to fall under the promise to “cherish and encourage our artists, performers, creators and promoters”.

The only regular commission from the NCH is the annual Jerome Hynes Young Composers’ Award, which is open to composers under 30. So a guaranteed string of commissions for women over five years does not so much level the playing field as create a completely new one.

Of course, beyond drawing attention to one of the NCH’s major shortcomings, the commissioning situation also points to its limitation of interest and expertise in an area that will be of vital importance if, as the Government seems set on, the management of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra is to be passed over willy-nilly to the NCH.

Smyth once famously conducted the March of the Women with a toothbrush from her cell window in Holloway Prison

Last week saw another gender landmark in the form of Sounding Out at Seanad Éireann, in which the Royal Irish Academy of Music and the National Museum of Ireland teamed up with the Houses of the Oireachtas to bring a programme of music by women to the Seanad as part of the celebration of the centenary of women’s suffrage. 


The event was topped and tailed by performances of Ethel Smyth’s 1911 March of the Women, which became the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain and beyond. Blánaid Murphy coached and conducted the audience for the performances, and soprano Sylvia O’Brien also gave a solo performance. Smyth, who once famously conducted the march with a toothbrush from her cell window in Holloway Prison, would surely have relished the idea of the piece being performed in a parliament building. 

Smyth shared the programme with works – some earnest, some witty – for voice, flute (William Dowdall) and clarinet (Paul Roe): Jane O’Leary’s a piacere, Marian Ingoldsby’s Deuce, Solfa Carlile’s Dystopia, Ailís Ní Ríain’s End with Words of Hope, Sylvia O’Brien’s Vibrational Mismatch, Amanda Feery’s Rattle, and Kaija Saariaho’s Changing Light. The importance of the occasion lay not in any individual work, but in the fact that such a place could be devoted to the work of women for such a celebration.

Yet it would be foolish to assume that the work of rebalancing has been integrated into any wider vision. Yes, the NCH now has a series for women. But its New Year Chamber Music Gathering is happily living back in the past. When the third gathering ends next January, a full three years and nine concerts will have passed without the inclusion of a single work by a living composer, or a single work by an Irish composer, or a single work by a female composer. So much for a declared strategy that promises to cherish and encourage. 

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.