Sounding the Feminists: Women composers in the spotlight

Michael Dervan: Moves are afoot to orchestrate more equitable representation

Waking the Feminists has inspired moves within the musical world to improve the lot for female composers. The Minister for Culture, Josepha Madigan, dipped into the Creative Ireland programme to deliver €20,000 a year over five years to co-fund the National Concert Hall and Sounding the Feminists' five-year initiative "to promote creative work by female musicians".

Francis Humphrys, director of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, has moved to increase the representation of music by female composers in his festival. And in the area of new music there are promoters such as Dublin Sound Lab and Louth Contemporary Music Society who can hit a representation level for women of 30 to 50 per cent.

The NCH/Sounding the Feminists programming is not all about new music, which is where gender balance issues are easiest to get right – there are far more female composers active today than ever before. It’s in earlier repertoire that the greatest challenges have to be faced.

That’s why BBC Radio 3 made so much of their resuscitation of the reputation of Leokadiya Kashperova (1872-1940), best known as Stravinsky’s piano teacher. Stravinsky was not particularly kind in what he said about her.


“She was,” he wrote, “an excellent pianist and a blockhead – a not-unusual combination. By which I mean that her aesthetics and her bad taste were impregnable, but her pianism was of a high order.”

And he maintained that “I am most in Kashperova’s debt, however, for something she would not have appreciated. Her narrowness and her formulae greatly encouraged the supply of bitterness that accumulated in my soul until, in my mid-20s, I broke loose and revolted from her and from every stultification in my studies, my schools, and my family.”

Richard Taruskin, in his book Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, offered a broader perspective over 20 years ago. But it took an International Women's Day project earlier this year to get her music to a wide modern audience.

One of the questions that's been on my mind about the repertoire of music by women is when someone would present an Irish production of La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola di Alcina by Francesca Caccini (1587-c.1641).

Current climate

There was a time when the current climate might have been expected to encourage Wexford Festival Opera to take on such a work. But it’s all of 25 years now since Wexford last put on an opera written before 1800, and a further 18 years before that since the festival’s sole venture into the 17th century.

It might even have been expected to fit into the schedule of Irish National Opera, which has early music expert and artistic director of the Irish Baroque Orchestra Peter Whelan as one of the company's artistic partners.

We have made a concerted effort to increase the representation of women in our programme of events

But, no. The first Irish performance of the first-known opera by a woman – who has herself been described as the first professional female composer – will be given by students from the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM) on Friday May 17th and Saturday May 18th, 2019, with David Adams conducting. The venue is the Freemasons' Hall in Molesworth Street.

The production will place the RIAM in the unusual position of having presented operas by women in three successive years – the Caccini follows productions of works by Judith Weir and Siobhán Cleary. So it's no surprise that the academy's head of artistic planning, Ciara Higgins, has declared "we have made a concerted effort to increase the representation of women in our programme of events".

The RIAM's season will also include a programme titled Ondine: Ravel and Beyond on Thursday October 18th, with works by Germaine Tailleferre, Lili Boulanger, Kaija Saariaho and Siobhán Cleary as well as pieces by Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Olivier Messiaen and Toru Takemitsu.

Women’s suffrage

There will be more music by women in a concert in the Seanad Chamber in Leinster House on Friday November 23rd, marking the centenary of women's suffrage. Caccini features again, along with Barbara Strozzi and Isabella Leonarda, in a concert at St Ann's, Dawson Street, on Thursday March 14th, 2019. And the academy is running another Saluting the Feminists day of short concerts, talks and panel discussions to tie in with the Caccini production on May 17th.

Beyond all that there is "a firm commitment" to include "at least one female composer in each of our 11:11 coffee morning concerts" which run from Friday January 18th to Friday March 29th. And there are also celebrations of two long-time RIAM teachers, cellist Aisling Drury Byrne on Saturday January 26th, and the late pianist Deirdre Doyle on Saturday February 23rd.

The season's concerts by the RIAM Philharmonia, conducted this year by Gerhard Markson and Michel Galante, have not yet embraced music by women. These concerts are part of RIAM Podium, the academy's advanced orchestral training programme, of which RIAM Philharmonia is the central ensemble. Perhaps Kashperova will beckon in due course.

Oh, and although most of the RIAM’s events are free, there’s a free route into 12 of those that are not. First50Free is a scheme that, for one day only, roughly a month in advance, you can go online at and apply for one of 50 free tickets for each of those events.