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Way Out East: Nicola LeFanu

Composer Conversations (Pt. 2)

The first concert in our Way Out East series at The Coronet is a portrait of Nicola LeFanu. We’re playing a programme featuring two extended chamber works: The Same Day Dawns (1974) for soprano and ensemble, and Deva (1979) for ‘cello and ensemble, as well as Songs Without Words (2005) for clarinet and string trio. Corentin Chassard will feature in David Lumsdaine’s Blue upon blue (1992) for solo ‘cello; and we’re delighted to welcome the Ligeti Quartet, who will play Nicola’s second string quartet (1996), and the Passacaglia from String Quartet No. 6 (1950) by Dame Elizabeth Maconchy, Nicola’s mother.


She kindly set aside some time for a wide-ranging conversation with Jon Hargreaves about various aspects of her work and career, and the milieu in which composers work nowadays. In part two of the conversation, Nicola spoke about her views on the gender divide music.

The importance of your work promoting women composers and musicians speaks for itself. With others, you founded the pioneering ‘Women in Music’ organisation, following your role in organising ‘The Hidden Sounds’, a weekend of performances celebrating women in music, at the Southbank Centre in 1987. At that festival, you gave a cold-light-of-day talk presenting shocking statistics regarding the inaccessibility of music by women – for example, reader, less than half a per cent of the money granted to composers by the Arts Council between 1978 and 1986 went to women – followed by a discussion of the nature of prejudice within the patriarchal musical culture at that time, and the barriers faced by women musicians both historically and in the 1980s.

The talk was published as a journal article, ‘The Master Musician: an Impregnable Taboo?’ (a transcript is available on Nicola’s website), and you begin by expressing shock that in 1987 your agenda concerned ‘Women composers’ as opposed to just ‘composers’. Yet, over 30 years on, gender inequality is still rife. What is your view in 2018?

Well, happily there are an enormous number of composers who happen to be female, having great opportunities at the moment. This is a cause for rejoicing. And there are also women conductors in post, and that’s a cause for rejoicing.

I think the main thing that concerns me, is that anyone who looks at the history of opportunities and prejudice, etc., in relation to women, knows that it goes in cycles: you have a time when it’s very good, and a time when it’s poor. So, for example in the ‘60s, it was great: I encountered no discrimination, there were lots of us having opportunities. And then in the ‘80s, it was the other way, and those of us who were still having opportunities felt impelled to speak up, on behalf of our students and others, who weren’t having those chances, hence the festival ‘Hidden Sounds’. 

At the moment, I think there are still some really wonderful women composers who are not being played at all. I think Erika Fox should not have been forgotten – she’s a very fine composer. I think Sadie Harrison is one of the best composers of her generation, but none of the establishment groups play her. We have this difficulty that we’re in an age of transition and there’s still a lot to be done. My main hope is that some of the fine women composers who are getting lots of attention – people in their 30s and early 40s and so on – that they’re still having that opportunity in say 10 years’ time; that things don’t go backwards again.  I think everybody has to be very conscious about making sure that they’re not just paying lip service to the idea of championing women. What we achieved after 1987 was that for about five years it really made a huge difference, but it became a bit of a bandwagon, because the Arts Council jumped on to the idea, and they suddenly had special funds for women etc., However – I think I said this, probably in that Master-musician paper – ‘what is the nature of a bandwagon? It goes by – it rolls past, and it’s as if it never happened.’ 

Sadie Harrison, Composer

Photo by Bella West

Erika Fox, Composer

At the moment I find it a bit ironic that there’s a huge amount of attention from the BBC about 'discovering’ composers whom they have never broadcast before – composers who happen to be women – when a lot of us have known about those composers for a long time. You know, we could have told them half these names, and also, some of these composers, they’re not that great. Why doesn’t Radio 3, instead, broadcast some more Lutyens, and Maconchy, or Musgrave?  At least the BBC are setting an example, though – other companies, orchestras etc., should take note! You know, there’s a whole lot of repertoire that is simply not well known, and deserves to be heard. It’s a case of making sure that people get to know that repertoire.

It sounds like what you’re saying is that the problem is that music by women gets ’lost’, and that the thing to do is to remember it, as much as to discover it.

Absolutely. I think the other thing that’s always worth pointing out is that if you show up that there may be prejudice in one area, you’re actually helping to alert that there may be prejudices in other areas. When I was researching the Master Musician paper, I took a lot of advice from Kofi Agawu. I went to someone who had suffered racial discrimination, because the kind of issue one has to confront is ‘Is positive discrimination a good thing, or does it create a kind of ghetto? so it was very useful to talk through those things.


The other thing that’s always been important to me is that you can’t combat sexism by being sexist. You have to have a sense of humour too, because otherwise it all gets a bit heavy-handed.

I often tell a case history of how the Irish composer Ina Boyle, who was a bit older than my mother, so we’re talking three generations ago – she was neglected and unknown for fifty years, and now thanks to a committee having worked tirelessly over the last 5,6,7 years, she has been completely reinstated: broadcasts, performances, there’s a CD being launched on International Women’s Day – all this kind of thing. So I think it can happen that someone, as it were, gets a place in the canon eventually.

I suppose it tends to happen that one remembers the individual woman composer, like Amy Beach, or Nadia Boulanger….


Part of the trouble is a very simple one. If you look at a highly influential book like ‘The Rest is Noise’, there are virtually no women composers in it, and if you take say Ruth Crawford Seeger, who must be, for me, one of the most important composers in the States in the 20th Century – and this is a book, after all, by an American – he only devotes about half a page to her. I mean, he acknowledges that she’s important, but it’s a very trivial reference to her really. And there are many other standard textbooks that everyone has, that include no women at all. So ‘the canon’ of twentieth century music is presented as a male canon. Rutherford-Johnson‘s book (After the Fall) does better by women composers, but partly because he is writing about very recent music, so he can over-ride the idea that there is ‘a canon’.

Ina Boyle, Composer

The times you mentioned as ones when there were fewer opportunities for women composers are particular political eras…


Oh absolutely, they’re when England was Conservative! Whatever is the political culture of a country – I don’t know how it affects the individual composer, but certainly it affects the milieu in which they work.  If there’s less public money for the arts; if people start having particular attitudes about whether they like something to be adventurous or whether they want something to be more consoling and familiar; whether nostalgia is what people want to be part of. Without a doubt, you can trace patterns: particular things happen, particular music is played at particular times in a particular country. And yes, the 80s were a very conservative time, absolutely.

The important thing now is that the current focus on opportunity for women doesn’t become a passing fashion.

Click here to read part 3 of the conversation, or here to go back to part 1.

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