Female Classics is a Swiss association challenging the significant lack of female composers played in symphonies and classical music concerts worldwide.
Founded almost two years ago, FemaleClassics is becoming internationally known for its unique classical music festival that shines a light on female composers in a way that has never been done before. But that is not all that these inspiring women do; the group also holds regular concerts, panel events and radio shows which aim to educate people on female composers’ contribution to the classical genre.
Lazy Women founder, Zsofi Borsi, had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with Meredith Kuliew, violist and founder of FemaleClassics, and Elodie Théry, cellist and founding member of the TriOlogie string trio. They discussed taking on the task of diversifying the classical music world, their rapidly expanding festival, and the long-term objectives for FemaleClassics to become obsolete in ten years’ time.
What is FemaleClassics and what was the motivation behind its creation?
Meredith: FemaleClassics is an association that aims to disrupt the dusty classical music scene. We want the largest cultural institutions in the classical sphere to put works by female composers on their programmes and in their exam repertoires, neither of which is commonly done at the moment.
The idea first came to me when I took a sabbatical from the stage and my musical studies to work out what I actually enjoyed doing. After 10 years of study, I felt as though I had always been running in the conventional direction, without ever pausing to think about whether that was right for me personally.
I have always been a politically-minded feminist and I realised that by pursuing classical music as a career, I was dedicating my life to dead, white men.
But I knew classical music had my heart, so I tried to work out how best to reconcile my personal beliefs with my raison d’être. One day during my year off, I sat down and googled female composers. So many results appeared that I could not believe my eyes. Throughout our studies, in concerts and in exams, we only ever played male composers such as Beethoven or Brahms. We instinctively think of them as the “great composers”. I had no idea that so many female composers existed and had been so successful in the past. I remember staring at the computer screen in disbelief and anger, and it was then that I knew something needed to change.
Elodie: Yes, Meredith came to me and we thought a lot about how we could develop the classical music world. It is difficult because there are such ingrained traditions about how classical music should be done. For example, there are strict rules about when you are allowed to clap at a classical concert and what you are allowed to wear. I remember that some people were shocked when some of us wore white sneakers at the TriOlogie string trio concert during the FemaleClassics festival in June!
Lazy Zsofi in conversation with Elodie and Meredith
How much did you know about female composers before you started FemaleClassics?
Meredith: I knew absolutely nothing. During our studies, we were never taught about female composers. We only played male composers, and we only read about male composers in books.
I remember asking the professor once whether any female composers existed. They responded that there were two or three but that it was not “good” music and therefore, we did not have to bother with it. As a student under a lot of time pressure, I just believed what I was told.
Did you feel almost as though you were exposing a conspiracy when you discovered there were great female composers in existence?
Meredith: Yes, exactly. When, for the first time, I found and heard a symphony from a female composer, I thought that it was actually Beethoven and that it must be a fake because it was great music. It was actually mind-blowing!
Can you tell us a bit about the FemaleClassics festival and how it came about?
Meredith: When we first started out, I was just writing as many emails as possible to concert houses to call them out on the lack of female representation in their programmes. At first, I thought the only problem was that they didn’t know of any female composers. My co-leader, however, worked in communications at a concert house, and she knew that if we ever wanted to make a change, we needed to make a name for ourselves in classical music and gain some visibility. In order to achieve that, we had to create our own festival. We had our first festival in June 2022 in Zurich, with works by Ethel Smyth, Sofia Gubaidulina, Fanny Hensel and Florence Price, as well as a world premiere by Asia Ahmetjanova. The concert series will be repeated in Bern in the spring of 2023 with a slightly different program (we added a piece by Tania León), and in the spring of 2024, we will return to Zurich.
Elodie: As an artist, I was really curious about the idea of a classical festival with 100% female-written music. To show that it is possible is a great example to the rest of the classical music world. For every artist that played at the festival, it was a really fun experience, but also hard for us as we had never played any of the music before! It is not possible to listen to most of the female composers’ pieces anywhere, as recordings often do not exist, so it was more intense to practice and prepare. We are used to playing Beethoven or Mozart, and we know how to perform them. Each and every female composer has her own style and musical language, which we have to learn and practice before performing it. That makes it really interesting and challenging.
Is it only women who play at the festival?
Meredith: It was only women playing in June and we were criticised for this by the media who tended to disregard the festival as “just women playing women”. But that was not what we wanted at all. It was solely the result of it being the first festival of its kind, so I was not sure if I could pay the musicians, and mostly had to ask my friends to perform with no guarantee of payment. In the future, we want classical music programmes to be as diverse as possible, to include composers and musicians of all genders, races, nationalities, ages and classes. At the FemaleClassics Festival 2023 there will also be male musicians joining us to play this wonderful music, which is really positive.
As a Festival, we are purposely giving a bad example: we perform exclusively women composers. That is because we feel the need to put them in the spotlight.
As soon as women composers are accepted in the repertoire and performed regularly, we will have fulfilled our purpose and will not need to exist as a festival anymore.
Elodie: Totally. It is ridiculous that people believe that what men do is for everyone, but what women do is only for women. Music is for and from everyone.
As musicians, do you have any particular composers whose music you have fallen in love with during this process?
Elodie: It isn’t easy to choose one because every composer has their own musical language. Ethel Smyth was a British composer in the early 20th century and she was also a suffragette. Her music is very intense and sometimes bizarre, but I really understood the language of her music after multiple listens. Florence Price was an African-American classical composer and the first woman of colour to have her symphony performed by a major orchestra in 1933. Her music is very interesting because she mixes multiple genres due to her background in gospel music and jazz music.
Meredith: Yes, it has some influences of jazz and gospel, so it was completely new for classically trained musicians, and we needed to work more on it.
Meredith and Elodie
Why do you think these female composers’ music is so different to everything you learnt during your music studies? Do you think that these women were challenging classical music “norms” on purpose?
Meredith: It’s a difficult question. It is impossible to say whether we would find their music so bizarre if we had started to learn their “musical language” when we were young, as we did for male composers. Every talented composer has their own style and so you can hear with whom they learned and the school that they come from.
If we had more knowledge and awareness of the schools from which these women came from, their music would sound more normal to us for sure.
However, I also find it weird that some women were well-known and successful in the past, but now we have no idea who they are, like Florence Price, Emilie Mayer or Ethel Smyth, who were able to make a living from their music, and whose symphonies and operas were performed by professional orchestras in the 20th and 19th centuries. Nowadays, ask any member of the public to name a composer and they will almost certainly respond with a man’s name.
I cannot speak for the female composers and say whether they were intentionally challenging the norm or not. But one difference I’ve noticed in particular is that often female pieces are shorter than traditional male pieces. For example, female symphonies tend to be thirty minutes rather than the traditional sixty. I don’t know why this is the case, but I would love to do some more research on this.
Do you see FemaleClassics as redefining what it means to be “classical” then?
Meredith: Yes, in a way. There is a real fear of failure in the classical music sphere. Many of the professors have been playing the same repertoire their whole careers, and they are perfect at that small repertoire. But this often means they are afraid of playing new music. This really limits creativity in the classical genre. I think it is important that the culture changes so that perfection is no longer an absolute requisite, and music professors become more open to pieces from alternative composers. Our hope is that by exposing musicians to female composers during our festivals, we will encourage them to study and perform pieces by female composers when they return to their studies or musical life, thus spreading knowledge around the music scene.
What are your plans for the future of FemaleClassics?
Meredith: In the long term, our objective is for FemaleClassics to become obsolete.
In ten years’ time, we want all of the largest cultural institutions in classical music to champion work by female composers in the same way they do male composers at the moment.
This means including diverse composers within their programmes, employing diverse musicians, writing about diverse composers in books, and diversifying classical music exam repertoires. It should be the large institutions with the financial resources to do so, that act. Once that is the case, FemaleClassics will no longer be necessary as an organisation. We want young musicians to grow up knowing a diverse set of composers and for that to be the norm. In fact, we think education is really important and hope to be able to run workshops in schools soon. We currently have one workshop for amateur musicians, but we want to expand the programme so we can reach as many people as possible and achieve our goal soon!
Elodie: With our string trio TriOlogie, we are also planning our debut CD, which will include a mix of great composers (female and male). That will be the very first recording available for one of the pieces. We think it is important to increase the number of recordings available for such an interesting, yet still unknown repertoire. The possibility for the audience to hear a quality recording gives the pieces a chance to exist!
It is clear that Female Classics and Lazy Women have a lot in common and both groups are asking similar sorts of questions of the world; are female compositions shorter than male classical pieces because of the gender time deficit? Is taking influence from other genres of music considered lazy? Is it not the reluctance to learn new pieces of music that is the lazier of the two?
We continue to be inspired by the work that Female Classics is undertaking and we are excited to announce that we have created a LazyWomen/FemaleClassics collaborative playlist on Spotify, which can be accessed here.
Check out the FemaleClassics website here for more information and follow them on Instagram and Facebook. You can also follow TriOlogie on Instagram and listen to them on Youtube.
Interview by Zsofi Borsi, transcribed by Izzi Williams, illustrated by Eszti Balázs.
Overall, it took us about 10 hours to make this piece. You can ‘adopt’ it by supporting us on Ko-Fi, with any amount you can.