Great Mistresses: Annette Morreau on Three Women Taking Up the Baton in Another Male-Dominated World

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Can this be a record? Three works by living female composers (all English premieres), performed within ten days at the BBC Proms, the composers being Judith Weir, Sally Beamish and the American Libby Larsen.

Weir's delightful The Welcome Arrival of Rain, commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra and premiered in the US earlier this year, is something of a return to the sound and wry wit of her earlier Chinese works, most notably A Night at the Chinese Opera. The title of Weir's new work was inspired by the Bhagavata Purana, a Hindu text in which a number of verses celebrate the arrival of the monsoon. Sally Beamish's Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, commissioned and performed by the gallant National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in tropical heat, is in three movements, with wonderful bluesy writing for the astonishing Swedish trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger. Beamish always knows where she's going, pacing her work well. Larsen's I It Am: the shewings of Julian of Norwich, for soloists, choir and orchestra, was co-commissioned by the BBC. Of the three works, it was the least effective, in part hampered by a rather New Agey text that tended to obfuscate rather than clarify.

In the current season of proms, five works by living female composers will be performed, compared to 31 works by living male composers. In 2002, the ratio was four to 32; in 2001, it was three to 25. The statistics are not good. But can or should creativity ever be subject to quotas? Is there a case for "equal opportunity" or "affirmative action"? Equal opportunity implies a level playing field; affirmative action suggests a conscious leg-up. So how desirable is this to those most likely to benefit?

Weir is Britain's most senior female composer, if not simply one of our most senior composers. The prestigious positions she has held include composer in association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, visiting professor at Oxford and Princeton universities, and artistic director of the Spitalfields Festival. She has recently been invited to Harvard. But confidence in her work did not come easily, especially given the "expectations that composers are going to be men". In her view, choosing pieces for concerts on the basis of gender can never work. "What I've achieved has been through long years of hard work. I would be horrified to feel that my achievements had come about because people felt that they had to improve their quotas."

Sally Beamish holds similar views: "I have twice turned down commissioners that were specifically looking for a woman composer. …