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Four Female Composers: Changing times, views and is it getting better for the ladies?

By Elizabeth Han Hopkins


betty Roe
Picture of Betty Roe

A music publisher once said: “We definitely want to publish it. Will you be willing to change your name to George?”

These were the words that 84 year old female composer, singer, and conductor Betty Roe was confronted with. After her hugely successful composition and performance of Christus Victor in 1964, a work that Alan Ridout, a British composer said could change the course of English church music in the way that “Stainer’s Crucifixion” had done. Ms. Roe had to make a choice as to whether or not to use a male pseudonym on the publication of her work; this was a common practice during that time. However unlike most Ms.Roe said that she had: “Foolishly said no, I would not change my name to George. It did sell but not very well, and eventually the publisher did not want to handle it anymore, so I brought the remaining stock up myself.”

Even though it was a very difficult time and was not easy for her to get her work published, this did not deter Ms. Roe. She and her late husband John Bishop decided to set up a publishing company called, Thames Publishing in 1970 so that she would be able to publish her compositions. Since they have been published her compositions have been successful and performed on various occasions.

Ms. Roe does think that the industry is improving for women composers and says: “I suppose it is getting better otherwise we would not have had the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors(BASCA) Women in Classical Music forum event where Jessica Duchen, interviewed five female composers from classical music. There certainly has been more interest in me since then, according to Iain Snedden, (the head of the Betty Roe Society page) and I am writing a new composition at moment.”

She still is an active composer and has created over 100 compositions since she first started, but has only recently achieved an MBE for her services to classical music and composition, which she received in 2011.


Nicola Lefanu
Picture of Nicola LeFanu

Another composeress, who believes that the industry is improving for women composers, is 67 year old Nicola LeFanu. Who said: “Certainly at the moment there is a wonderful crop of women composers and there are a great many women composers being performed; which is wonderful.” However Ms.LeFanu still has her concerns the main one being: “That people realize it is improving but this does not mean that everything is now alright and always will be. So what we have to hope is that the present generation of young women will in 20, 30 years’ time will still be having the great exposure that they are having at the moment, because it does tend to go in cycles. In which everything seems fine and as though there is a proper equality of opportunity, but then 10 or 15 years later it has gone away again.”

This cycle is something Ms.Lefanu has seen first-hand, as she composed in a time whereby there were many possibilities for women composers, as Ms.Lefanu explains that: “there were a lot of us who happened to be women and were having wonderful opportunities, I was composing for the proms, the opera house and all these kinds of things and so were my friends,” However: “In the 1980s that was not the case. We had these wonderful opportunities and the next generation were not getting them. So it seemed to me it was up to us who had, had good opportunities to speak up for them.”

Although Ms.Lefanu herself does not feel as though she has faced any hardships being a woman composer, as she has composed over 100 works which have been widely played, broadcast, and recorded. She does want to help those who have not had as many opportunities. Ms.LeFanu said that: “I am much more aware of the need to fight for other people because I feel that I have had fantastic chances all through my life, but it is true that you have to very single-minded. As every now and again you will come across someone who is very prejudice but you just have to ignore it because it is their loss. I am not aware of prejudice towards myself but I am aware of the kind of prejudices that are still around.”

In order to keep equal opportunities for female composers, there needs to be continuous reminder that there are women in this field and that they too need to have a proportionate representation in the classical music industry. As there are as many talented and up-coming female composers as there are men.


Chertl Frances-Hoad.jpg
Picture of Cheryl Frances-Hoad by

Likewise Cheryl Frances-Hoad a 34 year old composeress did not feel as though she had faced many hardships as a female in the industry, but she does feel as though she was lucky.

She said, “It is only now I realise how lucky I have been because, I went to the Yehudi Menuhin School a specialist music school based in Surrey at the age of 8 and have been networking ever since. I have probably written 5 pieces for people who I was at school with when I was young.” Networking with performers and building strong relationships with them plays a big part in composers getting known.  Ms. Frances-Hoad for example, keeps in contact with old school friends many of whom are now active in the music world and made new friends in the competitions she entered. Along with networking Ms.Frances-Hoad also actively looked for opportunities and entered competitions. One of the first competitions she won was the BBC Young composer’s award 1996 which she did when she was only 15 years old. It was also the competition that made her realize that composing was the career path for her. It was this competition that opened up many opportunities for Ms.Frances-Hoad in terms of commissions.

Though it is currently easier for women composers than before, in terms of getting their selves known in the industry, “women’s music is still very much unrepresented on things such as the radio and there needs to be an increased knowledge on the part of concert promoters about what women’s music currently exists,” said Ms.Frances-Hoad.

The under representation of women’s music is especially evident in honourable music events such as the BBC proms, as can be seen in Jennifer Fowler’s survey of women in the BBC Proms 2014. Whereby there were only 8 out of 124 (6.2%) composers who were women. Although this was considered as to be a good year for women composers as 8 women composers in the proms is a larger number than usual.


Danielle Howard
Photo of Danielle Howard by Andreea Tufescu

Still studying at the Royal College of Music is 21 year old composer Danielle Howard, who has had her pieces performed internationally, broadcasted on the BBC Radio 3 and televised on Channel 4. She said, she has not been through any hardships yet, but is aware that there are many female composers who have.

She said: “I have not met any resistance with performers playing my work, which is wonderful. Equally I am not taught about female composers and that side of it is not brought into my education. Therefore a lot of the people I look up to are male but it is not because they are male. It is just that those are the works I was taught and those are the works that I know. However other than that I have not had any issues with being a female composer.” If she was given the chance to learn about female composers in school, Ms.Howard said: “I would have loved to have learnt about female composers, and have had them in my text books. Even through secondary school, I have never heard of a female composer until the Royal College of Music; which is a bit late into music study to find out that there are female composers. I think it would make a big difference to how people perceive female composers if the ones who had made a difference musically and there are a lot, were also in the educational music syllabus.”

So even though women composers seem to be doing better than their predecessors in terms of having their work published, being performed and becoming known, there is still a large difference in the amount of women composers being represented compared to their male counterparts. Whether this is in school, in examinations, in media or in concerts, women are still being underrepresented. There is still a long way to go before there is complete equality in the industry and will the classical music industry ever truly be equal?