Soprano Gabriella di Laccio is the driving force behind independent UK record label Drama Musica’s Donne: Women in Music. The project garnered worldwide attention recently with its analysis of 15 of the 2018–2019 seasons of the world’s top orchestras – including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra – finding only 2.3 percent of works programmed were written by women. We spoke to Di Laccio about how the Donne project got started, and where it will go from here.

How did the Donne project evolve?

My research for women composers started as a personal interest: finding new repertoire to perform and share with audiences is something I have always enjoyed, so, a couple of years ago, I decided to search for songs composed by women, for a recital I was planning. I had no doubt that I would find plenty of repertoire but what I didn’t expect to find was such a high number of women composers.

Gabriella di Laccio, Women in Music, Women composersSoprano Gabriella di Laccio. Photo © Andres Landino

I bought many books on the subject but one of them was quite a revelation: the International Encyclopedia of Women Composers by Aaron I. Cohen.  Almost by chance, I came across a second hand copy of this two-volume publication, and when I read it I was quite surprised with the content. Mr Cohen worked for more than eight years researching the women on these pages, listing them alphabetically, chronologically, by country, by instrumentation of the compositions, providing a very detailed picture of his findings, which by the date of the second publication (1987) came to more than 6000 composers in over 70 countries.

After my initial astonishment I must say that I felt quite ashamed. How could I not be aware of this? Why hadn’t I researched this before? I have been going to concerts from a very young age – and during all these years I never really questioned the fact that almost all concerts would present a programme with works by male composers only. Did I simply assume that there were not many women composers? Did I indirectly comply with the notion that there were not enough works by women to be part of a concert programme? Whatever the reason, I simply couldn’t do that anymore. And somehow I almost felt like shouting about the subject to anyone who would listen to me.

I continued my search, and when you do search, you find many wonderful societies, associations, trusts, and individual researchers all over the world who are aware of the fact but somehow the message was not receiving its deserved spotlight. I felt that there was a need to bring this information to life with a 21st-century approach. In the society we live in at the moment, with so short an attention span, it is very difficult to be heard. So I thought it would be a good idea to introduce the historical composers with short videos, just to bring them to life and generate curiosity in the people watching it. I also started to contact contemporary composers all over the world and invite them to answer some questions, either in person or by video. I wanted to inspire the new generations and put them in contact with women making music today. The response I had was unbelievably positive and that was extremely heart-warming and encouraging.

So, on International Women’s Day 2018, Donne came to life: a new platform where people can learn more about female composers from past and present. I also felt that it was important to create a database so people could find further names, and that’s how The Big List came to life. So far we have ten pages with links to more than 4,000 composers chronologically organised, and this list will continue to grow.

Did you come across any surprises during your research?

I never stop coming across surprises, and I have a feeling that this will continue to happen for quite a while, as there are still so many composers to be discovered. If we take into consideration that it was so incredibly difficult for women to receive any recognition in the past centuries, the accomplishments of all these composers become even more impressive. They are all, with no exception, extraordinary women, so it is hard to pick a few. But I can name two great examples: Leokadya Kashperova (1872–1940) and Elizabeth Maconchy (1907–1994).

Leokadya was a Russian pedagogue and pianist whose 20-year career also saw her compose all kinds of critically acclaimed music, including a symphony, a piano concerto, choral works, chamber music, piano solos and songs. She was Stravinsky’s piano teacher and only recently has been rediscovered almost by chance by Dr Graham Griffiths. Her music is exquisitely powerful and beautiful and, still, she has been completely forgotten.

Elizabeth Maconchy has been described as Britain’s “finest lost composer” (that definition already tells us a lot…). She studied at the Royal College of Music with Vaughan Williams and was greeted by the doorman as “The great Maconchy!” She survived the war, fought prejudice and tuberculosis. Her composition The Land, was performed at the 1930 Proms to international acclaim (“Girl Composer Triumphs” screamed the headlines — she was 23), and her series of string quartets have been compared to those of Shostakovich. Still, I never heard of her during my time studying at the Royal College of Music.

While people might be familiar with the name Hildegard of Bingen, she’s just one of many pre-16th-century composers on The Big List. Are there others on that list whose work you think is particularly interesting? 

Hildegard of Bingen certainly stands in a league of her own on the pre-16th-century list and we are so lucky that so much of her music and writings have survived. But although this period is not my area of expertise, I have always found the women troubadours fascinating and I have performed songs by Comtessa de Diá, Alamanda de Castelnau and Azalais de Porcairagues. The women troubadours are known in musical history as the first known female composers of Western secular music. These women were part of courtly society and highly educated. Sadly we don’t know much about them and there are probably more women among the unattributed troubadour music that haven’t yet been identified.

What inspired your survey of the major orchestras’ seasons?

After I discovered so many names and such a variety of high-class repertoire, I must say that I struggled to understand the reasons why these women have been ignored for so many years. So, my first instinct was to check the concert programmes of some of the top orchestras around the world for the 2018–2019 season. I do believe that these organisations have a huge power of influence and that if they were setting the example in bringing the music of these women closer to the general public, that would certainly raise awareness and hopefully generate more interest. At the end of the day, we are in desperate need of an education on this matter.

Were you surprised by those results? 

Surprised to say the least! More shocked, actually. Mostly because I couldn’t think of any reasonable reason for such a dramatic disparity. We clearly passed the stage of thinking that there are not enough female composers and that there is not enough music to be played.

The response has been incredibly rewarding. I have received hundreds of emails from composers all over the world. Their gratitude is touching.

At the beginning of this journey I did feel a bit apprehensive. At the end of the day, I am not a composer and I was sure that many people with a better knowledge of this part of the music industry were already doing something to change the situation. Still, I wanted to do my part.

Now, it’s like this big gramophone/pandora’s box has opened and suddenly I can hear so many voices. It just proves that small gestures can inspire great changes.

What are the most important things you think organisations can do to redress the gender balance?

I was talking to composer Nicola LeFanu last week and she made a very good point: the truth is that there is still a lot of ignorance of the repertoire written by women. And in order to change that, organisations would need to have the desire to cultivate curiosity in their audiences and have some dedicated time to research the repertoire and find the most suitable options for their season. But I do understand that this might seem like a risky move, especially when it comes to selling tickets.

I also believe that change can only happen if we also all do our part. It is my job as a singer to research works that suit my voice, to speak to living female composers, to collaborate with them and to be ready to contribute as an artist, and not only expect that others would do the work for me. And as concertgoers, I also believe we should be asking more questions from now on.

Do you have further plans for the project?

The ultimate plan is for DONNE to be an international platform focused on education, visibility and equality. On the education front, we would like to have hundreds of short videos on the website and YouTube Playlist introducing historical and living female composers, bringing their stories closer to younger audiences and the general public. These videos can be used as valuable educational tools by institutions all over the world as a creative way to introduce women composers in the classroom and generate curiosity for further learning.

In terms of visibility, we will continue to expand our Big List and also develop this part of the website to be a more interactive interface and organised catalogue. This way, it will be much easier for performers and organisations to find music composed by women to perform in concerts. We will also continue to record music by women: this is very important as radio stations can only play this repertoire if there are enough good quality recordings available. And as we live in the age of music streaming services, having this repertoire recorded is also the quickest way to have so many compositions by women available to anyone who would like to listen to them.

We are currently looking for partners and funding to continue developing the project. By bringing this information closer to the general public and increasing the visibility of so many talented women, we hope we can promote gender equality for future generations and inspire more people to do the same.