In the early 20th century, the British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham famously declared, “There are no women composers, there never have been and possibly, there never will be.” Around the same time in Australia Margaret Sutherland wrote, “To pluck music from the air, and fashion it according to one’s own whim… that was what made my heart beat faster.” Beecham was obviously wrong. Sutherland and her contemporaries were part of a worldwide surge of women composers establishing their presence in a male-dominated world. In fact Beecham later recanted and became a champion of the music of Dame Ethel Smyth.

Research is showing increasingly that women have been active as composers throughout western musical history, traceable back to St. Hildegard in the 12th century. Perhaps there have not been as many women as men, but they have always been there. Unfortunately too many of them have slipped out of the pages of history. Loss of visibility is not an issue unique to women. Some of the greatest male composers disappeared into obscurity after their death. Where would the music of Bach sit in the ‘canon’ without its revival by Mendelssohn in the 19th century? Similarly there is a growing awareness of...

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