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Changing the choral narrative: resources for gender balanced programming

Referencing the choice of music related to the gender of a composer often yields significant backlash from both sides of the fence: those who want to perpetuate the Western European choral canon and the non-male composers who want their music chosen primarily for merit. The first camp asserts music should be chosen based solely on whether it is "good" music. Selecting a choral work with "good" as the criteria is problematic because the term "good" is not only an indication of an aesthetic choice but has also been considered a euphemism for elite classical music. Most established leaders of choirs did not receive a music education that included a balanced variety of choral composers; thus, there is no way to judge the quality of work that a musician does not know exists as it was not listed among the "great works" taught to them. An additional consideration is that composers historically marginalized for their gender did not receive equal training nor the same inspiration through representation as their males counterparts. On the other hand, as a conductor who identifies as a woman, I can deeply relate to the second camp preferring to be perceived as a composer first and only. But the current reality is that there is a lack of gender diversity in the composers, arrangers, and lyricists being represented in choral programs.

Based on a research examining the trends of music performed at High School All-State and College-Level choral performances from 2014-2019 in the Unites States determined that 80.1% of the songs performed were by male composers (11.6% by women, 0% by non-binary, and 7.8% by anonymous). These numbers could be reflective of the fact that many choir leaders took choral literature classes that did not reference gender parity or even include the learning of works by composers other than male. These percentages could also be an indication of lack of visibility and access to the scores of historically excluded composers. We recognize it was challenging in the past to locate and find repertoire (and recordings) by a diverse set of composers; however, that is no longer the case. The resources listed below represent many of the tools available for free to explore and access the music thatchoir directors may not have learned previously due to the composer's gender. My inclusion of music composed by women and non-binary composers is an intentional practice that I will continue until the time comes when inclusion and diversity in choir programs becomes the norm. These resources are a step in changing the narrative in choral music to reflect gender balanced programming.


Side note: Gender balanced programing is not to be confused with presenting one full concert a year of music by a marginalized group. Although a well-intentioned pursuit, the effort can be perceived as tokenism.

 

Historical Options:


An online resource dedicated to promoting the vocal works and stories of historical female composers who have been overlooked for centuries (particularly historical composers). Each composer page includes recordings to explore.


This searchable database has over 400 compositions by women composers listed.


An excellent resource for using music composed by women to explain music theory concepts.


Publisher dedicated to music from the Italian convents of the 16th and 17th centuries. Most of the music was scored for SATB voicing and the website includes insight as to how the nuns sang the bass part.



General Exploring Resources:


Phenomenal. This list features more than 5,000 women composers from pre-medieval to 21st century singer-songwriters. You can filter your search to choral music and by era. When you access the composer’s page, be sure to click the “External Reference” button as it will send you to info on the composer or the composer’s website. This list would be ultimate resource if recording examples were included for each composer.


Empowering Silenced Voices Database (compiled by Chorosynthesis Singers)

You can search by social conscious themes to find options.


This project has the potential to be that searchable database we are seeking, but it appears to still in the building process, but it almost 200 songs by women composers (you can search by a number of gender marginalized composers).


You can narrow the search by women composers by clicking the link. CPDL is free!


An extensive spreadsheet of choral compositions by women composers from across the globe.

An extensive list of composers in Canada including a playlist and repertoire collection.

A google doc with lists of major works


This resource is located on the NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) and it is comprehensive with numerous chapters that host many links to explore the music, a chapter per genre which includes one for choral music as well as the historical and contemporary challenges of performing the music.

This open-access Women and Gender Marginalized Composers Repertoire Database is launching March 13, 2023. Boulanger Initiative advocates for women and all gender marginalized composers. We foster inclusivity and representation to expand and enrich the collective understanding of what music is, has been, and can be. We promote music composed by women through performance, education, research, consulting, and commissions.



Treble Choir Resources:


Repertoire Lists of Women Composers for Treble Choirs (as performed by Elektra Women’s Choir)

This list is an incredible resource of women composers, including many Canadian based composers.


This list has a balanced offering of repertoire, with a dedication to women presenting composers.


This ensemble has shared several obscure and underperformed early repertoire.


A comprehensive resource as there is considerable information included on each work.



Sacred Music Resources:


Published three anthology volumes of music by women composers (historical and living) to be used in a church setting. The website offers perusal scores and listening links to most of the repertoire.


The website has recordings of music composed by women for every day in Advent and Stations of the Cross. A great resource for church musicians.


A new and most excellent resource with many incredible composers.


This site has a spreadsheet with a repertoire suggestion for each Sunday in the lectionary for Year B and C (church musicians – this incredible site is for you!)



Publishers:


A publisher dedicated to the works of women composers.


Kassia Choral Series (under Bank Musics Publications)

A choral series highlighting women composers.


A fantastic resource of music by historical composers, but also historical repertoire specifically composed for soprano/alto voices.


The publisher has a wonderfully diverse set of composers to explore.


An artist-owned sheet music distribution. It is an excellent resource for exploring the works of living women-presenting composers.


This publisher has a listing of all the women identifying composers they publish.


Commission a Living Composer:

Approach a composer to write a work or collaborate on the creation of a work for one of the ensembles you direct. To reduce the cost of commissioning, you can enter into a commission consortium with other directors/ensembles.


 

Written by Sarah Kaufold

Artistic Director of Consonare Choral Community

For a list of some great composers to explore that Consonare choirs have sung or are on our list, please visit here.

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