Gender in classical music: An interview with Dr Katy Cooper


Jasmine Hunt

Jasmine Hunt strikes a (vocal) chord with Glasgow University’s Dr Katy Cooper, as they discuss the problematic role of gender in classical music.

Since TRNSMT introduced a stage dedicated exclusively to all-female acts in mid-2019, the debate over gender binaries within music, and the sexism which many female artists face, has garnered much media coverage. Classical music is no stranger to this sexism either; female conductors have been criticised for being too visually distracting on the podium, lacking authority and generally being out of place in the male-dominated profession. 

This type of institutionalised sexism is not only prevalent in conducting, but in choral music alike. After all, it wasn’t until 1991 that girls were introduced into cathedral choral music. The argument for not involving women in choral music was that it was at the cost of the wonderful ancient tradition, and many still maintain that girl’s voices are just not proper for the ideal, traditional sound associated with cathedral or collegiate choral music. 

This argument is still being used by famous choral institutions, such as the boys’ choir of King’s College Cambridge, to defend their lack of female involvement. Not only is the debate focusing on vocal participation, but of conducting and composing too. But what does it matter that we are still upholding exclusively male traditions? Is it wrong to challenge them and will the inclusion of women in choral music make that much of a difference? 

Over her years of involvement in classical music, Dr Katy Lavinia Cooper, Director of Chapel Music of the University of Glasgow since 2015, has experienced the way in which female involvement in choral and classical music has fuelled debate and discussion. Katy was recently involved in a discussion panel at Lancaster Priory which focused on the female voice in western church music.

“Cathedrals traditionally have a male ‘top line’ (the treble or soprano part – the highest voice in the choir) made up of boys with unchanged (what used to be called unbroken) voices. Many cathedrals now also have a female ‘top line’ made up of girls voices, and some establishments have a mixed line with boys and girls. These are obviously great developments, but it does lead to a problem for girls once they reach adulthood. While much has been done to encourage boys to keep singing through their voice change, and there’s always a place for adult male altos, tenors and basses in a church context, there aren’t many similar opportunities for female singers. Things are changing, and there are some prominent examples where women are now singing as lay-clerks (adult, professional cathedral singers), but the topic still remains divisive and it’s such a complex issue.”

The gender divide is similarly present within the conducting-sphere of classical music, with 2013’s The Last Night of The Proms being the first-ever female conducted Proms in its 118-year history. “You’ll see a lot in the press about the gender imbalance in conducting; in orchestral conducting, it is clear that there are many more men than women and there has been a big push over the last few years to get a proper representation of women on the podium,” Dr Cooper says. “In choral conducting however, it’s a different scenario. If you were to do a survey of community choirs, you would probably find that there were more female conductors than male. However, in more ‘formal’ or ‘traditional’ choirs, for example cathedral or collegiate choirs, you would find that there were fewer women.”

Sexism within the classical genre is perhaps more obvious in the school syllabus of students all over the globe, with the focus being heavily on male composers such as W. A. Mozart, Schumann, Mendelssohn, all of whom had equally talented sisters. Why is it that there is less awareness of female composers? 

Katy says that there are a multitude of reasons for this: “Historically, fewer women were in a position to compose music. Those that were in a position to compose, were less likely to have their music published and those who had their work published were less likely to have their music performed.” Is there a lack of exposure, then, of female composer’s works? The argument could be that lots of choirs include out-of-copyright music in their programming, since it’s free to copy and is predominantly male. Women’s compositions would not have been archived in the same way or would have gone un-published, therefore most of the available music now is written by men. 

Music by out-of-copyright female composers does exist, but it’s much less likely to have been scanned and uploaded to the online repositories (the websites where downloads are free). However, “this is improving” Katy responds. “There have been some great initiatives to encourage contemporary female composers, including a new collection of pieces called ‘Multitude of Voyces’. It can still be very expensive to buy works by living composers (male and female), but at least in that, there’s no distinction between genders! At Chapel Choir, we work really hard to make sure we include works by female composers in our programming.” A conscious effort is therefore required and a change of attitude is necessary in order to break down the sexist traditions of classical music. When so many aspects of our daily lives are dominated by sexism, let not the enjoyment of classical music be one of them.


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