Introducing Minerva 2020
The Minerva Festival turns two this year! Inaugurated in 2018, the festival aimed to elevate the voices of female composers who had been overlooked by the eye of history. Previously known as the Cambridge Female Composers Festival, we adopted our new name (after the Roman goddess of wisdom and art) to better reflect our commitment to supporting the musical endeavours of women and non-binary people, who have both previously been marginalised and continue to face discrimination in the musical world today.
The idea for the Festival initially came about when Laura and Claire, our 2019 co-chairs, noted that events which featured music by women were frequently sparse and tokenistic: in the year 2017-18, Cambridge University Music Society programmed music by women in only one new music concert, with music by Barbara White and Judith Weir, and a short piece by Kaija Saariaho in one other concert.
Therefore, female composers were heard at the whim of programmers; while these composers pushed boundaries in various ways, programming them here did not shift the status quo of male-composer-dominated concerts significantly. The Minerva Festival aims to remedy this: we see ourselves as a platform which aims to correct historical and social injustices by celebrating works written by composers marginalised on the basis of gender and sharing this diverse, beautiful music with the public.
We cannot pretend that this is an easy endeavour: it takes effort to perform music by female and non-binary composers, on the most basic level because we have to go out of our way to find it. Our conductors, our soloists, and programmers, all of whom have studied music to various levels, were taught (almost) exclusively about music by men. Before the optional Women in Music course offered in 2019, most of the Cambridge music tripos made no mention of music by women: the illustrious Hildegard von Bingen does not appear in our medieval music course, and before 2018, the second-year twentieth-century history course featured female composers in the final lecture, only at the cohort’s request.
Much the same problem can be found in analysis classes. Purporting to be the most ‘objective’ discipline, analysis often confers a judgement of value upon composers and works, thus justifying the canonisation of masterworks. The analysis curriculum is similarly highly male-dominated: if this is allowed to continue, the judgement that only works written by men deserve to be studied, scrutinised and learnt will continue to reproduce itself in every generation of music students.
In order to change this, works by female and non-binary composers need to be integrated into everyone’s social and musical consciousness. We need to promote an understanding of music that transcends the idea of a single musical ‘canon’ – a body of musical ‘works’ which we (primarily: socially-enfranchised men) decide should be immortalised for study and performance. The canon is narrow and exclusive in many ways, not least in its bias towards German composers and large-scale forms such as the symphony.
Women have historically been less likely than men to write in large-scale genres, both because of limited opportunities to learn the skills needed to write for many instruments in formal institutions, and due to stereotypes about women being too ‘fragile’ and not intellectual enough to write in these large forms. By prioritising larger-scale orchestral genres, we have thus created a canon that is automatically exclusionary to those without access to resources and institutional privilege.
The nature of our canon is linked to the illusionary (but firmly masculine) concept of genius; hence, hoping to prove women’s inherent inferiority as composers, some people feel inclined to ask why there “isn’t a female Mozart”. Ironically, certain qualities associated with ‘genius’, such as emotion and intuition, are typically viewed as feminine; when they appear in women, however, they are often deemed to be a sign of hysteria, not talent. Moreover, attributing the success of male composers to the idea of genius - measured by inspired originality and authority - does well to disguise the material conditions and labour that produced ‘great’ male composers and cultivated their musical skills. If Beethoven and Gluck lacked the social and economic capital that resulted from patronage, if Franck and Bach were banned from playing and working - even being seen - in churches, would their ‘genius’ have come to maturity? Would we even recognise Mozart today?
This undervaluing of women’s work has huge consequences, not merely on the music we hear and perform (and which influences our composers), but on the future of composition by women as a whole. In their book on female opera composers, Jacqueline Letzter and Robert Adelson, refer to a ‘chronic cultural amnesia with regard to women composers’ (2001, p.2), where each successive generation of women think that they are alone as composers. This encourages the idea of a female composer as a rare event, marking an unusually talented woman, rather than showing that women are just as capable of composition as men.
We sincerely hope and believe that events like The Minerva Festival can literally change music history and shape our future into one in which women and non-binary people have created and in which we can be equal participants. We want to help create a more inclusive musical world, where women and other minority groups have their voices heard and respected. We warmly invite you to engage with this festival in any way you can – whether by coming to the events themselves, entering the composing competition (if you are a Cambridge student/recent grad) or keeping up with our social media.
We tried to build on the excellent work of the 2019 committee when creating our list of events for this year. We are continuing to work hard to promote as wide a range of music as possible, so that there is hopefully something in the festival for everyone! Some of our new events for 2020 include a musical theatre night (27 January), a workshop on the use of coding and electronics in live performance (5 February) and a combined art and music exhibition (28 February). We have also organised a series of talks on an array of subjects relating to women and non-binary people in music. As was the case last year, all of our events are free, with the exception of our final concert on International Women’s Day.
We are proud to be raising money for the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre, which offers vital support for women and girls who have experienced rape, childhood sexual abuse or any other form of sexual violence. We will be collecting for the charity at our events, but if you can’t make them (or would like to make a donation now), please do consider supporting at www.cambridgerapecrisis.org.uk/support-crcc/donate.
Hannah and Leia