Great mistresses

Women II - Annette Morreau on three women taking up the baton in another male-dominated world

Can this be a record? Three works by living female composers (all English premieres), performed within ten days at the BBC Proms, the composers being Judith Weir, Sally Beamish and the American Libby Larsen.

Weir's delightful The Welcome Arrival of Rain, commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra and premiered in the US earlier this year, is something of a return to the sound and wry wit of her earlier Chinese works, most notably A Night at the Chinese Opera. The title of Weir's new work was inspired by the Bhagavata Purana, a Hindu text in which a number of verses celebrate the arrival of the monsoon. Sally Beamish's Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, commissioned and performed by the gallant National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in tropical heat, is in three movements, with wonderful bluesy writing for the astonishing Swedish trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger. Beamish always knows where she's going, pacing her work well. Larsen's I It Am: the shewings of Julian of Norwich, for soloists, choir and orchestra, was co-commissioned by the BBC. Of the three works, it was the least effective, in part hampered by a rather New Agey text that tended to obfuscate rather than clarify.

In the current season of proms, five works by living female composers will be performed, compared to 31 works by living male composers. In 2002, the ratio was four to 32; in 2001, it was three to 25. The statistics are not good. But can or should creativity ever be subject to quotas? Is there a case for "equal opportunity" or "affirmative action"? Equal opportunity implies a level playing field; affirmative action suggests a conscious leg-up. So how desirable is this to those most likely to benefit?

Weir is Britain's most senior female composer, if not simply one of our most senior composers. The prestigious positions she has held include composer in association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, visiting professor at Oxford and Princeton universities, and artistic director of the Spitalfields Festival. She has recently been invited to Harvard. But confidence in her work did not come easily, especially given the "expectations that composers are going to be men". In her view, choosing pieces for concerts on the basis of gender can never work. "What I've achieved has been through long years of hard work. I would be horrified to feel that my achievements had come about because people felt that they had to improve their quotas."

Sally Beamish holds similar views: "I have twice turned down commissioners that were specifically looking for a woman composer." She has had a very successful career, including four years as composer in residence with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, the BBC Proms commission Knotgrass Elegy (2001), a joint Scottish Opera/Brighton Festival-commissioned opera, Monster (2002), and a Bafta award for best composer. Alongside Weir, she is the UK's most performed female composer, but she has never been taken on by a com- mercial publisher. Her most effective advocate has been the Scottish Music Information Centre.

Like Weir, Beamish feels no need for specific affirmative action for female composers, but she does point to a paradoxical situation in education: the proportion of female composers in no way relates to the numbers of female musicians. She believes that it all comes down to role models. Girls do not think of becoming a composer in the way they might think of becoming a surgeon, an electrician and so on. Indeed, might this lack of aspiration stem from the poster on the school wall entitled "Great Masters"? As she says: "For all sorts of social and histo-ric reasons, professional composers were generally men. But there is now no disadvantage professionally; it's just a matter of getting those girls to believe in themselves."

And what of Libby Larsen? She visited London with the American Bach Choir of Bethlehem. Larsen has been a powerful advocate for all living composers, co-founding the American Composers Forum in 1973 and serving on the boards of the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet the Composer, as well as the music panel of National Endowment for the Arts. But surely it was unwise (for any composer, male or female) to use a quotation from USA Today, to promote an appearance in the UK, that described Larsen as "the only English-speaking composer since Benjamin Britten who matches great verse with fine music so intelligently and expressively". Is this confidence?

The problem for female composers seems to be not one of talent, but of access. Lack of access breeds lack of confidence. If the opportunities for performance - at the Proms, for instance - are so tiny, the pressure to succeed is tremendous. If there were a female controller of music for BBC Radio 3, or a female composer laureate, might the pressures be different?

Annette Morreau was founding director of the Arts Council's Contemporary Music Network. Her recent biography of Emanuel Feuermann is published by Yale University Press