These notes are taken from a presentation I gave to the congregation of St Thomas’s Church, Salisbury, in April 2019 as I began to prepare the first volume of Multitude of Voyces’ Anthology of Sacred Music by Women Composers. It should be noted that considerable advances have been made (by Multitude of Voyces and by others) since this talk was written. The document has served as a useful discussion-point for other parishes and individuals since it was first delivered to St Thomas’s Church but is only representative of my personal views and observations as a musician living and working in the south of England (Louise Stewart, Director, www.multitudeofvoyces.co.uk).
A prelude to the Anthology of Sacred Music by Women Composers
In recent years, through my work with Multitude of Voyces and in partnership with other church-singers, organists, directors, composers and music-editors, I have been exploring the underrepresentation of women’s sacred music within the liturgy. These notes will draw out some of my research and will examine ways in which this underrepresentation is being addressed by my organisation and by friends and other organisations locally and nationally.
How shall I sing that majesty which angels do admire?
Access: To sing it, I need to be given access to it! Access to liturgical music is usually through printed resources, online or in anthologies/hymn books. Women composers of liturgical music need access to publishers, just as their male counterparts do, and church musicians need ready access to such equal resources. Any limitation of access to either can result in an imbalance of representation.
Enablement: Historically, some women composers of great skill, both of sacred and secular music, have been discriminated against and subjugated, and in some cases, denied education for the full flourishing of their gifts, or had limitations imposed upon them by church and wider society, which did not enable them to be represented equally within music for worship in their own time.
Inclusion: To be heard and valued, women’s liturgical music needs to be included within worship. Without inclusion, women’s music becomes an academic exercise on a piece of manuscript paper; it is not too late to include music composed by women who, in their own lifetimes were not included; their music can still enable us to ‘pray twice’ as St Augustine is quoted as having said. Women’s music cannot contribute to a diverse, equal, just and fair church society if it is not included!
Welcome: Welcoming is a positive, active gesture; where women’s liturgical compositions are being actively welcomed, those churches are showing themselves to be more aware of, and therefore welcomed by, wider society.
Opportunity: it is not difficult for churches to create opportunities for including women’s music within the worshipping life of their communities. It might, however, be necessary to reassess the status quo, for example, by providing financial injection and focussed time to allow for the purchase and learning of new repertoire by both congregations and choirs.
Let dust in dust and silence lie
How have we reached the situation where only a few percent of the Laudate hymn tunes are composed by women; where only 0.1% of the hymn tunes in the beautiful English Hymnal are credited to women; where only 4.7% of the hymn music within Ancient and Modern’s new ‘Hymns for Refreshing Worship’ is composed by women; where there are no anthems at all, composed by women in virtually all of the important anthologies used in our parish and cathedral churches across the land: The European Anthem Book, the ‘New’ Church Anthem Book, the Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems, The Wedding Anthology...the list goes on…it makes for depressing reading, especially if we believe that women are created equal in God’s image…
The reasons for these statistics are complex:
Historic inheritance: we cannot change the past, but we can look more carefully to see if there is something of value that we have overlooked along the way.
Indifference: Does it matter? Ultimately, do the words and music of the liturgy matter? If we believe that God-given gifts can be expressed through art and culture then, yes, they do matter. Sometimes church-music can be seen (by clergy, by congregations, by choirs themselves) as the ‘icing on the cake’ of the service, but it is not fulfilling its potential if it is not considered and used as a part of the cake itself. Separating out the music from the rest of the worship in a service leads to a ‘two-tier’ attitude which can be unhealthy for the community as a whole. Issues of social-justice which would be considered by the congregations, also need to be considered by those providing the music-for-worship.
Lack of awareness: most of the senior church musicians and clergy MoV has had contact with during the course of this research have been unaware of this imbalance of the originators of the music. Many had never considered it at all, or assumed that, if music by women composers was not performed, that it did not exist to be performed, and did not question this imbalance any further especially where it related to the lack of inclusion of works by historical composers.
Deliberate exclusion: this, as you can imagine, is a difficult area, fraught with pain for both men and women working to address this imbalance; and yes, there are some who choose knowingly to exclude women’s compositions and who are enabled to do so within their churches and publishing houses.
‘but women will have to understand how to compose for men!’
An example of attempted exclusion: a real quote from a real priest in a senior role within the Church of England!
A recurrent theme throughout my research has been the ‘doubting Thomases’; those who assume that women’s writing will, for some reason, by inferior to that music composed by men. It is extraordinary that such ideas perpetuate, but without the evidence on the choir bookshelves, and in the regular choral repertoire, it is difficult to change these opinions.
Sing, sing, ye heavenly choir:
Here are just some of the groups within a church community who regularly sing within worship. Do they know what they are singing and do they know what is missing?
Clergy, congregations, parish choirs, school and youth choirs, cathedral choirs.
Thousands of thousands stand around thy throne, o God most high:
Passivity: it is easy to do nothing about issues which do not impinge on us personally, but a church community thrives when it is outward-looking, inclusive, and has its eyes and ears wide open to the needs of the whole community.
Unquestioning tradition: in the Anglican church we have inherited an extraordinarily beautiful choral tradition, that is without question. It almost exclusively lacks compositions by women composers, however, and so no longer reflects the expectations of wider society. The motivation for this situation needs to be considered, and, where necessary, challenged.
Preservation of authority: there is no doubt that church leaders exercise the authority to choose what their congregations hear! They, rather than the church musicians, are the gatekeepers of progress. Clergy who wish to be seen as inclusive of community need to question and challenge the repertoire used within their own churches, and to provide assistance to their directors of music and parish choirs where they need support in purchasing, teaching, and including a more gender-equal representation of music. This is perfectly possible to achieve within the ‘Anglican choral tradition’, but it is likely that some will need that authorisation from their clergy or Chapters to have the confidence to effect these changes.
Comfort and familiarity: repetition is comforting; it is one of the most appealing attributes of the tradition we have inherited, but the word ‘tradition’ comes from the Latin, ‘tradere’, which means ‘to hand on, deliver, or betray’. Are we, in the comforting familiarity of repertoire we love, risking betraying the men and women of the future by clinging to that tradition without considering the broader repertoire available to us?
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound Thy praise
Enthusiasm: attendance at Choral Evensong is growing, countrywide, especially in Colleges and Cathedrals; music is said to be a major factor in this growth.
Enlighten with faith’s light my heart, Inflame it with love’s fire
Here are some areas to consider in order to light the spark of interest in women’s liturgical music!
Research: Education: Advocacy: Opportunity: Exemplars: Resources!
NB statistics quoted are based on personal research