New Composers! New Quintets! New Research!

A New Direction for the Quintet List – And Good News


So, What’s the News?*

After a New Year’s binge of online research, Brandt’s Woodwind Quintet Site just went live with a major upgrade, including 117 new composers with 242 new works.

Well, marketing lingo aside, maybe it’s not a major, major upgrade, but a pretty good periodic upgrade and a new separation of the sexes.

*You may, if you like, read this post as a dialogue, with the headlines being a female voice.

Uh… Separation of the Sexes? Really?

Well, bad choice of words. Not separation but reincorporation. Or, better yet, recognizing the increased influence of women composers in woodwind quintet literature.

OK. That’s Better. I Think.

Partly inspired by those websites celebrating women composers, and partly out of my own curiosity, I decided to go through the entire 5000+ composers and arrangers on this site to try to find out how many were women. Another factor is that I’ve been crawling through a lot of new composer websites lately and noticing that a larger percentage of them are by women composers.

Hmm. Crawling through Women’s Websites?

It’s not as weird as it sounds. Let me rephrase. While researching the literature (and seeing that a lot of composers these days are bypassing traditional music publishers and setting up online shops of their own), I noticed that many composers are creating well-designed websites incorporating (in addition to the usual biography and literature lists) improved photography, video, sound files, pitches for grant money, the occasional Kickstarter campaign, and better marketing for online sales. In the past year or two, it seems that much more of that good work is being done by women composers.

Yes, That Sounds Much Better. Go on.

For 35+ years, while compiling this list of quintets and quintet-friendly works (including double quintets, works of winds with piano, and quintet plus an added player or two), my goal has been to include as many different composers from around the world as I could find. Of course, this included women composers.

Until now, however, I hadn’t a clue to how many of these composers were women. Over the past two months, while updating the list and adding new composers and compositions, I thought of ways to do that, hopefully to inspire other woman composers and help researchers and performers who were interested in such things. Finally, I did a web search for any composers I could not identify as male or female, and found a number of “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” moments: composers whose name I thought was either male or female but was the opposite of what I expected. A name is not always a good indicator of a person.

OK. So How Many Women Are There?

There are definitely more women composing and arranging works for woodwind quintet than ever before in history. In my research, I identified 412 women out of a list of 5176 composers. Remember, that 5176 total has been building since about 1800 (including many arrangements of even older composers). That makes the total percentage of women on the list about 8 percent which is, I think, good news of growing diversity. (Up until 90 years ago, that percentage would have been 1% or less.)

Remember, that is not a percentage of woman composers to men in classical music overall, it’s a percentage of women writing woodwind quintet-friendly music to men writing woodwind quintet-friendly music. FYI, the Women Composers Database project lists 3097 women classical composers. We have some new ones to add to the list, too.

Any Other New Insights?

A large number of works on this site are arrangements of works originally written for other instruments. Although there are a few women doing notable arrangements, by and large most of the arrangers are men – or at least those are the ones being published and marketed. On the flip side, that means that more women quintet composers are deciding to concentrate on original, rather than derivative, work – which is good for the art form.

Also, many modern composers seem to be writing more works for unusual scorings rather than for traditional ensembles. There are still people writing woodwind quintets and string quartets and piano trios and SATB choruses and symphonies, but as you compare the work lists of traditional and newer composers, unusual scorings seem to be becoming more common. (That’s my impression, anyway. I don’t keep statistics about it.) There will probably be no modern composer writing 24 long-form woodwind quintets as Reicha did; there are more creative possibilities for getting other works performed today. The economics still make it a challenge to earn much money writing chamber music, but the granting process has helped a great deal in commissioning and performing new works.

On the other hand, there are more professional woodwind quintets performing and recording than ever before, and many of them are making their mark featuring new work. As I’ll blog about later, there are quintets that are exploring more music of a particular region, say Spain or Estonia or urban America, which also helps them stand apart.

How Do We Use This Info?

Having done this research, I needed to figure out what I should do with it. (Funny how research has consequences.) One idea was to avoid any change by not marking which composers were men and which were women to let you guess. Another idea was to add a tag or icon to each composer. One European online database actually uses the familiar male and female scientific symbols for each composer in their database, but that seemed too clinical to me. Those icons for men and women that you see on public bathrooms didn’t seem like a good idea, either.

Finally, I decided to add a CSS tag that allows me to use one color in the background name box for men, and another color for women. (Instead of the former gray to white gradient, I now use a subtle pale blue for men and an equally tasteful peachy-orange for women.) Both use a background gradient, from left to right, that dissolves into gray, symbolically stating, perhaps, that we all have a lot in common, too. They now look like this:

Barraine, Elsa (1910-1999)

Onslow, Georg (1784-1853)

Why tag? Well, a fair number of the women composers on my list are not included in the traditional Women Composer lists. Hopefully, by looking through this list, these researchers can update their sites. (FYI, if I’m not sure of the sex of the composer it defaults to the blue background.)

Some performing ensembles have an interest in performing concerts that feature women composers or want to commission new works by them. Color tagging makes it easier to find those performing opportunities with more variety. I also hope women composers can find inspiration from those who have gone before them in this field and perhaps find a new niche where they can make a contribution.

I suppose the opposite could also be true. There could be all-male quintets looking for all-male composers, but that has been so, whether intentionally or not, throughout much of classical musical history. The benefits of promoting women composers seem to outweigh any criticism of making distinctions between male and female, in my opinion.

What’s in a Name?

My list is as accurate as I could make it. There are composers here with names like Geghuni Chitchyan, Hedwige Chretién, Se-Lien Chuang, Koharik Gazarossian, and Xinyan Li. How many of you knew they are all women? Likewise there are Fridolin Dallinger, Bechara El-Khoury, Frigyes Hidas, Ilja Zeljenka and Andrea Ferrante who are all men. (Hence those “monkey’s uncle” moments I mentioned earlier.)

Some first names are used for both sexes. In parts of Spain, Joan is the local Basque, Catalan or Gallegan equivalent of the Spanish Juan (related to the English John, not Joan). André and Andrea are used by both sexes. Jan could be either male or female in English, but definitely male in Scandinavia. And there are some English names used by both sexes, too. Finally, there are a number of composers about whom I could find no information online about whether they were men or women. Some composers, even in 2018, have absolutely no web presence or even an acknowledgement, so it’s hard to check.

Does All This Make the Quintet List More Useful?

Ultimately, as the publishing world gets more diffuse, and independent composers, dealers and arrangers make more quintets available, Brandt’s Woodwind Quintet Site becomes more important in bringing teachers, composers and performers together and promoting the artistic medium. At least I hope so.

Errors and Mistakes

There are also, inevitably, some mistakes here. I hope readers can help here by offering their own research and insights and adding comments or sending me messages.

Like what you see? Let me know. Want to offer improvements, let me know that, too.



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