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One hundred years ago, suffragette Emily Davison died after she stepped out in front of the King's horse at the Epsom Derby. But how have things changed for women in classical music over the past century?
On 4 June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison stepped in front of the King’s horse Anmer, in an incident which proved to be a prelude to change for women in Britain. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women over 30. It was later extended to women over the age of 21. Photo: PA Wire
Despite Emily Davison’s sacrifice, women's rights groups today say progress towards equality is still painfully slow. Men still outnumber women in Parliament as well as in positions of power in business. In classical music too, women still only make up a very small percentage of orchestral players. Photo: PA Wire
The most prominent musician among the suffragettes was Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944). Her father – a military man – was deeply opposed to her being a musician. Undeterred, she attended the Leipzig Conservatory and went on to compose a large number of works, with opera 'The Wreckers' considered one of her finest.
Ethel Smyth gave up music for two years to devote herself to the suffragette movement and her composition 'The March of the Women' became its anthem. When the great conductor Sir Thomas Beecham visited her in Holloway prison, he saw suffragettes marching in the quad singing the song, as Smyth leaned out of her cell window conducting with her toothbrush.
Women have only begun to make their presence felt on the world’s major orchestras in recent decades. Male musicians maintained that women would change the overall sound and ‘feel’ of the orchestra. And it seems that a stage filled with men in tuxedos was considered much more visually appealing than a mixed–gender orchestra. Picture: Ronald Zak/AP/Press Association Images
In 1914, American violinist Mary Davenport-Engberg (1880–1951) reportedly became the first woman to conduct a symphony orchestra in the United States – in Bellingham, Washington. From 1921 until 1924 she was music director of the Seattle Civic Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra she founded for the purpose of developing local students as players for the Seattle Symphony.
Harpist Edna Phillips was just 23 – and had only been playing for five years - when Leopold Stokowski appointed her principal harp at the Philadelphia Orchestra – the first woman ever to join a major American orchestra. Phillips faced extreme prejudice, but her performances were acclaimed by both audiences and critics. Phillips is given prominence in Stokowski's orchestra in Disney's Fantasia. Photo: Emil Rhodes/Family collection
For most of the 20th century, women were almost nowhere to be seen as conductors. There are even stories of orchestras refusing to play for a woman on the podium. Significantly, Nadia Boulanger became the first ever woman to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936. She was also a celebrated teacher whose pupils included Aaron Copland, John Eliot Gardiner, Quincy Jones, Philip Glass, and Ástor Piazzolla.
Before the 1970s, one of the few women to play in the London Symphony Orchestra was the oboist Evelyn Rothwell, who joined in the 1930s and found herself regarded as an outsider by her male colleagues. She was not admitted to full membership of the orchestra. Here she is pictured with her husband, the conductor Sir John Barbirolli. Photo by Erich Auerbach/Getty Images.
Conductor Marin Alsop became the first woman to be appointed music director of a major American orchestra. Despite significant controversy surrounding her choice, she joined the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007. She is the first woman to record the complete cycle of symphonies by Brahms.
Clarinet player Sabine Meyer became the first woman to enter the hallowed ranks of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1982. Despite being hired by its musical director Herbert von Karajan, the players were apparently not happy. Meyer left after nine months.
In 2003, eight years after the Austrian government insisted that the Vienna Philharmonic drop its men-only rule, the orchestra employed their first non-harpist woman musician, violist Ursula Plaichinger. In January 2005, Australian conductor Simone Young became the first woman to conduct the orchestra.
JoAnn Falleta took up her post as Principal Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra in May 2011. Faletta – described by the New York Times as ‘one of the finest conductors of her generation’ - has earned a reputation as a vibrant ambassador for music and an inspiring artistic leader.
In September 2001, horn player Sarah Willis joined the Berlin Philharmonic as the orchestra’s first-ever female brass player. The post was something she 'had dreamed about but had never thought would ever become a reality,' she said.
The dramatic story of Emily Davison has now become the subject of a new opera, 'Emily' by the British composer Tim Benjamin. It presents scenes from Davison’s life leading to the tragic events at the Epsom Derby.
A 25-minute extract from Tim Benjamin's opera ‘Emily’ was presented in March last year at the New Music North West festival at the RNCM in Manchester. The world premiere performances will take place at the Hippodrome Theatre in Benjamin’s hometown, Todmorden in West Yorkshire, 4-6 July 2013.