Invisible canons: towards a personal canon of female composers

This post is written by network member Dr. Angela Slater.

There are many instances where the pedagogical canons that professional and amateur musicians were exposed to during their formative years have left generations after generations of people unaware of the existence and wealth of works by female composers. As evidenced in numerous political speeches, and academic research, the powerful sway that the canon wields through our educational institutions and beyond have ensured the continued hegemony of repertoire and, by association, the suppression of women composers and their works, consciously or otherwise.

My own experiences as a female composer working in the contemporary classical industry gives both substantive and anecdotal evidence how this has come to be, and its continuing influence. For example, it was only in my PhD on composition that I began to realise in any formal way that there had been female composers of the past. It did amaze me how I had not come to question this before such an advanced stage, and how by asking this question, I was suddenly exposed to a world of far more music from diverse human experiences. I think this is proof of the acceptance and power that common discourses have over us as they go by unquestioned as the seal of worth and approval.

Through my research into women composers and their works, I began to reflect on my own pedagogical journey by digging through my old graded exam books and syllabuses. The process made me question the formal structure of the canon, its manifestations, and its inner workings. Exploring the writing of Marcia Citron and Anne C. Shreffler, who offer perceptive insights into issues of gender and the canon, is revealing. For example, Citron perceptively observes that ‘Canon formation is not controlled by any one individual or organisation’ (2000: 19). On this point, Shreffler identifies key aspects of canon formation as ‘frequency of performance and academic engagement, both of which show a presumption of longevity and staying power; frequent programming well after initial honeymoon period; and historical significance, realised in retrospect’ (2011).

Related to this, Lucy Green’s (1997) work has shown how this becomes embodied in practitioners’ perspectives on the ability of female students. In a number of cases, teachers judged the work of girls to be of lower quality than that of boys, quantifying this in loose terms tied to concepts of musical ‘genius’ and unity of form. All of this builds a picture of how women’s creativity has in the past and continues to be undervalued and undermined in our societies.

I surveyed the ABRSM examination board piano syllabuses from 1999-2019 so I could begin to substantiate some of the things that had emerged anecdotally. This survey reveals unsurprising but still startling evidence that illustrates a structural imbalance in graded music examinations as a whole. The survey shows overall representation of women composers within their syllabus for piano grades 1-8 remains low from 1999-2019 with a peak of 11% in 2011-12. Across the overall time period of two decades we can see that women composers only account for 3.4% of composers presented. The picture worsens when you delve deeper into which works actually make it into the main examination books, a significant barrier to access to these works for teachers and students.

Such syllabuses hold enormous weight over our views of music. Citron observes ‘Textbooks and anthologies, the repository of the canon, wield enormous power as determinants of canonic status’ (2000: 24-5). We might see these educational resources becoming certified endorsements of what is worthy of being taught. Challenging such hegemony is important as we move forward.

Through looking at the pedagogical and broader societal canons to which I was exposed it is plain to see that women composers were largely excluded from these. I doubt my musical education was particularly different from many other young people growing up at the same time. As noted above, canons are both created and sustained through a large group of people with shared values. We might see the formation of an established societal canon as emerging from a number of influential individual canons coalescing around a common body of works. The influence of this conceptual structure is almost inescapable, and I acknowledge this from the outset, even as I begin to critique it. Therefore, when I started to discover and engage with a body of works by female composers, I began to conceptualise these as my personal canon of female composers.

Through this I realised that if we can influence the personal canon of many concert- going members of the public then we can begin to in some small way infiltrate the larger canon. Illuminate Women’s Music was founded on this mission to begin to introduce and educate the larger concert-going public, arts organisations, university communities and digital communities about the historical lineage of women composers and the living women composers working today. By taking these works across a broad geographical area to a range of concert venues and demographic of concert-going audiences, and offering repeat performances by emerging professionals, this music is receiving some of the necessary elements of works that potentially go on to reach canonic status.


Citron, Marcia. Gender and the Music Canon (University of Illinois Press, 2000).

Green, Lucy. Music, Gender, Education (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Shreffler, Anne C. ‘Musical Canonization and Decanonization in the Twentieth Century’, in Der Kanon der Musik: Theorie und Geschichte. Ein Handbuch, ed. K. P. M. Wald-Fuhrmann (Munich: Hanser, 2011), pp. 1– 18.

Angela Elizabeth Slater is a UK-based composer and the founder of Illuminate Women’s Music. She is passionate about bringing music by women from the past and present to audiences around the UK and beyond. In her AHRC-funded PhD at University of Nottingham, Angela developed an interest in musically mapping different aspects of the natural world into the fabric of her music. She frequently associates these concepts and phenomena from the natural world with ideas of movement, forging close links between her gestural language and techniques found in dance. Angela enjoys working with professional and amateur musicians with equal enthusiasm. Highlights include the Atea Wind Quintet, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Bozzini Quartet, Assembly project, Aurea Quartet, BBC Singers, and Psappha, amongst others. Recent significant achievements include being a Britten-Pears Young Artist through which Angela worked with Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews and Michael Gandolfi, developing Soaring in Stasis which received its premiere at 2018 Aldeburgh Festival. Her work Eye o da hurricane (for string quartet), was shortlisted in the British category ISCM world music days in 2017. Angela recently became the New England Philharmonic’s 2018 call for scores winner resulting in the world-premiere of her orchestral work Roil in Stillness in April 2019. Angela also became the 2018 Young Composer of the Year for the London Firebird Orchestra, leading to a new work, Twilight Inversions, which received its world-premiere on 11th June 2019. Angela was the 2019 Mendelssohn Scholar resulting in her furthering her studies with Michael Gandolfi at NEC this year. In June Angela has had further exciting performances including the Hildegard National Sawdust ensemble performing Shades of Rain for piano trio in Brooklyn, New York followed by a world-premiere of her work Of Spheres by the Semiosis quartet as part of the IAWM conference at Berklee College of Music (Boston). Angela also had her piece A Pattern of Shadows performed in Finland by the Avanti chamber orchestra as part of the Savellyspaja 2019 festival. Angela has also recently attended the prestigious Choreographer-Composer Lab at Phoenix Dance Theatre with the intention of furthering her artistic ambition and collaborative practices with other artforms.