Sally Beamish: 'I'm hoping we're moving towards a time when gender simply isn't an issue'

The List
Alex Johnston
5 October 2018

Aberdeen's annual festival of new music, has a twin focus in 2018: continuing the practice of spotlighting a particular instrument (last year it was the bassoon, this year it's the viola); and presenting work by women composers, who are commonly under-represented in concert programmes. 

Throughout the history of music, women were consistently told that composing was a man's job. In the 19th century, Clara Schumann was persuaded to doubt her own talent, while Gustav Mahler is said to have told his future wife Alma Werfel that a condition of their marriage was that she had to stop writing music (although he did become more encouraging later.) 

Only in the early twentieth century did women get the bare minimum of economic and civil freedom to pursue careers as full-time composers, but a recent global survey of concert programs around the world showed that, of the 1445 concerts on offer, only 76 contained works by women – a mere 5%. 

soundfestival is doing its best to fight this trend, with performances of works by over fifty women composers. Sally Beamish is one, having started playing the viola again in 2015 after a gap of 20 years. 

She'll be performing in her own new work for six violas, A Farewell (Sat 3 Nov, Lemon Tree), alongside Garth Knox, her former desk partner in the National Youth Orchestra, who she met when they were 16.

'Having now spent nearly half my life in Scotland,' she says, 'I am about to return to England and have written a set of six 'farewells' to Scotland for chamber ensembles. This is the first. It seems to join up lots of elements at the beginning of a new chapter in my life, and is built around a Gaelic Psalm (Psalm 46, with the central words 'Be Still')'

How important is the viola to Beamish as a composer and performer? 'I have written a great deal for the viola, including three concertos, but have never played any of it myself, not having even owned an instrument for 20 years. It's very interesting to experience my music from the inside. I hadn't realised just how tricky my string writing can be – and it's getting a lot simpler now, strangely enough!'

Asked what advice she has for up-and-coming composers, she stressed the importance of being in touch with performing, 'whether as singer, conductor or instrumentalist. That way, you meet other performers, who are always glad to advise, and often keen to perform new music, especially if you confer with them so as to make the music feel good to play.'

What does she think of the festival's focus on women composers? 'I had looked at the festival brochure and in fact hadn't noticed the focus. So that must be a good thing. I'm hoping we're moving towards a time when gender simply isn't an issue.'

Read the full article HERE.