Where are the women composers in music history? While it seems ridiculous to ask that, female composers still face significant barriers and challenges—which made it an ideal topic for Ideafest 2020, UVic’s annual public research festival.   

As part of her research, School of Music professor Suzanne Snizek invited four of her flute students (Emily Morse, Lisa Matsugu, Charlie Mason, Rhiannon Jones) plus UVic Gender Studies professor Sikata Banerjee to explore, through discussion and performances, why female composers have been excluded, ignored or sidelined. 

School of Music flute professor Suzanne Snizek (UVic Photo Services)

“Ideafest was an excellent opportunity for my students—all of whom are young women, incidentally—to get acquainted with at least one solo work by a female composer, and to learn about the larger injustices relating to gender still needing to be actively challenged,” says Dr. Snizek. 

Part of an independent study project involving solo presentations by female composers during weekly masterclasses, Snizek’s flute students were able to select their own pieces through research or simply browsing YouTube. “One was even able to email Yuko Uebayashi, who is based in Paris and is arguably one of the leading composers for flute today,” notes Snizek.  

Snizek addressing the sold-out Ideafest audience in March 2020 (photo: Leon Fei)

Critically important conversations

Describing the need to make connections between classical musicians and diverse audiences as a “critically important conversation,” Snizek admits the “classical music industry” has been notoriously slow to address many issues related to equity. “Gender, yes, but also ethnicity, race and so many other identities. We have a long way to go to fully address these social aspects.”

That said, Snizek was still surprised her Ideafest session attracted a standing-room-only audience. “I got the strong sense that people are hungry for change,” she says. “It was also a perfect opportunity for research and teaching to meet, enriching each aspect.”

Music student Charlie Mason with pianist Charlotte Hale (photo: Leon Fei)

Uncovering suppressed music

As well as her interest in women composer’s, Snizek also specializes in groundbreaking research into “suppressed music” — classical music silenced under the Nazi regime because of the composers’ ideologies, aesthetic or Jewish heritage. Many of these works are exceptional, but are rarely performed to this day.

“If it’s a good piece of music, it should be played,” says Snizek. “One of the challenges for this music is that it gets ghettoized again as ‘suppressed music.’ So I’m trying to present it on its own terms, and include it in my teaching here so students can encounter this music for themselves.”


Inspired by injustice 

Snizek’s research was originally inspired by the illegal detentions at Guantanamo Bay in the early 2000s. “The inherent cruelty and injustice of ‘indefinite detention’ has always been particularly unacceptable to me and so was a natural starting point for my research.” Unfortunately, she says she isn’t shocked that issues of personal and artistic suppression are still as relevant today as in the World War II era.

“It doesn’t at all surprise me, but it does concern me,” she admits. “None of this is just dry history, it all has a very real human impact: in generations of family trauma, in artistic production — or lack thereof. In 1940, the war was going quite badly for the Allies, and many felt the world was at the point of coming to an end . . . just listening to the news today can generate empathy for their despair.”