9 March 2021
There is something particularly fitting about the first day back in school and on site here in Calne coinciding with International Women’s Day. Simply seeing the girls’ enthusiasm and delight in being back together, as they throw themselves into all the activities that are on offer to them, is a powerful reminder of the potential they have, and the hope for the future that they represent.
I look forward later today to hearing the sounds of practising floating from the windows of the Music block – that’s such a constant feature of life here on campus. Music has always been tremendously important to the school, so I love the now well-established connection that BBC Radio 3 makes each year between women and music, by marking International Women’s Day with 24 hours of music by female composers. I’m sure many of us can still remember asking our parents or teachers as we were growing up ‘why aren’t there any female composers?’ and often getting a pretty unsatisfactory response. It’s amazing how many people seemed to assume that women simply hadn’t been good enough to feature.
But, of course, it turns out that there have always been quite a number of excellent women composers, many of whom are now considerably better known than they have ever been. This year’s Radio 3 day started with a special programme with Clemency Burton-Hill, who many of you will be aware is bravely recovering from a major brain injury, in which one of the composers she featured – Florence Price – was particularly interesting to me. I am always struck by women who are ‘firsts’ in a field. Their achievements are often in effect evidence of how women were excluded from so many activities for so long – and Florence Price is a shining example of that. She was in fact the first female composer of African descent to have a symphonic work performed by a major national symphony orchestra, overcoming prejudice on two counts. The year was as late as 1933.
Florence Price had been born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, to a mother who was a music teacher and who encouraged her daughter to learn the piano. She was later fortunate enough to attend the New England Conservatory of Music, at the time one of the few institutions to admit African Americans. With racial tension rising in the South, Price and her family moved to Chicago where she found an active music scene. After getting divorced, she even played the organ for silent movies to support herself while she began composing in earnest. The opportunity to have her first symphony played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra then came after she won a composing competition. Although her reputation continued to grow during her lifetime (she wrote over 300 pieces of music), after her death her work suffered the fate of that of so many women composers and was largely forgotten.
The fact that, until now, few of us will have heard of Florence Price is another reminder that the old world has not entirely passed. We need many more days like the Radio 3 celebration, but we also need so much more than that. It is still too easy to take the progress that has been made for granted.
There is incredible value in providing role models for girls – they really do still need to be shown that anything is possible. Our own annual Alumna of the Year Award, launched in 2018, does just that. The event will be taking place later this month and the Award was introduced to recognise and honour achievements and triumphs of our alumnae, which, in turn, provides inspiration and role models for our current pupils. One thing’s for sure: anyone seeing the girls gathered back here at school today will certainly have no doubts about their energy and drive – it’s great to have them back!
Dr Felicia Kirk, Headmistress, St Mary’s Calne