What would music be like if it was dominated by female composers?

International Women's Day #1

The Taming of the Shrew Composer Ruth Chan talks about making the music for a production where the usual male roles are played by women and the female roles by men.

In light of the #metoo movement, The Taming of the Shrew is a problematic play. So in hearing Justin Audibert’s vision of turning the play around and exploring it as a matriarchal society, I was excited to be involved.

Justin’s direction for the music was simply stated: “Rock renaissance” with Eurythmics; in particular Annie Lennox’s Walking on Broken Glass. It is fun to revisit the music video for Walking on Broken Glass – renaissance costume with early 90s popular music.

As I started work on the score, Lucy Cullingford (Movement Director) began exploring movement in this role-reversed world. It was fascinating to see how a court dance changes: ladies leading the men in dance, ladies wooing the men, ladies eyeing up the men, men averting their eyes from the women. My challenge has been how to reinforce this through music. I wondered…

  • What would music be like if it was dominated by female composers?
  • How would music be performed?
  • Would the female composers become as revered as Gabrieli, Byrd and Palestrina?
  • Would it naturally have more female musicians and singers than male?
Ruth Chan in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for The Taming of the Shrew technical rehearsals

My research discovered several female Italian renaissance and early baroque composers: Lucia Quinciani, Claudia Sessa, Vittoria Aleotti, Francesca Caccini and Maddalena Casulana - believed to be the first female composer to have her music published. I located some of Casulana’s madrigals and found this line in the dedication to her first book of madrigals:

Maddalena Casulana

"[I] want to show the world, as much as I can in this profession of music, the vain error of men that they alone possess the gifts of intellect and artistry, and that such gifts are never given to women."

This resonates quite strongly with some of the themes in The Taming of the Shrew and what I want to do with my music. I have used some of the text, harmonies and melodies from her madrigals to inspire my score.

Female singers

There are several songs in our production, so I researched the use of singers in the mid 16th century. This period is believed to be the start of castrati voices (ouch!), but I was more interested in female vocalists.

My study uncovered the ‘Concerto Delle Donne’ group of professional female singers, renowned for their new virtuosic singing style that many composers in Italy were influenced by and wanted to compose for. This began a movement of women being able to have a professional career as a musician (financially) independent of husband or father – and inspired more women singing groups in Italy.

Because of the number of female cast members in this production of Shrew, it is great to have a large group of female singers for some of the songs to provide an echo of the Concerto Delle Donne nearly 500 years later.

Listen to some of the tracks that inspired Ruth while she was writing the music for The Taming of the Shrew. 


Creating a Rock Renaissance

In terms of soundscape of the score, I have experimented with period instruments such as lute, recorder and harpsichord to see what instrumentation would be ideal for creating the Rock Renaissance feel. Some of this involved using these period instruments with electronic effects.

The show is touring alongside As You Like It and Measure For Measure, which means we need to ensure each show achieves the right feel with the same blend of instruments. Nevertheless, I have tried to create a world that starts in the Renaissance and evolves to something beyond the 1990s by the end of the play.

Amanda Harris (Baptista), James Cooney (Bianco) and Amelia Donkor (Hortensia) in rehearsal for The Taming of the Shrew.

The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy, so much of the music is also upbeat – the scene after the banquet has been particularly fun to develop. Similarly, in the scene where Hortensia tries to seduce Bianco, we have the role reversal of a woman sleazily wooing a man with music she has specially composed, for this point I had to create a deliberately terrible sounding piece of renaissance music to enhance the comedy – I like to think I have achieved this!

Writing for this production has been great fun. Composing for theatre can be very rewarding, particularly given that I have worked predominantly in film and TV up until a few years ago. There is simply no replacement for live music when compared to recordings, particularly when there is live drama!