Missing Pieces: Hacking the Canon

A range of databases cataloguing underrepresented composers and their works are proving essential to classical music organisations' efforts to revitalise their repertoire. However, they are volunteer-run, under-resourced and operating in isolated silos, resulting in resources that are less efficient than they could be, and woefully under-utilised. Do we need to stage a tech intervention?

July 30, 2021
Holly Mathieson

Ann H, Pexels (edited).

I’m thinking about programming. No, not that kind - the other kind. Concert programming. The jigsaw puzzle of creativity and responsibility, ambition and tradition, idealism and pragmatism, at the heart of any live or recorded music event.

As a conductor, it fills many satisfying hours of my working week – preparing the meat-and-three-veg variety of evening concerts, commissioning new work, devising digital and education projects, planning community work and proposing viable recordings. I enjoy it so much that I even engage in ad hoc consulting to help other organisations with the task, particularly if they want ideas for branching out from the canonic European repertoire or integrating community participation into their work.

Conductors share the task of programming with the creative brains of orchestral and opera administrations – heads of artistic planning teams, wryly observed in a recent conversation with one such individual as the frustrated conductors of orchestral administration. They tend to share our interest in serving up an ever more varied musical diet, but are often tempered by the restraints of departmental budgets, stage dimensions, the allocation of musicians’ weekly service hours and the caution or confidence of their respective marketing teams.

A white calculator, blue pencil and notebook, and pile of coins sitting on a lilac-coloured desk.
Kindel Media, Pexels.

Like most conductors and artistic planners, I have spreadsheets full of musicological data dumps that help me plan concerts: names, dates, titles, orchestrations, publishers, durations, recording and video links, genres, errata, useful programming themes... And, like my colleagues, I often find myself obsessively truffling for works by composers who’ve slid off the radar (or, indeed, were never within the limited bounds of the grid): composers born into times, places or politics that barred them from a public artistic life on account of their gender, ethnicity, ill health or family income; and composers who enjoyed success in their lifetime but whose works, for whatever reason, did not pass the gateposts into the historic canon.

I seek out music I think is very good; I seek out music I think is not very good.

I try not to dismiss music that deserves the chance to be reappraised by different audiences with different tastes; and I’m particularly sentimental about fundamentally good and interesting music that the composer never had the chance to orchestrate properly, either through lack of opportunity to develop their skills, or lack of a second (or indeed first) performance of the piece in their lifetime.

But still, despite our interest in giving performance time to these works, and despite the righteous clamour for equity in classical music accelerated by Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and #WeShallNotBeRemoved, the concert programmes and album releases around the globe remain predominantly, and resolutely, exclusive – in the most pejorative sense of the word.

"Tradition (noun.) Peer pressure from dead people"

It’s very easy to adopt a sort of new-world, hash-tagged optimism about shaking up our repertoire and working more inclusively in classical music, and that energy certainly has a role to play in lubricating the ca. 300-hundred-year axles of professional symphonic tradition. But as I mention in this article (click to open in another window), the best intentions in the world will be short-lived, if we ignore the rather dull structural issues that stymy them.

When it comes to programming, we rely heavily on our previous experience and our audience’s proven tastes, meaning that from the outset we are already biased toward works that we, and they, already know (or, at a push, short works that sound very like them, written by people whose surnames sound familiar). We also invariably have marketing and planning deadlines chasing our heels, especially in the era of snap COVID-alert level changes and self-isolating artists, increasing the chances we’ll fall back on tried-and-true concert formats and repertoire.

A one-way sign on a street, outside a brick wall, painted white. The photo is sepia-toned, giving it an aged, shabby quality..
Gratisography, Pexels.

Digital technology has come to play a crucial role in helping us claw our way out of this self-referencing programming loop, and programme creatively on the run.

From volunteer-run YouTube accounts posting recordings of works by lesser-known composers (I wonder how many planning departments around the world owe prolific YouTuber @KuhlauDilfeng2 a fractional salary?) and IMSLP’s volunteer-run, out-of-copyright music sharing platform, which has democratised access to a vast array of music for amateur and professional music-making around the globe (donate here!), to love-the-concept-but-hate-the-economics streaming services like Spotify, and Naxos’ seemingly bottomless discography of, we are increasingly indebted to point-and-click digital resources to flesh out our programming ambitions.

In order for these works to be available online, they must already have been typset, published, printed, recorded and distributed. That is several mighty hurdles already cleared, granting them a distinct advantage over the many thousands of works languishing on kitchen tables and discarded in dusty attics. But, even from that privileged starting point, they still won’t make it to the final concert schedule without the aid of a well-maintained catalogue entry.

Take for instance, Elizabeth Maconchy’s Nocturne for orchestra – a brilliant orchestral work, ideal for a standard symphony audience, by one of the UK’s most prolific and respected 20th Century composers. I only know of it thanks to YouTube’s auto-play function, and the superb Italian YouTube account, @TheWelleszCompany. Bless them.

It's lush.

Not surprisingly, I immediately wanted to programme the piece, and took to google to seek out the three most crucial pieces of data needed for embedding it in a draft programme: duration (again, thank you YouTube), orchestration, publisher.

No work can be programmed without these nuggets of information. A recording or video of the piece is also a huge help in convincing orchestral administrations to take a punt - although our increasing reliance on them keeps more obscure works off the menu - and the other columns (composition date, programme note etc) are all useful tools later in the process, but not essential.

A google search returned the YouTube link that had inspired my hunt; some slightly dated biographical references to Maconchy, without comprehensive worklists; one amateur programme note for the piece, without orchestration or publisher details; and links to a cluster of publishing companies, all of which held the rights to a sub-section of her works, but none of which seemed to distribute the Nocturne. About three google search pages in, I found a spurious instrumentation listing in a PDF of a hard-copy catalogue.

This was a major orchestral work by one of the UK’s most prolific and respected composers, and it was ghosting me.

A photograph of composer Elizabeth Maconchy looking directly at the camera, with a pencil in her right hand, as she works on an open A3 manuscriipt. There is a piano with several sheets of manuscript in the background. She has white hair, and looks calm and measured.
Dame Elizabeth Maconchy (Dame Elizabeth LeFanu)by Suzie Maeder.
Bromide fibre print, 1980

In the intervening years, the cataloguing and digitalisation of Maconchy’s works has improved significantly, so I decided to repeat the search as I wrote this article. As of today (22 July, 2021), the search returns a much fuller list, though still slightly less helpful than you’d expect:

  • The trusty YouTube link that spawned my initial inquiry into the piece (which, as I write, has 11,868 views. Not bad stats for a barely documented 20th Century work by an Englishwoman). It lists the composition date as 1950/51, suggesting there was a revision a year later;
  • Maconchy’s works list on the Ricordi website, which has an entry for the piece confirming 1950-51 as the composition date, but provides an incomplete instrumentation list: the celeste is missing, an expensive instrument to hire and not usually played by a salaried player, and there is no mention of the 3rd wind players playing cor anglais, Bass clarinet and contra bassoon – these omissions have serious budget repercussions if they are only discovered when the score and parts arrive;
  • A listing for the work on the Daniel’s Catalogue listing the composition date(s) as 1951-52, but with the correct duration and orchestration behind a paywall, and listing Lengnick as the publisher (they are the original publisher of the work, but sold their entire catalogue to UMPG Classical in 2015, who now distribute the work under the Ricordi label)
  • A link to the score on the pay-to-use digital platform, Nkoda (again with Lengnick as the publisher).

So, a vast improvement since 2017, but still a frustrating number of inconsistencies and question marks for anyone programming the work, especially given this is a major work by a comparatively mainstream composer, her gender notwithstanding. The effort required to gain a full picture of the piece’s suitability for a programme (musically, financially, logistically) ran the risk of thwarting the incentive to programme it.

And what does this scattergun approach portend for cataloguing the overtures never recorded, the symphonies never finished, the final manuscripts never discovered, the composers omitted?

A birds eye-view of two young women of mixed race, sitting next to each other on a grey padded bench, working on laptops. the women on the left wears jeans, a blue and white striped top and multi-coloured pumps. The woman on the right wears an orange and camouflage jacket over a black tee-shirt, jeans and sneakers. She has cream nail varnish on.
Christina Morillo, Pexels.

In the last ten years there has been a proliferation of individuals and organisations attempting to fill those long-empty gaps on music library shelves through research, advocacy and cataloguing of works by underrepresented composers. Discussions with these website and catalogue maintainers reveal that, without exception, they do this work entirely on a volunteer basis, and often on their own. Not surprisingly then, they often focus on a specific demographic or genre of interest.

The first few of these niche, micro-catalogues to spring up focused on the many thousands of missing works by women in our general history of composition, but in recent years these have been supplemented by catalogues and websites focusing on the equally vast omission of composers of colour. Due to the immense personal commitment to these individual databases, there is a slightly territorial attitude among some (not all) of the maintainers, with a reluctance to share the fruit of their labour with other organisations, especially as remuneration is rarely offered. 

While this mushrooming of resources is, without question, preferable to their absence, the lack of connectivity between them, and inconsistency in entry fields results in both a diffusion of information (which inevitably leads to discrepancy), and a lack of rigour, not least due to the lack of funding and support for their dogged maintainers.

We have two dozen hard-working partial resources, rather than several efficient and comprehensive ones.

It would be hypocritical of me to argue for centralisation, or even standardisation, of these records, having just noted the inherent and inevitable exclusivity of canonicalisation. However, I do think we could make far smarter use of software and database design to ensure that the work of these cataloguers and researchers can be put to greater use by more end-users, and that the variables of catalogue items – discographies, external URLs and publisher details – can be monitored, if not maintained, by automatic updates across a network of databases.

A retro cartoon of a blonde-haired, caucasian man in a pink suit and tie, with tan pants, holding a complicated diagram titled "Your Database". He is smiling confidently, and pointing to it. The image has a turquoise background.

Any successful exercise in system design begins with a clear definition of probable user intent, and while I concede my reasons for referencing a catalogue may not align with the maintainer’s reason for creating it, I don’t think I’m being too presumptuous to assume that if someone goes to the effort of cataloguing unknown composers, at least part of their intent is that more people will become familiar with the music itself. The catalogue design, therefore, ought to include fields that facilitate performance of the works.

For instance, there is undoubtedly value in knowing that Zenobia Powell Perry, a composer, pianist and social justice activist of African American and Muscogee heritage born in 1908, composed several orchestral works in the first half of the twentieth century, but that value is amplified exponentially if we can actually locate (easily and quickly), play and record her works.

The website banner and logo for the Institute for Composer Diversity. It is in black and red, on a white background, and features a picture of black headphones, and the words "Search. Program. Perform. Repeat."

Mega-resource, Institute for Composer Diversity is one of the newest contributors to cataloguing these works. Nonetheless, in a short space of time they have managed to become the most comprehensive, thanks to Institute Director Rob Deemer’s prior work on a database of women composers, cooperative relationships with other database maintainers, and proactive engagement with living composers.

They are also – crucially - the most well-utilised in the professional industry. Alongside the Daniels Orchestral Catalogue, the Composer Diversity Database is now a common-use resource for mainstream programmers. It’s not surprising, given the unequivocal statement on their “about” page regarding their intended end-users: “the audiences and students who will engage with the music, the conductors, performers, and educators who serve to bring that music to those audiences and students, and the composers themselves.”

To that end, they have designed the UI around the end-user rather than the data, and triangulate their three comprehensive databases with analysis of global programming trends and ideation to support more diverse and inclusive repertoire decisions. A complete and up-to-date entry in the database includes every piece of information needed to programme the work.

However, despite working within the framework of a research institute within a university (The State University of New York at Fredonia), at the time of writing all of the work extending and maintaining the three databases is run entirely on a volunteer basis by Rob Deemer and a team of students from the School of Music.

The other major catalogues of underrepresented composers may be smaller in scope, but their administrators work just as tirelessly, and without financial or technical support. Several database maintainers I spoke to learnt basic programming (of the web and software variety!) to build their systems, and spoke of the near-impossible task of upgrading their skills and tech stacks to keep the database active and functional, without finance or support. For many, the restrictions of available spare time and access to information meant their database was limited to static biographical details only, a valuable historiographical record but of little help in getting the music played. All agreed the never-ending task of sourcing and maintaining accurate URL links to recordings and publishers was all but impossible as a hobbyist cataloguer.

These databases are the bricks and mortar we use to build the foundations of more inclusive professional practice in classical music. But, the industry that so desperately needs them falls short on the skills required to support and develop them. We need an intervention.

We need a hackathon.

Birds-eye photo of three people sitting around a round, white-tiled table with a yellow rim. They are all wearing black or white clothing, and have a range of laptops and mobile devices in front of them. The table has a bright yellow strip around its rim. They are collaborating on work as a team.
Canva Studio, Pexels.

It's not a new idea.

Music Community Lab (NYC) hosts a regular hackathon, Classical:NEXT held a Sibelius-themed hackathon in 2015, and San Diego Opera has had 2 successful hackathons with significant prize money up for grabs and some phenomenally exciting submissions. Hacking is written into the DNA of the Karajan Institute.

Outside the classical music industry, hackathons are a fertile and fun playground for coders to flex their muscles, scratch their creative itches, and give back to communities and industries that don't share in the fiscal resources of the tech giants.

So, how might we engage the tech community to help us maximise the efficiency and accuracy of these databases, and minimise the workload of those trying to programme the works they document?

I’m a baby coder, so can’t begin to imagine what a sophisticated developer might be able to design and build, but my first instinct would be that we could better leverage the power of APIs (what are they?), so that maintainers can automate the sharing of data with each other, rather than having to manually update the same fields across separate databases.

It may be preferable to work in vanilla code, as much as possible, to minimise reliance on dependencies that will require updates in the future. And perhaps a quick check of SEO and metadata on each site would also be useful, to ensure they are landing under the noses of their intended users. I’m sure more experienced programmers would have far more nuanced ideas to add to this bucket list.

And for those of us lacking in THOSE programming skills, there are many constructive ways to contribute:

Wooden Scrabble letters, with black print, spelling out the words "say thank you", on  a white background.
Brett Jordan, Pexels.

  • If you feel an urge to start a database of underrepresented composers, pause for a second to consider whether that effort is not better spent helping expand or maintain an existing one. Or, at the very least, please consider building yours with a view to sharing the data with others who could also use it in their own project;
  • Contact a database administrator from any of the catalogues below and offer to check and replace the URL links, as expired recording and publisher links are one of the most common usability issues. Remember to check for geo-locking on YouTube links;
  • If the catalogue has been useful, especially if you are a professional artist or organisation, ask if you can donate to support the work of the maintainer or, at the very least, credit their work in some way;
  • Start exploring the links below – they are goldmines of information and resources, and testament to many thousands of hours of passion and dedication. If you’re not in a position to help in a practical way, the best way you can show your appreciation is to use them.

And We Were Heard

Databases for diverse composers of wind band and orchestral music

Anna Edwards' Composer Database

Conductor Anna Edwards' personal catalogue of diverse composers. Her mission is to encourage expected diversity on the concert stage with the goal to provide easy access to information for Music Directors and Arts Administrators.

Archiv Frau und Musik

The Archive for Women and Music is the oldest (founded in 1979), largest and most important archive for music by women worldwide. It houses around 26,000 holdings from over 1,900 female composers from the 9th to the 21st century, representing 52 nations.

The Black Music History Library

A living collection of books, articles, documentaries, series, podcasts and more about the Black origins of traditional and popular music dating from the 18th century to present day. Resources are organized chronologically and by genre for ease of browsing.

The Boulanger Initiative

Boulanger Initiative’s mission is to promote music composed by women through performance, education, and commissions. To work toward greater inclusivity, and to enrich our collective understanding of what music is, has been, and can be. Boulanger Initiative advocates and provides opportunities for women composers and all gender-marginalized composers, including non-binary folks and trans people of all genders, in part through repertoire and curation consultancy.

Castle of our Skins

Born out of the desire to foster cultural curiosity, Castle of our Skins is a concert and educational series dedicated to celebrating Black artistry through music. From classrooms to concert halls, Castle of our Skins invites exploration into ​Black heritage and culture, spotlighting both unsung and celebrated ​figures of past and present.

Centre for Black Music Research

Center for Black Music Research (CBMR) holds materials highlighting the role of black music in world culture with materials originating or representing black music in the United States, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean in a variety of formats: personal papers, scores, sheet music, audio-visual materials, photographs,  books, periodicals, and commercial recordings.

Classical Queer

ClassicalQueer is a space for Queer+ classical musicians to tell their stories in their own words. It includes a database of composers who self-identify as Queer+ and lists what province they live and work in, as well as their discipline and contact information.

colourFULL music

ColourFULL Music presents wind band concert programs that represent a diverse selection of ColourFULL composers, i.e. composers of varying gender, colour and age. To help generate this "new normal" we have invited conductors we know and trust to create ColourFULL concert programs. These programs will inspire your imagination and they are there to be used in whatever way works best for you.

Composers Diversity Collective

We exist to eliminate the industry’s challenge to find culturally diverse music creators, music supervisors, sound engineers and musicians, to increase our own awareness of each other, and to dispel misconceptions about the stylistic range of any minority composer.

The Daffodil Perspective

A podcast and radio station for diverse repertoire, and repertoire consultancy services for musicians, radio producers, teachers, artistic directors and anyone else in the classical music industry looking to dig into the vast treasure trove of music beyond the canon and start programming it effectively.

Decolonizing the Music Room

Decolonizing the Music Room is a nonprofit organization using research, training, and discourse to help music educators develop critical practices and center BBIA (Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian) voices, knowledge, and experiences in order to challenge the historical dominance of white Western European and American music, narratives, and practices. We at DTMR aim to disrupt the minimization and erasure of non-dominant cultures and identities in the field of music education to build a more equitable future through our work.

Donne: Women in music

DONNE is a charitable foundation that is here to make a positive change in the fight against gender inequality within the music industry. Our main goal is to celebrate, advance, and amplify women in music so that they are seen, heard, and appreciated for their talent so they can leave a legacy of inspiration for future generations.

Fleisher Collection: including databases for women, Latin American and African-descent composers

The Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music is the world’s largest circulating collection of orchestral performance sets – with over 22,000 titles – and provides materials to recognized performance groups around the globe (this includes academic and amateur ensembles) for concerts and recordings. It houses virtually the entire standard repertoire, and is also known for its many rare and out-of-print works available for lending around the world. It is a unique source of 19th- and 20th-century American music, and has a longstanding commitment to promoting new, noteworthy, and overlooked works.

Institute for Composer Diversity

The Institute for Composer Diversity, winner of the 2018 ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Media/Internet Award, recipient of a 2020 Sphinx Venture Fund Grant, and housed at the State University of New York at Fredonia, is dedicated to the celebration, education, and advocacy of music created by composers from historically underrepresented groups through database resources and programming analysis.

Into the Light Radio: Composer Index

Into the Light is a weekly radio program devoted to the finest art music of the past and present composed by women. Produced at KMFA, the fine arts station in Texas, it aired weekly for eleven years.  The website houses an index of composers featured on the program.

The Kapralova Society: Women in Music Internet Project

The Kapralova Society is a Canadian non-profit music society, founded in 1998 in Toronto. The Society's mission is to promote interest in Kapralova and other women in music through scholarly research, education, and special projects, often in partnership with schools of music, public broadcasters, publishing houses, and other organizations. They have a comprehensive database of women composers.

Kassia Database

A database of Art Song by Women Composers.

Latin Orchestral Music

A comprehensive online catalogue comprising over 9,000 original orchestral works by over 1,600 composers from 24 countries and territories of Latin America and the Caribbean. created by conductors Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Andrés F. Jaime, who have a passion for the orchestral repertoire of Latin American and the Caribbean of all times and genres, and have spent several years not only performing and recording this repertoire but also researching it. This online catalog has been in the works since 2008 and has been inspired by the mission of Caminos del Inka, Inc.: “to discover, preserve and disseminate the rich musical legacy of the Americas”. Behind a paywall.

A Modern Reveal

A resource celebrating and promoting the work of historical women composers, to date the organisation has published an anthology of Italian Songs and Arias, and an anthology of early Latin music.

Musicalics: Women composers

A vast collection of woman composers, including names and biographical details.

Music by Black Composers

Music by Black Composers (MBC) was born from the realization that young musicians learning classical music seldom, if ever, have the opportunity to study and perform music written by Black composers. This omission silences a rich vein of musical creation from global cultural consciousness. The effects of this erasure are most serious for aspiring Black classical musicians. Without access to the historic narratives of Black composers, these young musicians struggle to become part of an art form in which they do not appear to belong. Many give up; many more do not even start. The ultimate result is a lack of diversity in our concert halls, both on stage as well as in the audience.
With a multi-pronged approach, MBC is spreading awareness of and access to music by Black composers to children and adults alike through research, education and programming.

Music History Materials

an online tool designed to help teachers, students, and aficionados locate diverse sources for teaching and learning about musics and musicians. Upon completion, a people-centric searchable database, phase two of the project currently in progress, will allow users to search for and find digital and print materials in archives, course syllabi, podcasts, prose, score, and sound anthologies, scholarship, textbooks, and websites.
Intended to create a community for a free exchange of ideas, Music History Materials is intended to be diverse, fluid, and inclusive, and will be amplified and enhanced by contributions from ethno/musicologists, music theorists, specialists, and non-specialists at all career stages from all over the globe. Not intended to be exhaustive or complete, Music History Materials attempts to include but not promote one source over any other.

Music Theory examples by women

A database of excerpts and complete musical compositions by women composers.  The music is categorized by theoretical concept for use in music education.

Piano Music She Wrote

The PMSW Directory is a guide to the thousands of piano pieces found on IMSLP composed by women. Each piece listed includes the title, composer’s name, dates and country of birth if known, level of difficulty, publishing and copyright information, links to the free score in IMSLP, and links to videos on their Piano Music She Wrote YouTube channel.
This online guide is updated regularly with all of the new additions to IMSLP. Access to the PMSW Directory is available for a donation of $15 (USD) or more. 10% of all proceeds from the PMSW Directory are donated to IMSLP to support the work they do.

Piano music of the African Diaspora

Five volumes of piano works by composers from Africa and its diaspora, published by Oxford University Press.

The Philomel Project

A database of solo and chamber works by women composers


plainsightSOUND is a music research project, aimed at rediscovering colonial and postcolonial voices in British classical music. Focusing on the stories of classical musicians in Britain of African and Caribbean descent, including those from former British colonies, the project will explore their lives as well as their musical activity in Britain before 1970. it includes a database of composers and works.

Sophie Drinker Institut

A list of 588 orchestral works by women that are available for purchase or hire, including orchestrations and publisher contact details.

SOUNZ: Maori composer listings at the Centre for NZ Music

The composer database of every work written by NZ composers is searchable by Maori heritage, to limit findings to Tangata Whenua composers. Includes orchestrations, links to recordings, and direct purchase/hire options

Violin music by women: a graded anthology

Graded anthologies of violin music by women composers

Women's Philharmonic Advocacy: Orchestral music by women of African descent

A curated list of women composers of African Descent

Women's Philharmonic Advocacy: Women's Philharmonic Repertoire List

A comprehensive list of works in the repertoire of the Women's Philharmonic.