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In the Man’s World: Slovenian Female Composers

Only a few months ago the global media got flabbergasted by the fact that Vienna opera house for the first time in its entire 150-year history staged an opera created by a woman. Austrian composer’s name is Olga Neuwirth. Event itself was even more significant for its symbolic power as the opera was based on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando, the gender-crossing fictional biography which is considered a feminist classic.

However, it was not that much of a surprise for us, Slovenian women, neighbours of our Austrian sisters. We, women, are rarely surprised when some fact like this hits the media. Sometimes we find it rather funny how much shock and disgust, how much righteousness, suddenly floods into all corners of the media space. For us, though, it is just another day in the woman’s world. Or, as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler said while hosting Golden Globes in 2014 when referring to Dallas Buyers Club: “Matthew McConaughey did amazing work this year. For his role in Dallas Buyers Club, he lost 45 pounds. Or what actresses call … being in a movie.”

But to return to this neck of the woods … the announcement that Vienna State Opera was for the first time putting on stage an opera composed by a woman was not that shocking. We are quite used to the fact that female composers have a fat chance to really make it. In fact, talking to students of the Academy of Music of the University of Ljubljana, the main junior conservatory in Slovenia, will quickly enlighten a challenger. Even male students themselves are cynical about the situation: »Composition at our Academy is obviously the man’s world.«

Academy of Music’s Theory programme in Composition and Music Theory at the Department of Music Theory Education is mainly filled with male professors and students. Female students (and professors) are more to be found at the Department of Music Education where they qualify to independently teach music education and choral singing in primary and secondary school programmes and in preschool and primary music school programmes. Women can also, but scarcely, be found in the Department for instruments where they study an individual instrument.

Despite this unfavourable fact, we do, however, boast a few amazing female composers in Slovenia. The top being taken by Nina Šenk (1982) who graduated in composition from the Ljubljana Academy of Music, continued postgraduate studies in composition in Dresden, and obtained her master’s degree in 2008 at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Munich. She is a recipient of many domestic and international awards and her works have been performed at numerous international festivals and in many other concerts around the world with various orchestras and ensembles. And we’re talking here about the global crème de la crème of classical music.

In 2019, Nina Šenk was named the Associate Member of Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, becoming the youngest member of the highest national scientific and artistic institution in Slovenia, as well as the first Slovenian female composer who was named into the Academy ever. »Becoming a member of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, I received support and trust for what I have achieved so far with my work. I like it if someone sees it as a surplus, particularly for the fact that I have achieved so much in composition as a woman,« she said at the ceremony.

Nina Šenk, together with her colleagues Nana Forte (1981), Katarina Pustinek Rakar (1979), Tadeja Vulc (1978), Urška Pompe (1969) and Larisa Vrhunc (1967), forms a strong and internationally acclaimed list of Slovenian composers that are persistent to succeed in the man’s world of composition.

Josipina Urbančič Turnograjska (19th centruy), painting by Henrika Langus

They have come a long way since the first Slovenian female composer Josipina Turnograjska (1833-1854) was composing piano pieces almost 200 years ago. Turnograjska was also fighting societal rules at the time as besides being a composer she was the first Slovenian female writer who was ‘a bit’ criticised for »working with a pen, instead of sitting by the crib or the stove,« as a Slovenian historian and writer of the time, Janez Trdina, madly wrote in a letter to her husband.

Yes, they have come far, the Slovenian female composers, in comparison to those days, However, the society hasn’t progressed that far, in some regards, since then. The Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts,  whose members are elected for their outstanding achievements in the field of sciences and arts, has at the moment 94 members. Among them there are exactly 9 women. So, less than 10%. And in the Section V, the Section of Arts, there are 19 members. Among them, one woman. And that one woman is Nina Šenk … a female composer in the man’s world of composers … a female artist in the man’s world of artists.


Written by Jasmina Jerant


Cover photo featuring Nina Šenk by Ciril Jazbec.