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It’s sometimes said that until the 1970s, the world’s orchestras were basically boys’ clubs. Many certainly were (and some still are). But Birmingham has always looked forward – it’s a city that recognises talent wherever it finds it. The CBSO employed female musicians from its first concert in 1920, with women making up nearly a quarter of the orchestra when it went full-time in 1944. Today it’s 50:50.

From 1921, women sat on the orchestra’s Board too, and from Ethel Smyth in the 1920s to Ruth Gipps (who played in the orchestra) in the 1940s to Judith Weir (our Composer in Association) in the 1990s and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla today, the CBSO has taken pride in that legacy, even while we work to address continuing inequalities in our orchestra, our community and our artform. Much remains to be done, and there are no grounds for complacency – but here in Birmingham, there’s an inspiring tradition to build upon.

Fanny Mendelssohn: String Quartet in E flat major, II. Allegretto

Played by: Kate Suthers (Violin), Colette Overdijk (Violin), Jessica Tickle (Viola) and Miguel Fernandes (Cello)

Roxanna Panufnik: Faithful Journey

Roxanna Panufnik’s music is a family affair for the CBSO – her father, the composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik, became our chief conductor after escaping from communist Poland in the 1950s. Six decades later, in 2018, the CBSO and its choruses premiered Roxanna Panufnik’s choral work Faithful Journey. It’s a personal, profoundly moving reflection on Polish history, drawing on Panufnik’s own experiences as a daughter, a mother, and one of Britain’s most powerful and communicative living composers. The soprano aria My Man reflects on Poland’s wartime sufferings from a perspective that is both intimate and universal: a solitary but passionate voice, speaking for all humanity. 

Anna Świrszczyńska (1909–84): Mój mężczyzna / My man (trans. Magnus J. Kryński & Robert A. Maguire)


Żebym mogła go ukryć
we wnętrznościach
byłby bezpieczny jak dziecko
co się jeszcze nie urodziło.

Żebym mogła nosić go w sobie
jak matka dziecko
wiedziałabym w każdej sekundzie
że jeszcze go nie zabili.

To jest mój mężczyzna
moje dziecko.
Ja go ocalę.
Ja zamiast niego
pójdę na śmierć, on przeżyje.


If only I could hide him
in my belly
he would be safe as a child
not yet born

If only I could carry him inside me
as a mother does a child
I would know every second
he has not yet been killed.

This is my man
my child,
I will save him.
Instead of him I
will go out to die, he will survive

Ruth Gipps: Rhapsody Quintet for Clarinet and strings

Ruth Gipps joined the CBO (as the CBSO was then known) as an oboist in 1944, part of an oboe section that already included the composer Mary Chandler. The orchestra premiered her Second Symphony in 1946, and Gipps later edited the orchestra’s magazine Play On before pursuing her conducting and composing career in London. She wrote this short, ravishing Rhapsody Quintet in 1942, while studying with Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music. It’s dedicated to Gipps’s fellow-student and future husband, the clarinettist Robert Baker – later the CBSO’s principal clarinet, and a close colleague of John Fuest: the grandfather of our current principal clarinet Oliver Janes. 

Charlotte Bray: Fanfare for Birmingham

Charlotte Bray was born in Oxford, but she found her musical voice at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. “Birmingham was just a perfect place to be as an undergraduate composer” she recalls. “You had the CBSO, BCMG, and the city itself was ideal for getting to know people, making connections”. She wrote her orchestral work Black Rainbow specially for the CBSO Youth Orchestra in 2013, and Fanfare for Birmingham was another Birmingham commission – a centenary celebration of the city’s great progressive mayor Joseph Chamberlain. First performed in the brand-new Library of Birmingham in July 2014, it’s inspired by the music of jazz legend Herbie Hancock; a reminder that in a city as diverse as ours, music knows no boundaries.