This online discussion is open for comments March 11-17. An overview of these assignments and how you’ll be graded is available here.
There are no questions at the end of this post to get the conversation going. Use your own critical thinking to make this conversation substantial: compare or contrast its ideas to your own experience or other things you’ve learned about, think about what surprises you, and think about what aspects resonate with or contradict your own experiences. The approximate reading time of this post is 16 minutes, not counting any audio media.
In the classical music world, just like in other fields, women have been present and made significant contributions as long as the profession has existed. However, women as a group generally have not been acknowledged or lauded to the degree or consistency that men have been in the field. When people compile lists of the so-called “best” composers of all time, they’re almost always all-male: like this one, or this one, or this one, or this one. Try it for yourself: Google “classical composer” and see what the list that comes up looks like.
The emphasis on male composers, conductors, and top performers in music education, public imagination, dramatic settings (TV, movies, literature), and concert programming suggests that making classical music is a man’s activity and that all the greatest achievements have been made by men only. This implication has had repercussions for how classical music evolves as well as the challenges it faces in terms of remaining relevant in today’s world.
[Side note #1: Men have obviously had some fantastic musical moments; we’ve listened to a lot of them in class. They just don’t have a monopoly on musical ability, and addressing non-male contributions and the difficulty women have in asserting their value in this field is the focus of this online discussion.]
[Side note #2: Everything that applies to women in this online discussion applies to other groups of people who have been traditionally underrepresented in the classical music world, too. The content of this course has skewed heavily, nay exclusively, to music by dead white guys — this is a bit of a selection effect, since the topic of the course is Western music, and for the historical periods we’ve covered so far, the European population historically consists of approximately 50% dead white guys — but in addition to that, the social structures that benefit white men in European society, allowing them to become musically trained, present concerts, publish music, and earn money, are often the same structures that make the same activities difficult for their non-white, non-male counterparts.]
But is this relevant in music? Can a sound be “feminine”?
Listen to the two works below. Does one of them sound more “feminine” than the other? What musical features seem “masculine” (i.e., manly or likely made by a man), and which seem “feminine” (i.e., womanly or likely made by a woman)?
What is sexism?
Sexism refers to using a person’s sex as a basis for prejudice, discrimination, or stereotyping. It includes stereotypes such as women are “kind” and men are “strong,” and it begins early in life: baby clothes and toys are color-coded, blue for boys and pink for girls (although at the beginning of the 20th century pink was for boys, and some parents today reject this binary in favor of “neutral” colors like yellow and green).
Sexism influences our perceptions of ourselves, our abilities, and our roles in society: boys who feel they need to be good at sports, or girls who think they’ll never be good at math or science. Here’s an entry the pianist-composer Clara Schumann wrote in her own diary, revealing how she began to tell herself that she couldn’t be a composer because she didn’t see any evidence to the contrary in the world around her:
“I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?” – Clara Schumann, 1839
Sexism frames and shapes romantic or sexual interactions (telling women that they should smile more because it will make them look pretty, expecting men to be gentlemen who hold doors open or pay for dates) as well as our attitudes towards activities in which gender is not obviously an issue (perceiving male professors as being more intelligent or capable than female ones, questioning whether women can hold political office because they are too emotional or not emotional enough, or arguing that women should hold political office because they are more compassionate). Sexist stereotypes and presumptions are often contradictory and shift over time — like all aspects of culture, they are not fixed, they can be changed, and they are something that we collectively invent based on what we believe, perceive, or need at the time.
[Side note #3: The terms “sex” and “gender” are often used interchangeably in day-to-day conversation, but they refer to slightly different things. Sex is biological: chromosomes, hormones, and sex organs. Gender is socially-defined: the way that we present masculinity or femininity outwardly in terms of behavior, clothing, and social roles. When we talk about “sexism,” we’re really often talking about gender-ism — interactions based on 1) what we perceive people’s gender to be, and 2) what we expect them to do as a representative of their gender. But “genderism” is an awkward word and a more subtle distinction than we need to make right now.]
Why does sexism matter in music?
Legal hurdles and socially-constructed assumptions about women have prevented them from rising to prominence in the classical music field:
- Fears that playing wind instruments would disfigure women’s faces and seemed too much like phallic objects in their mouths;
- Women being legally the property of their husbands and unable conduct business on their own; and
- Notions of domesticity, that a woman’s place is in the home, and believing that women will stop being inherently feminine if they are employed in any kind public work:
“Gentlemen may employ their hours of business in almost any degrading occupation and, if they have the means of supporting a respectable establishment at home, may be gentlemen still; while, if a lady but touch any article, no matter how delicate, in the way of trade, she loses caste, and ceases to be a lady.” –Sarah Stickney Ellis (1812-72)
Musical training was often seen as a way to make women more attractive or marriageable, not necessarily a foundation for a professional career (remember this online discussion?). And the domination of the professional music world by men is tradition, the way it’s seemingly always been. Such long-standing beliefs about the physical capabilities of women and men led the Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov to say in 2012 that women could never be real conductors because “The essence of the conductor’s profession is strength. The essence of a woman is weakness.”
James Baldwin’s “great force of history”
In many ways, this discussion is a deeper dive into James Baldwin’s assertion (there he is again!) that we are living within structures and systems that control our lives, without our even being aware of them:
“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” —James Baldwin, 1965
Assumptions about what people of a particular gender can or cannot do, or should or should not do, create the social structures in which we live. In terms of the classical music world, such structures have the effect of maintaining the illusion that classical musicians could only be men. Here’s how this works:
1. If women are assumed not to be musical, professional, or competent, then they will either (1) self-censor and not pursue their musical interests, or (2) not be admitted into the best music schools or receive the best training.
This leads to…
2. If women not admitted into the best schools, they will have a smaller chance of building the network of peers and mentors that will help them secure the best jobs and reputation.
As a result…
3. If women are not holding professional positions of power, influence, or respect, then they cannot mentor or guide another generation of students to follow in their footsteps; they cannot be advocates for younger candidates because they aren’t seated on a school’s admission committee or a professional organization’s job hiring committee. There aren’t enough of them to exert their leverage to insist on equal pay, family leave, or other issues that an all-male governing board might overlook (and that would be a barrier for other women to enter or remain in the workforce).
Add to these structures any additional prejudicial beliefs about women or their abilities, and it’s not hard to see why there have been so few women in leadership or famous positions in the professional classical music world historically. (If you re-read these bullet points and substitute any other minority group — a group defined according to race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, for example — you would also have an explanation for why this group of people traditionally has been excluded from the professional classical music world.)
An anecdote: Abbie Conant
In one particularly egregious example, gender-based prejudice derailed and marred the career of Abbie Conant. Conant is an American trombone player who played in the Münich Philharmonic (Germany) in the 1980s and 1990s.
Since the 1970s, orchestral auditions take place behind a screen (remember this article assigned for class: dorris-the-audition?) so that the auditioning committee cannot see the performer. It allows them to hire the player who sounds the best rather than being persuaded by seeing someone they know, being affected by the player’s physical gestures, or discriminating based on gender or race. Conant won her position (solo trombone) over 32 other applicants with the Münich Philharmonic in 1980 and was approved by the other members of the orchestra during both her audition and her first year with the orchestra, but the conductor of the orchestra refused to let her play the role that she had won. He instead insisting that she play second to another male trombonist because he believed that only a man could really handle the role:
“You know the problem: we need a man for solo trombone.” —Sergiu Celibidache, General Music Director of the Münich Philharmonic, to Abbie Conant
Conant was officially demoted to the position of second trombone in 1982 by the Music Director (a position that requires substantially more work but earns significantly less pay), and she sued. Over the next 11 years, she and the orchestra were embroiled in a legal battle involving court appearances nearly ever year, and she had to complete several arduous tests and tasks in order to be able to play in the position she had already won:
- 1982: Orchestra leadership argued that Conant did not “possess the necessary strength to be a leader of the trombone section.” By her husband’s account, she “underwent extensive medical testing to measure the capacity of her lungs and the speed at which she could inhale and exhale air. She had blood drawn from her ear to see how efficiently her body absorbed oxygen. She stripped and let a doctor examine her rib cage and chest. She also solicited forty-three testimonials of her musicianship from guest conductors and other musicians.”
- 1987: The court ordered Conant to play for another trombone professional to assess her physical strength, endurance, and durability. She was required to play a series of the most difficult excerpts from the orchestral repertoire, all of which were chosen by the Music Director. In her re-audition, which was more rigorous or demanding than any regular audition (including the one she had already won in 1980), she played each excerpt several times, altering her performance each time to meet the auditor’s instructions to vary the style, dynamics, phrasing, and vibrato. The auditor’s court report praised her playing fully:
“She is a wind player with an outstandingly well-trained embouchure, i.e., lip musculature, that enables her to produce controlled tone production in connection with a controlled breath flow, and which gives her the optimal use of her breath volume. Her breathing technique is very good and makes her playing, even in the most difficult passages, superior and easy. In this audition she showed sufficient physical strength, endurance, and breath volume, and above and beyond that, she has enormously solid nerves. This, paired with the above mentioned wind-playing qualities, puts her completely in the position to play the most difficult phrases in a top orchestra, holding them out according to the conductor’s directions for adequate length and intensity, as well as strength.” —Heinz Fadle
- 1988: The court ruled in her favor, and Conant was reinstated to her position of solo trombone. The orchestra, however, refused to pay her at a soloist level until ordered to do so specifically by the court.
- 1990: The orchestra created a special lower solo category to pay her less than her other 15 (male) soloist colleagues in the orchestra.
- 1993: The court ruled that Conant should be in the same pay category as her colleagues, finally allowing her to truly say, 13 years after joining the orchestra, that she was its solo trombone.
With her reputation affirmed, she then left the orchestra and accepted a prestigious position at the State Conservatory of Music in Trossingen (Germany). The Münich Philharmonic hired a seventeen-year-old man who had no prior orchestral experience as her replacement.
Conant’s story is not unique, either. In the Pittsburgh Symphony, trombonist Rebecca Bower was similarly relegated to playing second after winning a principal position by a male conductor. In 1941, French horn player Helen Kotas was the first woman appointed to a principal position on any instrument except harp in the US, but she left the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1948 after being demoted to third horn, and the orchestra currently has no women in principal positions. Tina Ward, a clarinet player, was complimented in her audition for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1970 precisely because she didn’t “sound like a woman.” In the Boston Symphony, principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe settled an equal pay lawsuit against the orchestra in February 2019 because the principal oboist (a man) made more money than her.
In the top orchestras in the US today, women make up 50% of the players on average, a huge increase from around 5% in the 1970s. The shift isn’t due to affirmative action but rather a switch to blind auditions. Screens don’t hide the sounds of shoes or musicians’ breaths, so there is still opportunity for gender bias in the process, but the implication is that when gender is largely taken off the table, well-trained women are as competent as their male counterparts.
However, there is still a huge disparity in terms of who gets to hold prestigious positions within orchestras and the classical music world. Most conductors and most principal or solo positions in orchestras in the US, Europe, and Asia are held by men (except for harp, a position which is almost always held by women). Tenured professorships at prestigious universities and conservatories are more often held by men while women are more commonly found at smaller, less well-known schools or in adjunct positions.
Gender and musical meaning
Gender shapes how people perceive and talk about all music, and classical music is no exception. Sex is more often used to sell albums for female classical music performers and reviews of female performers — and reviewers are mostly male — often discuss what clothes they wore (which is almost never the case for male performers). Women are also more often and more harshly judged for their appearance:
Overweight men in opera, who sang lead roles, could pretty much expect to be judged on their voice and their acting, with no mention of their size. But a large woman would always be criticized for her size, often before any comment was made about her voice or acting. — Deborah Voigt, soprano
Gender perceptions also affect the way classical music sounds are described. Composer Missy Mazzoli (b. 1980) notes that the same piece is often described using very different vocabulary choices, whether the audience thinks it was written by a man or woman:
“I have a friend, a composer, who told me, ‘When a man writes something lyrical it’s seen as brave and courageous, but when a woman does it it’s seen as sentimental and indulgent.’ This was in the late ’90s and she was commenting on how sexist the new music community was. I’d like to say that times have changed, but I think this is still totally true.” — Missy Mazzoli
There also exists gender bias in terms of what music is performed on classical music concerts. In the 2016-17 season, 14 of the top 21 US orchestras didn’t program a single work by a female composer; in 2014-15 of all the works played by the top orchestras, only 14.8% were composed by women. The 2017-18 season overall wasn’t much better.
And neither is the 2018-19 season. Or the 2019-20 season, in which 2,039 works will be performed, and 151 of them were written by women and 93 were composed by people from underrepresented racial, ethnic, or cultural minorities. In contrast, Beethoven alone will have 215 works performed by US orchestras next season. No US orchestra is programming more than 32% of its works by women composers, and no US orchestra is programming more than 25% of its works by composers of other underrepresented racial, ethnic, or cultural minorities.
It’s worse in the movie industry: from 1999-2004, only 2.4% of the 500 top-grossing films had scores written by female composers; women are commonly only asked to write scores that can appeal to other women.
All of this means that young women and girls who attend orchestra concerts won’t see role models that they can follow, and the same is true for all minority groups: the message classical music is sending is that white men are the ones who are successful, a lesson that can be extrapolated to the world beyond music. And other non-women in the audience? They’re being fed the same message that classical music is a (dead) white man’s world.
Notable women in Western music history
Despite all of this, there are some notable women who have been excellent composers, performers, teachers, and conductors, and here’s a list of women that you might be interested in learning more about:
- Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) — An abbess who, in addition to composing liturgical music, was also an expert on science and medicine and received prophetic visions
- The Ladies of Ferrara — An ensemble of highly-talented noblewomen who sang in the courts of the Medici family (Italy)during the Renaissance
- Francesca Caccini (1547-c.1645) — An Italian noblewoman who played lute and was also a singer, poet, and the first female opera composer
- Barbara Strozzi (1619-77) — A singer and composer from Venice, Italy
- Anna Magdalena Bach (1701-60) — Johann Sebastian Bach’s second wife and a composer in her own right who wrote the manuscript copies of many of Bach’s works
- Louise Farrenc (1804-75) — One of the best French 19th composers, Farrenc was the second-ever female professor at the Paris Conservatory, but she was only allowed to teach piano and not composition
- Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-47) — An admired pianist and composer; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in a letter to her younger brother, the composer Felix Mendelssohn, wrote “give my regards to your equally talented sister.” Although people admired her compositions, the family persuaded her not to publish them so that she could continue to fulfill her role of being a “dutiful daughter and sister.”
- Clara Schumann (1819-96) — A remarkable pianist and composer whose married life was wholeheartedly devoted to her husband, the composer Robert Schumann, and his professional needs, rather than her own career. In their house, he had dibs on the piano for his composition, and he could practice only when it wouldn’t bother him. Nevertheless, she premiered every one of his works that included piano and programmed his music on all her international tours, and when he was committed to a mental institution, she supported the entire family (8 children!) by touring across Europe well into her 70s and publishing critical editions of Robert’s works.
- Jenny Lind (1820-87) — a Swedish soprano referred to affectionately by the press and her fans as “The Swedish Nightingale” and who helped popularize opera in the US by being one of the first famous European musicians to tour in America
- Amy Beach (1867-1944) — One of the first American symphonic composers
- Florence Price (1887-1953) — The first Black American woman to have a symphony played by a US orchestra. Her manuscripts were recently re-discovered in a house being renovated in Ohio, and her works are being programmed more widely now than ever before.
- Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) — A French composer, conductor, organ player, and one of the most influential teachers of the 20th century. Nearly every major American composer of the early 20th century went to her studio in Paris to finish their training, among others: Martin Amlin, Burt Bacharach, Daniel Barenboim, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Ingolf Dahl, David Diamond, Irving Fine, John Eliot Gardiner, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, Leo Kraft, Per Nørgård, Astor Piazzolla, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson
- Gwynne Kimpton (1873-1930) — One of the first female orchestra conductors. When she conducted the British Women’s Symphony Orchestra in 1924, the performance was not taken seriously and given harsh reviews. A clipping of one such review is available here.
- Marian Anderson (1897-1993) — A Black American singer who was barred from performing in the US due to racism and instead made her career in Europe. When a concert promoter arranged a performance for her in 1939 at the Daughters of the American Revolution hall, and Anderson was banned from singing because of a whites-only clause in the organization’s contract; the performance was moved to the steps of the Washington Monument where she sang for 75,000 people.
- Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-53) — An edgy and unapologetically experimental American composer
- Jane Little (1929-2016) — A double bass player who, at the time of her death in 2016, was the longest-serving musician in any American orchestra, having held her position in the Atlanta Symphony for 71 years. She died onstage during a performance in May.
- Jessye Norman (b. 1945) — An American opera singer
- Marin Alsop (b. 1956) — The first female conductor of a major American orchestra (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, 2007) and the first female conductor at the BBC’s annual Proms (2003)
- Claire Chase (b. 1978) — A flutist who began the successful new-music collective International Contemporary Ensemble, also known as ICE. She won a MacArthur Genius Grant for her entrepreneurial skills in 2012.
- Some additional living, working female composers: Chen Yi, Unsuk Chin, Valerie Coleman, Gabriela Lena Frank, Jennifer Higdon, Bun-Ching Lam, Tania León, Missy Mazzoli, Meredith Monk, Shulamit Ran, Belinda Reynolds, Kaija Saariaho, Hilary Tann, Joan Tower, Ellen Taafe Zwilich
Also, here’s a free 78-hour playlist of music by female composers over the last 1,200 years, featuring the women in this list and others.
There have been some steps towards gender equity in the classical music world, including awareness, activism, and systematic change.
- Composer Diversity Database — A new online research tool launched in 2018 that allows users to find works by composers of marginalized groups, including women, people of color, LGBTQIA+, and individuals with disabilities.
- Women in Music — A New York City-based organization that advocates for women in the music industry, from composers to performers, songwriters, managers, administrators, engineers, attorneys, and agents.
- Women’s Composers Festival of Hartford — Established in 2001, this three-day festival presents concerts, awards, and commissioning of women composers
- Project 19 — The New York Philharmonic is commissioning 19 women composers to premiere new works by as part of the 100-year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in the US in 1920. The picture at the top of this discussion is from this project’s marketing materials.
Sexism hurts classical music — it creates barriers that prevent certain musicians from participating, from making music, or from becoming widely known. It also contributes to the sense that classical music is irrelevant in today’s society. Part of what makes classical music seem irrelevant is its sense of stodgy tradition, and one of the ways that this sense of tradition is expressed is in the ways women (and others) have been unwelcome in its world. It’s difficult — but certainly not impossible — to appeal to audiences if they can’t see a bit of themselves in the music, and classical music has been behind the times in terms of acknowledging, supporting, and celebrating the range of musicians in its midst.
P.S. The first piece in the discussion was by a man: Frédéric François Chopin (1810-1849), Nocturne Op. posth. 72 No. 1 in E minor (1827). The second piece was by a woman: Clara Schumann (1819-96), Scherzo No. 1 in D minor, Op. 10 (1838). Were you surprised to learn the composers’ genders?