Gender Discrimination in the Classical Music World

by Harriet Langley

Written for Diversity and Difference (LARTS 221, Fall 2013)

Although over the past century, gender discrimination has become less of a problem in the classical music world, it is very much alive today. The classical music world has historically been male-dominated, and although there are now an equal number of female and male musicians in major music schools, professional orchestras, and chamber groups, there are still areas of the field (such as conducting and administrative positions) that women find difficult to penetrate. Deeply rooted in tradition, the classical music world still strongly resists the quickly changing world of today. As a result, not only are women’s importance and roles in music diminished, but so is the essence of art and music itself.

Many people, myself included, would argue that in the face of art, we are all equal. As cellist Daniel Hass points out,

Music is such a fundamental human expression that there really can’t be any additional factors that work into its creation, especially not ones that deal with physical aspects of people. I think that the true musicians really, both in their playing and in their performance, transcend their entire physicality.

This, of course, is the ideal that many musicians dream of. Unfortunately, it is not the reality. In his article “Women, Gays, and Classical Music” which appeared in the New Yorker on October 3rd, 2013, music critic Alex Ross explains the reason that gender discrimination is still so potent today:

The problem isn’t that misogyny runs rampant in the music world; it’s that the classical business is temperamentally resistant to novelty, whether in the form of female conductors, American conductors, younger conductors, new music, post-1900 concert dress, or concert-hall color schemes that aren’t corporate beige.

This reluctance to let go of tradition is in part because so much of the field is based on tradition— from the music itself, where people struggle to accept contemporary works and even look down on them as being “noise” and “unworthy” of joining the ranks of the great music of the past centuries (criticism that even the greatest composers, such as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, were faced with in their own time), to the way the music is interpreted. We see this strongly in the new “obsession” that people have today of playing in what they deem to be the authentic style of the composer, such as playing in the Baroque style when playing Bach, and playing in the classical style when playing Mozart. This reluctance also stems from the fact that music has historically been a male-dominated world, with women having absolutely no role in any aspect of the professional classical music world. The composers, soloists, orchestra players, conductors, managers, agents, and concert organizers have always been male. The occasional female composer, such as Maria-Magdalena Bach and Clara Schumann, was met with skepticism and disinterest and had to fight to have her music heard and played. Even then, many argued that any acceptance of them was due to their husbands’ fame and genius.

This kind of discrimination permeates many levels of the how performances are evaluated, even seemingly innocent ones, such as perceptions of sound and artistry and concert dress.  As New England Conservatory violin teacher Miriam Fried notes, women performers are faced with having to “discuss . . . in review what you wore in a concert, which would never be talked about with a man, to being surprised that we have a big sound.” Violist Natalie Alper-Leroux agrees that evaluations of male and female musicians differ, noting how

It’s interesting to think about the way people describe people’s playing . . . words like delicate, fragile, sensual versus forceful, powerful, etc. It’s the choice of words that ends up implicitly reinforcing preconceptions of female and male attributes along a really rigid gender binary. It also reinforces preconceptions of how women understand and view music and what they bring out versus how men view music. A man is judged on his potential, whereas a woman is judged on her accomplishments.

As such, both physical and less tangible attributes, such as “artistry,” “talent” and “potential,” become the basis for gender discrimination. This perpetual need to classify performers based on their gender and physical appearance prevents us from achieving gender equality.

As widespread as gender discrimination may be today in the classical music world, there is no question that it has drastically improved in the past half-century. In his book “Blink”, Malcolm Gladwell states that “before the advent of blind auditions, the percentage of women in major symphony orchestras in the United States was less than 5 percent. Today [in 2005], twenty-five years later, it’s close to 50 percent” (273). Women have also become a greater presence in the field of conducting. In an interview with France Musique two months ago, French composer and head of the Paris Conservatoire, Bruno Mantovani, noted that “The situation [has] already developed quite a lot. Who could have imagined twenty years ago that a woman (Marin Alsop) would conduct the closing concert at the Proms?” Female conductors were not the only ones being discriminated against a few decades ago. Renowned soloist Miriam Fried gives a first-hand account of blatant sexism she faced forty years ago: “Once, the Philadelphia Orchestra said in a letter to my manager they already had their one female soloist for their season, so they cannot have me. Of course this would be against the law today, but this was the early 70s.” Perhaps this orchestra felt that having more than one female soloist would alienate their audience, or perhaps they even feared that it would reflect poorly on the perceived “quality” of their music. Although most orchestras today no longer hold this view, the fact that people still feel that they must specify that the performer was a female violinist, or a female conductor, or a concertmistress indicates that this is not yet the norm, and that people struggle to move past the preconceptions of gender roles in music.

One area in the music world where gender discrimination is still a huge issue is conducting. Successful women conductors today are few and far between. Arguably the most famous of them, Marin Alsop, theorized in an interview three months ago with The Guardian that it is because “As a society we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate authority roles. Still none of the “big five” orchestras has had a female music director.” She struggles to see the reason for this, adding, “There is no logical reason to stop women from conducting. The baton isn’t heavy. It weighs about an ounce. No superhuman strength is required. Good musicianship is all that counts.” In an interview in the Times another successful female conductor, Laurence Equilbey, agrees with Alsop: “It’s really a question of power and the fact that people are worried at the idea of having a woman in a position of authority.”

Power is not, however, the only reason for this discrimination. A narrow mind entrenched in sexism and a traditional upbringing is proving to be another great force behind this discrimination. In her article “Night to His Day,” Judith Lorber argues that “from society’s point of view . . . one gender is usually the touchstone, the normal, the dominant, and the other is different, deviant and subordinate” (33). This view is expressed by too many, including Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov, who came under fire for his comments in an interview last year to the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta,

I don’t know if it’s God’s will, or nature’s, that women give birth and men do not. That’s something that no one takes offense at. But if you say that a women can’t conduct, then everyone’s offended. As Marx said, in response to the question ‘What’s your favorite virtue in a woman?’—“Weakness.” And this is correct. . . . The essence of the conductor’s profession is strength. The essence of a woman is weakness. . . . The important thing is, a woman should be beautiful, likable, attractive. Musicians will look at her and be distracted from the music!

Temirkanov’s argument is virtually uncontestable, as he refers directly to the “natural” and the “essence” of humans. He considers the norms as being “natural,” but his argument has no concrete evidence or reason. He is portraying women as sexual objects, claiming this is a “natural” behavior, all for fear of losing power and control. Temirkanov is seventy-four, and people argue that the younger generations of today no longer have this outdated view of women. This is, unfortunately, not the case, as evidenced by thirty-four-year-old Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko, who shared Temirkanov’s views on female conductors when giving an interview to the Oslo newspaper Aftenposten a few months ago: “A sweet girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else.” This portrayal of women as sexual objects is the kind of attitude that prevents us from moving forward in gender equality. People who desperately cling to outdated views and refuse to accept change are the true enemy of social evolution. Lorber states that “The moral imperatives of . . . cultural representations guard the boundary lines among genders and ensure that what is demanded, what is permitted, and what is tabooed for the people in each gender is well known and followed by most” (35). So no matter the age, many people today, mostly men, feel the need to maintain the boundary lines among genders, for fear of losing control and of being faced with a changed society that they may deem as “crumbling,” since it veers from tradition.

There is hope, thankfully, for those who strive for gender equality. The change that has been happening over the past few decades and that is still continuing is tangible. Many people understand that it is something that is inevitable. Fried notes that gender equality

is going to happen, because it is inevitable, I believe. Considering how far we’ve come in my professional lifetime, I have every reason to believe that we are [headed] in the right direction. I understand that women are impatient. I don’t particularly enjoy the types of discrimination around me. You have to have patience, because history moves slowly, which is good.

This change is felt not only by the older generations, but also by younger musicians, such as Alper-Leroux:

I think it will change as the generations change too. This kind of thing and changes in attitudes are really slow. It takes 20, 40, 60 years for these prejudices to fall further out of the mainstream. People have to recognize that it will not immediately change, and it’s progress. There’s still an incredible amount of change to be made. But the change may happen at a different speed than people expect it to. After all, classical music is very much a culture of elder worship. We (the young people) have infinite respect for our teachers because they are from an older generation. It would be most helpful to teach people to get over immediate negative snap reactions and to be open and give somebody a chance.

There are several strategies to support this ongoing change. Some people may choose to boycott concerts of people whose views they do not support. This, unfortunately, will not help to change the views of people like Yuri Temirkanov. Nevertheless, our best hope is to educate the younger generation, whether by adding a diversity class to a conservatory’s curriculum or by organizing student diversity groups. However, the best way to educate people is through exposure. As we are more frequently exposed to the extraordinary music of today’s women performers and conductors, we can only hope that our outdated views will slowly dissipate and that we will gradually break the boundaries of gender roles in classical music.

Works Cited

Alper-Leroux, Natalie. Personal interview. Dec. 2013.

Davis, Elizabeth. “Director of Paris Conservatory Declares Conducting Too Demanding for Women.” The Official Website of BBC Music Magazine. Immediate Media, 11 October 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

Fried, Miriam. Personal interview. Dec. 2013.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.

Hass, Daniel. Personal interview. Dec. 2013.

Lorber, Judith. “Night to his Day: The Social Construction of Gender.” Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994. Print. 32-36

Lund, Joacim. “Petrenko er for Sexy.” Meninger Kommentarer. Aftenposten, 30 August 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

Maddocks, Fiona. “Marin Alsop, Conductor of Last Night of the Proms, on Sexism in Classical music.” The Guardian. Guardian News, 6 September 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

Ross, Alex. “Women, Gays, and Classical Music.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 3 October 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.


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