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Discrimination based on race or gender is a very common issue that is examined today. Specifically, if one looks at certain situations or environments, these conditions of perception can be seen more prominently. As an example, an article written by Marin Alsop, who was the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms gives a clear demonstration of the power of discrimination in classical music. She explains how it is strange that even in 2013, when so many social barriers have been broken, she still faces blatant sexism. In the classical music industry, women have historically been underrepresented due to its conservative and male dominated nature. Alsop observes that, “While we all congratulate ourselves on a woman conducting the Last Night of the Proms, let’s not forget that for many women across the world their situation is getting worse, not better.” 1 Alsop explains how music binds us, and is a great place for people to see social change, because it is a universal language. Whether she is performing in Baltimore, London or Sau Paulo, she is making a statement of gender equality that needs to happen more often. It is important for women now to realize why this deficit has been, and what can be done to fill it.

Sexism is not a simple issue to analyze historically with a clear, singular perspective. Similar to racism, it deals with deeply rooted notions and assumptions that have been falsely justified with sociology, history and anatomy. Even in the midst of this hostility, women in the classical music industry have migrated from the shadows to the concert halls and eventually to areas of power.  While this seems to applaud the advancements that have been made, it should also be known that the disparity between men and women in classical music is still strikingly large. As Marin Aslop explains in her article, there is too much to be done in regards to sexism to simply congratulate small acts of equality.2 Historically, from the end of the classical era to post World War I, (approx. 1820-1930), the male-dominated classical music community prevented the growth of women musicians by enforcing gender stigmas, suppressing exposure, and remaining bias when critiquing.

Portrait-of-Fanny-Mendelssohn-Hensel
Figure 1.: Portrait of Fanny Mendelssohn-Handel, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1842.

While it is often ignored in classical music studies, women did participate in the formation of modern western art music. In a book by Diane Jezic and Elizabeth Wood, a chronological map shows how spare the information is on women composers during the classical era. As Elizabeth Wood explains in the foreword, “So many of our [female] musical forebears, as this book reveals, disappeared from music history and from memory.” 3 However, the book does analyze three very influential women composers of the musical classical-romantic era. Louise Reichardt (1779-1826), Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) and Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896) were among the mentioned women composers and share the trait of famous male musical family members who seem to overshadow their names in music history. Most notably, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel was an older sister to Felix Mendelssohn, a composer who would be remembered through time. Although his name took a prominent role in music repertoire, in a letter written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German writer at the time, he stated, “give my regards to your equally talented sister.” 4 Although her works were praised and admired by some family members and supporters, her brother and father persuaded her to hold off from publishing and remain in the home in order to be a “dutiful daughter and sister” 5. Due to the social pressures and gender roles of the time, she confined both her compositions and amazing piano skills to her own home, waiting until very late in her life to publish her works and gain some of the respect she had deserved. As one example of the social pressures during the 1800s, this shows how even talented women were suppressed in order to maintain a male-dominated culture.

During the turn of the century, women made huge strides in classical music by moving from performing in private settings to playing in concert halls. Prior the emergence of women in professional circumstances, women were expected to play music to entertain others in the house, parlor or any other casual setting, often called ‘piano girls’. 6 However, with the change in social structure came the back lash of music critics. A famous music journalist from New York elaborated on the conflict that some thought would arise from women playing music. He used biological and social studies comparing women and men that ranged from brain size to sensitivity. He famously exclaims, “To play Chopin one must have acute sensibilities, a versatility of mood, a perfect mechanism, the heart of a woman and the brain of a man.” 7 While this might seem hopeful that he acknowledged a woman’s ability to feel, this simply gave praise to many classical male musicians who were commonly feminine in nature and proved that women did not have the mindset to perform great works of art.

Lili_Boulanger
Figure 2. Photograph of Lili Boulanger, Library of Congress, c. 1918.

Even facing oppression, there have been examples of women who have rebelled against a male dominated society, especially during the late 1800’s and at the turn of the century. Musicians such as Lili Boulanger, Cecile Chaminade, Valérie White, Amy Beach and Ethel Smyth broke barriers for many female composers, performers and conductors.8,9 Music composed at during this era by women ranged widely, due to the newfound interest and freedom they experienced. Similar to other careers, when World War I began, many female musicians used the lack of male competition to break free from social constraints.

Historically, while this issue has been present, it has been given very little attention. Due to the male dominated culture of classical music, women were given few opportunities to prove their sufficiency. One of the only fields in classical music where women were noticed was in conducting. The conductor Gwynne Kimpton was one of the first women to be taken seriously as a conductor, but soon was dismissed. At this time, very few professional conductors were women. The Women’s Institute, founded in 1915 in England, had just been starting to teach women conductors and other musicians. When Gwynne Kimpton, who was also a composer, conducted for the British Women’s Symphony Orchestra in 1924, all eyes were on her, as this was one of the first times a woman conductor had been critiqued. However, because it occurred pretty soon after the women’s suffrage movement, many people did not really consider women equality in jobs as an issue yet, as they had just been given the right to vote. Because of the current backlash of women in classical music at the time, the performance was not taken seriously and given harsh reviews. 10

Review of Women's Symphony Orchestra
Figure 3.: Review of Women’s Symphony Orchestra, Times [London], March 12, 1925.
The review given in a newspaper article in the Times of London showed the negative effect of gender inequality in the music community. The intended audience included not only musically educated people, but people who simply listened to classical music as a hobby, which made it easier for the reviewer to make assertions without being questioned. We can confidently assume that the writer of this review was male, because it was extremely rare for women to be critiquing music as they were not even respected as players or conductors. There was a bias due to the lack of gender blindness. For example, in the article the reviewer claims in the first sentence of the review, “The British Women’s Symphony Orchestra will have to go into stricter training if it is to give a satisfactory account of a symphonic programme…” 12 This proves that while reviewing, the writer considered the orchestra as untrained and faulty, as if it were not as competent as other, possibly male orchestras.

The writer makes many assumptions in the review. First of all, because he is a well-respected critic, he assumes that his opinion and feel of the music is how undoubtedly the best way to interpret it. This can be seen by his tone and use of statements of facts rather than opinion. For example, he states, “there is no intelligible conne[ct]ion between the shape and the size of her beat and the effect she is trying to indicate.” 13 By doing this, he is asserting his opinion as fact, which can cause the performance to be automatically judged even by those who did not listen to it. Throughout his review, he makes many statements like this to display his disapproval of the performance.  In whole, this article describes the problem of gender inequality and how women were not even given the opportunity to succeed due to judgement by others, mostly males, in the music community.

While it is hard to accept, sexism is classical music is still a problem today. From 1999-2004, only 2.4% of the 500 top-grossing films have had scores written by female composers.  14 Due to the common misconception that women do not possess the same vigor and aggression needed to write exciting film scores, women are commonly only asked to write scores that can appeal to other women. While some women such as Shirley Walker have broken free of this stereotype, sexism can be seen at even the highest levels. In an interview conducted by Music from the Movies, “Walker mentioned that Hans Zimmer teased her about [her style], remarking jokingly that if she would write music that women are expected to write, she would have more success in the industry.” 15 In classical music, women have historically struggled to break free of societal constraints produced by this male-dominated community that have caused an imbalance in the ability to succeed in this industry. By understanding the past and our mistakes, we can look towards a brighter and more equal future.

 

Endnotes:

1 Alsop, Marin. “Even Now I Encounter Sexism.” Evening Standard, September 03, 2013, http://ntserver1.wsulibs.wsu.edu:2182/docview/1429499368?accountid=14902 (accessed January 12, 2016)

2 Alsop, Marin. “Even Now I Encounter Sexism.” Evening Standard, September 03, 2013, http://ntserver1.wsulibs.wsu.edu:2182/docview/1429499368?accountid=14902 (accessed January 12, 2016)

3 Jezic, Diane. Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found. Foreword by Elizabeth Wood. (New York, NY, The City University Feminist Press, 1988). Foreword, 65-101. http://searchit.libraries.wsu.edu/WSU:WSU_everything:CP71104453330001451

4 Jezic, Diane. Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found. Foreword by Elizabeth Wood. (New York, NY, The City University Feminist Press, 1988). Foreword, 65-101. http://searchit.libraries.wsu.edu/WSU:WSU_everything:CP71104453330001451

5 Jezic, Diane. Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found. Foreword by Elizabeth Wood. (New York, NY, The City University Feminist Press, 1988). Foreword, 65-101. http://searchit.libraries.wsu.edu/WSU:WSU_everything:CP71104453330001451

6 Ruotolo, Cristina L. Sounding Real. (Tuscaloosa, US: University Alabama Press, 2013)ProQuest ebrary. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/wsu/detail.action?docID=10745088

7 James Huneker, The Eternal Feminine. in Overtones (New York: Scribners, 1904). http://searchit.libraries.wsu.edu/WSU:WSU_everything:TN_project_gutenbergetext13296

8 Jezic, Diane. Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found. Foreword by Elizabeth Wood. (New York, NY, The City University Feminist Press, 1988). Foreword, 65-101. http://searchit.libraries.wsu.edu/WSU:WSU_everything:CP71104453330001451

9 Fuller, Sophie. “women in music.” In The Oxford Companion to Music (Oxford University Press, 2011) http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199579037.001.0001/acref-9780199579037-e-7375.

10 Davies, Lucy. “feminist musicology.” In The Oxford Companion to Music. : Oxford University Press, http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199579037.001.0001/acref-9780199579037-e-2461 .

11   Angela Kershaw and Angela Kimyongür, edit. Women in Europe between the Wars: Politics, Culture and Society. (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013) 193-200. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/wsu/detail.action?docID=10211485

12 “Women’s Symphony Orchestra” Times[London,England], March 12, 1925. http://find.galegroup.com/ttda/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=TTDA&userGroupName=pull21986&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&docId=CS201922668&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0 (accessed 7 Feb 2016.)

13 “Women’s Symphony Orchestra” Times[London,England], March 12, 1925. http://find.galegroup.com/ttda/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=TTDA&userGroupName=pull21986&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&docId=CS201922668&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0 (accessed 7 Feb 2016.)

14  Carlsson, Mikael. “Women in Film Music – Or How Hollywood Learned to Hire Female Composers for (at least) Some of Their Movies.” Music of the Movies, 2004. http://iawm.org/stef/articles_html/carlsson_women_in_film.html  (accessed April 30, 2016).

15  Carlsson, Mikael. “Women in Film Music – Or How Hollywood Learned to Hire Female Composers for (at least) Some of Their Movies.” Music of the Movies, 2004. http://iawm.org/stef/articles_html/carlsson_women_in_film.html (accessed April 30, 2016).

Illustrations:

Figure 1. Portrait of Fanny Mendelssohn, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1842, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fanny_Mendelssohn .

Figure 2. Photograph of Lili Boulanger, Library of Congress, c. 1918,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lili_Boulanger#/media/File:Lili_Boulanger.jpg .

Figure 3. Review of Women’s Symphony Orchestra, Times [London], 1925, http://find.galegroup.com/ttda/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=TTDA&userGroupName=pull21986&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&docId=CS201922668&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0.