Classical music and gender – instruments, orchestras, and stereotypes
There are fricking loads of stereotypes everywhere you look in society related to gender and sexuality. The most basic things like the choice of colour of an object can cause people to make all sorts of judgements on things such as ‘how you act’, or who you like to take to bed.
It fascinates me how some straight males behave as if they’re all magnets of the same polarity. Also that more than 6 square inches of physical contact with another man will irreversibly lead to sodomy. Just call it queersteria.
Arguably, one of the stranger realms into which these stereotypes penetrate is that of music. I want to focus today on looking at two sides to this – sexism encountered in professional classical music, and gendered associations with instrument choices.
When I talked to a few musicians (professionals and students) about this, on at least three separate occasions I was asked “you’ve looked at the Vienna Philharmonic then?”. Seeing as I was just vaguely musing on that it was an interesting thing to consider at that point I had not, but I now have. With a reputation as one of the finest orchestras in the world, they had a policy of women not being members until 1997. Today, they have progressed to have a depressing 6 women…out of 138 members.
It amuses me that the Google search ‘sexist orchestra’ gives the Vienna Philharmonic Wikipedia page as the first hit.
It’s a Vienna sausagefest.
The reluctance that this orchestra, and many others have exhibited in their hiring of women players has been pathetically defended in terms of fluffy claims about the ‘soul’ of the music, and importance of a ‘unified, masculine aesthetic’. In 1996, a radio interview was held in Germany that included 3 members of the Vienna Philharmonic along with a Viennese sociolgist, who were defending “the priority of musical results over all other concerns” (The full article on this, and other issues discussed in this post, may be found here). Some of the gems they stated included:
“So if one thinks that the world should function by quota regulations, then it is naturally irritating that we are a group of white skinned male musicians, that perform exclusively the music of white skinned male composers. It is a racist and sexist irritation. I believe one must put it that way. If one establishes superficial egalitarianism, one will lose something very significant. Therefore, I am convinced that it is worthwhile to accept this racist and sexist irritation, because something produced by a superficial understanding of human rights would not have the same standards.”
“Pregnancy brings problems. It brings disorder. Another important argument against women is that they can bring the solidarity of the men in question. You find that in all men´s groups … And the women can also contribute to creating competition among the men. They distract men. Not the older women. No one gives a damn about the older ones. It is the younger ones. The older women are already clever, they run to you! But the 20 or 25 year olds… They would be the problem. These are the considerations. In a monastery it is the same. The alter is a holy area, and the other gender may not enter it, because it would cause disorder. Such are the opinions.”
Men are musicians because they don’t get emotionally worked up about silly little things, like women being musi- oh wait.
So they argue that women shouldn’t be allowed because either men get too distracted by their wicked feminine wiles, or basically that women don’t play with the same emotional control as men do.
I would say this was bullshit, except that they do a pretty good of this themselves through their actions. Let’s see how.
- The Vienna Philharmonic, like many orchestras, has a female harpist. She wasn’t recognised as a ‘member’, but played with them for 20 years. It was okay though, because she sits *near the edge*.
- More and more, and since as early as the 1940s and 1950s, various orchestras have been using ‘blind auditions’ in order to remove racism and sexism from the auditioning process. The lead to a 50% increase in female audition success rate. This rather blows the claim that women ‘naturally’ produce an inferior sound out of the water.
A random sample of five British symphony orchestras suggests that gender ratios vary wildly: the Hallé and the BBC Symphony may not do badly (the Hallé has 45 men and 38 women; the BBCSO 55 men, 37 women), but orchestras such as the London Philharmonic and Bournemouth Symphony trail, splitting at 52-23 and 45-26 respectively. And the London Symphony Orchestra, widely regarded as being the country’s most successful, has 77 male members to 22 female.
And, if you sweep your eye over any orchestra on stage, you will notice a particular phenomenon: women players are concentrated among the string sections, with fewer appearances in the woodwind. They are almost absent from the brass sections, traditionally orchestras’ laddy, hard-drinking outposts. Meanwhile, you will rarely see a male harpist.
To be fair, this reflects a cultural fact that parents are more likely to give their daughters a nice, “girly” instrument such as a violin or a flute than the galumphing, “unfeminine” trombone or tuba. And to suggest that your boy plays a harp might seem akin to some parents to encouraging an encyclopaedic knowledge of show tunes and a taste for interior decoration.
And yet despite this social stereotyping (which I found echoed when snooping on a classical music forum), virtually all professional/soloist/famous flautists are men. It seems like whilst on the one hand a lack of women playing particular kinds of instruments such as those in the brass section will be due to the social encouragement that high-pitched, soft, delicate sounds are more appropriate/desirable/’feminine’, on the other hand there’s still a worrying smattering of old-school sexists smattered around this particular industry.
In that much of the musical professional world is connected through who has played with who, who has been taught by who, who went to what conservatoires and met who, etc. This network-oriented system reinforces similarity. It was politicians that caused the much needed change in the Vienna Philharmonic’s policy rather than musicians.