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Composing, Conducting & Gender Inequality

Although orchestras and music classrooms are full of women, finding the female equivalent of Beethoven has obviously not yet occurred and will prove hard to come by. Rachel Deloughry draws our attention to inequalities surrounding the stance of women in music.

When you sit back and look at how far we have progressed as a species, the status of gender equality in music does not reflect well at all. This is not a preamble to a rant, but rather an acknowledgment of how the current happenings relate to times past for women in music.

How many female composers can you name? Or female conductors? Probably not enough to count on two hands without consulting your online sources. In the same vein, how many of you music-lovers can say you have attended a concert of works solely by female composers? It is not much of an understatement to say that women are generally under-represented in music. Although orchestras and music classrooms are full of women, finding the female equivalent of Beethoven has obviously not yet occurred and will prove hard to come by.  

Nowadays, girls are born with the same chances as boys, or so it seems in today’s western society – something to be thankful for, when you compare it to 1800s Europe or for that matter, present-day extremist territories in the middle east. In the middle ages, girls were educated at home and the only formal education for girls would have taken place inside the convent, such as in the case ofHildegard of Bingen. Education for girls has come a long way in the western world, responsible for women increasingly equalling men in business, politics and academia. Gender in the professional world still goes hand in hand with certain inequalities at times, for instance pay-scale, or the irony that girls are out-performing boys at school, but not in job promotions. In my opinion, we still see glimpses of the same prejudice shown to our predecessors, just a toned-down version.  

“There is no logical reason to stop women from conducting. The baton isn’t heavy.” These are the words of Marin Alsop, the first woman to conduct the closing night of the BBC proms in its almost 120-year history. This was back in….. 2013. This long-standing tendency for men to promote other men prevails and women have long been held back in high positions in the music world by pre-existing beliefs and prejudices that need to change.

In classical music, there are many examples of girls showing virtuosic ability, outshining their brothers - until adulthood meant wifely duties overtook potential career prospects. Fanny Mendelssohn, the eldest child of the post-Enlightenment Jewish Mendelssohn family, was a huge influence on her younger brother Felix and challenged him, both musically and intellectually, advising him on his musical composition. She helped shape his compositional character – according to Grove, her influence can be perceived clearly inFelix Mendelssohn’s famous St Paul oratorio. As they grew older, Felix embarked on a career in music, becoming one of the cultural heroes of German music, while his big sister, deprived of what was thought of as an ‘improper way of life for a woman’ had her only creative outlets, with the exception of two public charity concerts, at private salons which she often hosted. Tragically, her list of compositions consists of less than 15 opus numbers. Fanny Mendelssohn had a rather similar childhood to Nannerl Mozart half a decade earlier, who was brought on tour as a child genius along with her younger brother – yet the only details we can ever find about Nannerl as a woman are based in the everyday, found in her correspondence with family members – barely a mention of her potential creativity.

What aboutClara Schumann, you might ask? She made a decent career as a pianist/composer, did she not? Thankfully Clara Schumann has about 46 surviving compositions to her name, better known for her piano playing during her younger days. Although she made a name for herself as a piano soloist, dazzling the audiences of Leipzig, Vienna and Paris as a child and teenager, in her thirties, her main purpose in life, besides her children, was to commemorate her late husband’s works – a ‘has-been’ composer and manager of her husband’s legacy.

In 1902,Gustav MahlermarriedAlma Schindler, a Viennese-born socialite, remembered for her great beauty in her youth and for the soirées she hosted at her home in Vienna and later in Los Angeles. If conditions had been different, Alma would have been remembered primarily as a composer, but her creativity was hampered by gender-based oppression. She played the piano and composed before reaching marrying age, however, the terms of her marriage to Mahler stipulated that she must discontinue composing. Eight years later, Gustav Mahler developed a renewed interest in Alma's compositions for the first time and regretted having made her stop. He had five of her songs published in 1910, however by this stage it was too late to rekindle any confidence in her flair for composing – after meeting such earlier discouragement, for her, as for many female musicians before her, composing was ultimately a male preserve.

It is optimistic to see that women are occupying an increasing number of composer-in-residence positions and let’s hope this leads to more opportunities. The doors are more open than they have ever been: organisations like New York Women Composers, Inc. and International Alliance for Women in Music have been established in the spirit of solidarity and out of need for female composers to support each other to have their voices heard. Let's hear it for more female voices in music.

Rachel Deloughry


Picture: Public Domain, from Renoir's 'Young Girls at the Piano'