The Problem with 'Concertmistress'

December 17, 2020, 1:09 PM · This week in the U.S., a number of news stories focused on a patronizing opinion rant in the Wall Street Journal, which advised soon-to-be First Lady Jill Biden to drop the "Dr." in her name, despite her considerable academic credentials.

Yes, people who earn doctoral degrees are literally entitled to the "Dr." before their names. Even if it's a doctoral degree in education, or heaven forbid, a doctoral degree in music.

But for one of my colleagues, violinist Colleen Coomber, this whole misogyny-tinged brouhaha brought up another irksome issue for women: the old-fashioned urge to call a female concertmaster a "concertmistress." I have to agree with her.

concertmistress concertmaster

I remember being the “concertmistress” of my youth orchestra and the vague embarrassment over the name. It was an honor that put me in front of everyone, but I couldn't quite figure out why the “mistress” thing felt weird. I mean isn't "concertmistress" simply the female version of "concertmaster"?

Honestly, it really doesn't convey the same sense of authority.

"A Master’s Degree is not required to hold the position and title of concertmaster, however I was asked many times whether a female should be called concertmistress," Colleen wrote on her Facebook page. "Once, as I was about to enter the stage, I was asked to be announced as 'Concertmistress.....' I responded with, "The title is Concertmaster." When the guy asked my why, I said that my college degree is called a Master’s Degree, not a Mistress Degree. Backstage, the ladies with doctorates cheered."

I'd be very happy if the word "mistress" conveyed the same thing that the word "master" did. But the sad truth is that oftentimes, words associated with women turn into epithets. That is certainly the case here. Let's look at the dictionary definitions of both words for a moment. Both have an authoritative first meaning, but the second meaning diverges greatly:

Master — First, "a man who has people working for him, especially servants or slaves," and second, "a person who has dominance or control of something."

Mistress — First, "a woman in a position of authority or control," and second, "a woman having an extramarital sexual relationship."

Let's not delude ourselves, that second definition of "mistress" is used at least as much as, if not more than, the first.

We regularly say things such as, "It is my greatest wish to master the Paganini Caprices." We do not say, "It is my greatest wish to mistress the Paganini Caprices."

If Midori gives a masterclass, should we call it a "mistressclass"? Not likely. Do these book titles make sense?

Violin Mistress Works and Their Interpretation

10 Violin Solos from the Mistresses

The Mistress's Violin

Great Mistresses of the Violin

Mistresspieces for Violin

Another truth that goes hand-in-hand with this issue is the traditional reluctance to promote women to the position of concertmaster. There have been considerable gains, but at the beginning of my own career, this bias certainly was common. Colleen, who is about the same age as me, described an incident early in her career, in which she fought hard for the chance to perform as concertmaster.

"When I was in the American Youth Symphony," said Colleen, "it was unheard of and not possible in the conductor's eyes for a woman to be concertmaster. Though I spent 10 years there and worked my way up from the back of the firsts to assistant concertmaster, he’d never move me up. I begged for the chance, and did threaten to quit. Finally, he gave in and I performed as concertmaster three or four times. The conductor was proud of me, and I had proved myself! I know AYS only had a couple of female concertmasters during my tenure."

She did ultimately break through the barrier, if temporarily, and it's that kind of persistence that has helped change minds and pave the way for more female concertmasters in today's orchestras.

Yes, concertmasters.

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December 17, 2020 at 07:48 PM · Good point... in terms of downplaying dr. Status, I worked damn hard on my Juilliard DMA. I would not let anyone make fun of it

December 17, 2020 at 08:51 PM · Back when I lived in the Boston area, I was concertmaster of the amateur community orchestra I played in. The woman who preceded me, though, was definitely a concertmistress. She was the concertmistress for 50+ years of the orchestra's then-75-year existence. She was the concertmistress when the orchestra raised money for the war effort--during World War II!

For an orchestral history project, I remember looking through old programs that listed the names of all the players in the orchestra in the 1940s and 50s, and not only did it list her as "concertmistress," it listed her as Mrs. HusbandsFirstName HusbandsLastName. To me that's much worse than concertmistress, not even giving women their own names!

When I became concertmaster I used that title when I referred to myself, but many of the older members and fans of the orchestra, especially people who remembered my predecessor, called me concertmistress anyway, and I didn't mind, or correct them. They meant it as a title of respect and that's how I took it.

I moved across the country 5 years ago and became a violist, so this issue is not relevant to me currently, but I've heard that my former orchestra decided to hire a professional concertmaster after I left. She's a local teacher and performer and I don't think anyone refers to her as concertmistress. It's a title from an earlier, less professional, age.

December 17, 2020 at 09:24 PM · An excellent article, Laurie, thank you for writing it!

December 18, 2020 at 01:37 AM · Karen, the Mrs HusbandFirst Last made me LOL. Did they do that with all the players, or only her, and when did they stop? :-)

As a kid, I was always the concertmistress, not the concertmaster. That morphed little by little over the years. Now almost always I'm the concertmaster; the title has become gender-neutral, and I prefer it that way.

December 18, 2020 at 02:38 AM · I agree completely. "Master" has a third meaning: Someone (traditionally male to be honest) who has mastered a craft and can have his own business with workers and apprentices under him/her.

I think this meaning of "mastery of a skill" still resonates in the word "concertmaster".

This business with wives using their husband's names I believe was an indicator of social class: Ladies called themselves that way; people who were just women did not.

December 18, 2020 at 02:39 AM · The term “concertmistress” has always made my skin crawl. Thanks so much for this article, Laurie!

December 18, 2020 at 03:24 AM · "Concertmistress" as a title was banned where I grew up many decades ago. How do I know? My mother came to my very first real orchestra rehearsal, noticed a girl was sitting principal, and asked the conductor (who was a friend) "Is she playing concertmistress?"

The conductor quickly leaned towards her and said (in a friendly way) "we don't use concertmistress. It's concertmaster".

I never knew my small rural hometown was so progressive lol.

December 18, 2020 at 06:58 AM · Laurie, excellent thought to use the dictionary for the underlying meanings of the words.

Things are a-changin', that's for sure. In a different field, we have the President, and his wife, the First Lady. When we get a lady president things get akward: is her spouse the first Lord? Oxymoron there. First Man? First Husband? And what happens if the head of State is a lady, married to another lady, such as was the case of the former Prime Minister of Iceland?

BTW the Icelandic have an interesting language, with patronymic surnames. That means that when in English you have, say, Johnson (John's son) in Iceland you'd also have Johnsdottir (literally John's daughter).

December 18, 2020 at 07:15 AM · Well, Kamala Harris is VP-elect and it looks like people have settled on "Second Gentleman" as her husband's title. There probably won't be any further questions about protocol until we have a president or VP in a same-sex marriage, or who has a non-binary spouse.

Fortunately for us musicians, "concertmaster" as a gender-neutral term, with the accepted definition of "master" as someone who has become expert in a craft, dispenses with all those issues. BTW, I've never seen or heard "concertmistress" being used by any orchestra I've played in (I've occasionally seen it used by others) even though the majority of the concertmasters have been women.

December 18, 2020 at 07:28 AM · In the Italian language we have the same problems with many professional titles, such as Avvocato (lawyer), Sindaco (Mayor), Notaio (notary), Ministro (minister). Ending with a "o" they all are the masculine form. What happens when a woman holds one of those titles? It's still an open debate, with the exception of Doctor (Dottore or Dottoressa).

The Mayor of Rome Virginia Raggi prefers "Sindaca" which sounds horrible, but is better than "Sindachessa"; a former female government Minister said pointedly she wanted to be called "Ministra" (even though that is dangerously close to "minestra", soup), while other women couldn't care less and use the traditional masculine form.

Good thing there are some titles such as Giudice (judge) which are in effect gender neutral.

December 18, 2020 at 12:26 PM · Why discuss it as if there is only one choice? The real problem is not concertmistress but the sexist concertmaster. In England the 'Concertmaster' is called the 'Leader' of the orchestra.

Why not make the switch here and get away from both sexist (and double-entendre) terms?

December 18, 2020 at 12:27 PM · Interesting observations Laurie! The problem doesn't arise in the UK, where the orchestra is directed by a 'conductor' and the violinist to her or his left is the 'leader'. However, I often hear American radio announcers say '...lead by...' followed by the name of she or he who wields the baton (or directs by hand like Pierre Boulez), so there is scope for a further linguistic doubt there. In Spain, where I live, the principal first violin is the 'concertino' and I have never seen or heard it rendered with the feminine ending, which would yield the word for a squeezebox.

Oh dear! It's all quite a headache. I suggest sticking with concertmaster.

December 18, 2020 at 02:34 PM · As an American, I do tend to assume "leader" refers to the conductor. I've only become aware of the British terminology in the last two or three years.

December 18, 2020 at 02:54 PM · In Rumanian you would refer to him as the Conducator, which is valid for both Celebidache and Ceausescu (for better or for worse).

December 18, 2020 at 02:57 PM · "Doctor" is non-gender, and is the result of hard work and application over 3 years. Similarly, "Master" in the degrees M.A. and M.Sc. and others, and "Bachelor" typically in the first degrees of B.A. and B.Sc. "Bachelor" carries both meanings of the initial level of the university degree system, and that of an unmarried male of the species. Mercifully, we have not yet seen "Spinstress of Arts" or "Spinstress of Science" (but give it time)! Btw, "batchelor" is a common mis-spelling of "bachelor", and is not recognised by either the O.E.D. or Webster.

Getting back to a married woman's surname, in Belgium the system is fluid, many married women opting to retain their maiden name, as my daughter did when she married a Belgian in Belgium. A consequence of this is that the family tree of my Belgian in-laws borders on complexity of a Byzantine nature.

In Spain a child's name consists of its given name followed by two surnames. The first surname is the father's surname, and the second is the mother's first surname. Complicated, but it gives some insight into the family history. Some married Spanish women retain their maiden name and academic title (Doctorate) for sound professional reasons, which has happened in my family.

December 18, 2020 at 03:57 PM · In Italy a married woman retains her surname. For this reason you will find double surnames on every mailbox and intercom, such as Rossi-Verdi.

She may informally adopt her husband's surname but only as a form of asterisk. The kids get the dad's surname though.

December 18, 2020 at 04:51 PM · Most European languages will have masculine-feminine-neuter endings for Everything, all nouns and adjectives. The choices depend more on spelling than biology. What I object to in American English is our current politically motivated Orwellian linguistic engineering, like "-person". That debate would be absurd in other languages.

December 18, 2020 at 05:53 PM · But Joel, those languages are having their own various internal debates, too, and often on that very topic, as Dimitri pointed out above.

The "latinx" phenomenon is a wholly American creation, and really isn't something that makes sense to most native Spanish speakers, but in various Spanish speaking countries, they are indeed debating and creating their own analogues to your "-person" construct, such as a gender-neutral -e ending, rather than the masculine -o or feminine -a (so "latine").

Your use of "Orwellian" is quite comical. Which work or portion of Democratic Socialist writer George Orwell's oeuvre might you be referring to? Are you perhaps positing that the trans community, which has almost no representation in US government, is akin to "Big Brother" by attempting to influence the way the language they speak is spoken through reasoning and presenting their understanding of history and their country? Or perhaps is there some kind of fascist state actor that is prohibiting the use of certain language, or mandating other language, under some kind of legal or criminal threat?

I'm not convinced on the ubiquity or threat of "cancel-culture", since the only real threat to anyone getting cancelled is that people will vote with their attention and pocketbooks, and what could be more American than that? Forgive me for implying where I understand your train of thought to lead - I may have gotten it totally wrong. But, perhaps you mistyped when you wrote "Orwellian"? Also, what could you possibly mean by "politically motivated" in the context of your sentence? There sure are a lot of embedded assumptions there.

December 18, 2020 at 05:58 PM · This is very interesting to read, both the article and the comments. In the UK, the term used for a concert master is Principle. I assumed that was used the world over...

December 18, 2020 at 06:35 PM · Today's symphony orchestras have a lot of female players, and in some ensembles, these players are the majority. So it shouldn't shock or surprise anyone nowadays to see one of them in first chair. There's progress -- although some men, and even some women, still hold to the backward, wrong-headed view that "it's a man's world." That view was already disfavored, really passé, when I was in school and entering the workforce. We were told that there are no "men's jobs" and "women's jobs" -- only "people jobs."

The term mistress carries negative baggage, and the term concertmistress sounds like something from the stilted bygone eras -- as does "Mrs. [husband's first name + last name]." Good riddance. Same for waitress and stewardess, now largely replaced by server and flight attendant.

December 18, 2020 at 06:39 PM · P. S. Since the blog mentioned "soon-to-be First Lady Jill Biden," and since a previous reply mentioned Kamala Harris:

The media are wasting their time and ours on the trivia of Jill Biden's title of "Dr." She earned the title. I would no more push for her to drop it than I would have pushed for my violin professor, who also had earned the title, to drop it.

Though the conventional wisdom is that Jill Biden will become the next First Lady, it's not a done deal. The 2020 presidential election is still very much up in the air.

Harris is not, strictly speaking, the VP-elect -- just as Joe Biden himself is not actually the president-elect -- until Congress certifies the Electoral College votes. That's slated for January 6, 2021. And it might not happen. Already, several US representatives have stated their intention to object. It requires only one representative and one senator to formally object. This would force a vote in each chamber.

December 18, 2020 at 11:23 PM · As a few people have already mentioned, perhaps we could just adopt the British system, and identify the first chair violinist as the ‘leader’? Calling someone the ‘leader’ is gender neutral.

December 18, 2020 at 11:39 PM · Frankly, I think a lot of this for Dr. Biden was ginned up controversy by the media. I have known for decades that someone with a doctorate is called Dr. in formal conversation. There is a cute scene in the movie "Congo" where a man and a woman call each other Doctor, referring to their degrees, and this was 22 years ago.

As far as the whole concertmistress controversy, as an audience member, I have not seen it. Practically every orchestra I have seen in recent years has had a female concertmaster or co-concertmaster. Hopefully we are moving forward. Cheers!

December 19, 2020 at 08:13 AM · At least in Italian, Concertmaster is "primo violino", and being that it refers to the instrument and not the person, there is no use arguing that term :-)

December 19, 2020 at 01:45 PM · In Australia we had for 3 years Julia Gillard as our first female prime minister, and her partner was colloquially known as the “first bloke”. (We don’t normally use the term “First Lady”)

I just read the beginning of that article.

As someone is entitled to use the title Dr, but is neither a PhD or a MBBS/MD , I was of the understanding that a PhD was the more prestigious and historically earlier degree, and that they were “the real doctors” . I admire anyone that can earn one.

December 19, 2020 at 04:44 PM · coninued-- I had a rebuttal, but it is off topic, would only generate heat without light, so I'll let it go.

December 19, 2020 at 09:58 PM · @Dimitri: The husband of a female President is in perfect analogy the First Gentleman.

December 20, 2020 at 01:23 AM · Exactly, Joel, it's what trolls want when they troll. I stand by my article and its titles for everyone!

December 20, 2020 at 08:28 AM · @Rosemary: "First bloke". Priceless!

December 20, 2020 at 08:09 PM · Wonderful article Laurie! As many have pointed out, other languages and cultures are different, and don’t have the same negative connotations with gender changes for titles because it’s inherent in the language. But here in the US, the term should be retired.

December 20, 2020 at 08:19 PM · Bring back stewardess, actress and keep concertmistress. Leave politics out of our orchestras!

December 20, 2020 at 09:16 PM · Who is to bring these things back, Victor?

Actress seems to still be in use, and is a pretty literal descriptor of a woman whose occupation is acting. Flight attendant is less euphemistic than stewardess, given that the etymology of stewardess implies that someone (a woman) is guarding a house, which should seem slightly strange to anyone who knows the difference between a plane and a house. Besides, the entire industry has happily moved on, spurred-on by the flight attendants themselves deciding what they preferred to be called. I wouldn't be surprised if in twenty years, there is a different term, if they haven't all been replaced by robots. Lastly, I believe most female concertmasters are happy to leave the term concertmistress in the past.

Would you like to set up a government "Department of Kids These Days" to apolitically enforce the bringing back of the obsolete terms that you personally happen to like?

December 20, 2020 at 11:53 PM · Lydia, I'm not sure when they stopped with the Mrs. HusbandsFirstName HusbandsLastName thing in the programs, but they had stopped by the 1980s, an era from which I also saw some programs.

I just want to note that what I found objectionable was referring to women by their Husband's First Name, not the surname. Although I did not adopt this custom myself, many American women officially take their husband's surname as their own, but they still keep their own first names--i.e. Dr. Jill Biden. Her surname is Biden, but her first name is Jill, not Joe.

A number of people have suggested "leader" as a substitute for "concertmaster," but other than gender neutrality, I don't see the appeal. The term is so generic, it could apply to virtually any organization, from a children's game ("Follow the Leader") to a world government ("take me to your leader"). There's nothing in the term to indicate that there is even music involved. And there is the potential confusion with the conductor, who is also leading the orchestra. Whereas "Concertmaster" has a history, and, at least to those who are a bit familiar with classical music, it has a precise definition, that of the first chair first violinist.

December 21, 2020 at 06:02 PM · M Zilpah, in the UK (also, according to Wikipedia, in the USA), each person leading a section is called the Principal for that section, e.g. "principal viola", EXCEPT for the principal first violin, who is called the Leader (something else in the USA).

Rosemary, MD is in fact a proper Doctorate, though requiring less research than a PhD in a medical subject. But it all gets even more confusing when you take continental Europe into account - My mother and her father before her had Doctorates in Law from Prague, without having done a dime of research.

Richard Pairaudeau, if you called the lady leader the concertina in English, you'd have the popular press asking whose squeeze she was! On the other hand, if you called the leader a concertino, you'd have people asking which soloist is performing him.

How about "Concertboss" for a gender neutral term?

December 22, 2020 at 01:32 PM · Great points! Master certainly conveys mastery of a skill. My friends always found the term “concertmistress” comical.

December 23, 2020 at 05:19 PM · The abbreviation Mrs. is derived from the word mistress, a term of respect to denote a woman in a position of authority, exactly as Mr. is derived from the word master, a respectful term for a man in a position of authority. In this context we are speaking about a ranking and not about acquired skills or property or slave owners. These terms originally served to lend respect to a person of authority who had no other title, such as Dr., Professor, President, Dame, etc. The hierarchy in a symphony orchestra is based on 19th century European court traditions. I personally find nothing offensive or derogatory about the term concertmistress, but the meaning we associate with words is constantly changing, as in the word "virtual", which now has come to mean exactly the opposite of its original meaning.

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