Concert Masters vs. Mistresses

April 3, 2007 at 02:36 AM · I'm sitting first chair for a pit I'm in, and I got an e-mail asking whether I'd like to be called Concertmaster, or Concertmistress. I went with Concertmaster in the end. I feel that the concertmistress title is kind of old fashioned...similar to the actor instead of actress rule.

Would it be better to be politically correct and give everyone the same title, or does anyone really care?


April 3, 2007 at 03:30 AM · Well, in high school, my male stand partner (the concertmaster) was called the concertmaster, and I was called the "associate concertmistress." I wasn't given a choice (and, truth be told, was much more bummed about the whole associate thing, regardless). I thought it looked a little weird in the program, since there wasn't a concertmistress in the first place, how could I be the associate of something that wasn't there?

April 3, 2007 at 03:33 AM · Here's my rule of thumb: being equal does not require being identical. I call actresses "actresses" because there is a feminine ending in English. And I choose to use it. Anything else, to me, seems to indicate a high level of defensiveness or insecurity, a probable chip on the shoulder, and utter contempt for the rational rules of grammar.

April 3, 2007 at 03:48 AM · most females i know HATE the term concertmistress. i always thought it was lame sounding, too.

April 3, 2007 at 04:39 AM · "Concertmastress." No, they'd pronounce it "concertmattress."

April 3, 2007 at 04:06 AM · It might depend a bit whether you prefer to master a Paganini caprice or rather mistress it. Is it at all correct to use the verb "master" when the subject is female (like ship or mother)? Is it correct when a US president speaks to all "Americans" when most Americans speak Spanish, Portugese or even French and are not even allowed to settle in USA? Seems superficiality has gotten to a point where "treating correctly" has been replaced by "speaking correctly" which is much cheaper to provide and doesn't really mean a thing.

In a really "politically" correct world (what a ridiculous term!) one is not allowed to treat people at all differently for different sex. So one HAS to use the same word for people filling the same job ... which is ofcourse not correct because a master is a "he" ...

It's really better to invest energy into doing the right things by means of your language than trying to rape your language to make the language "right".


April 3, 2007 at 04:52 AM · FMF, what do you want the President to say? United Statesians?

April 3, 2007 at 04:53 AM · I think in this case it should be concertmaster because "mistress" isn't the female version of "master" so it gives the word a different meaning if anyone really cares to think about it. This is different than calling a female actor an actress because it means the same thing only in the feminine.

April 3, 2007 at 04:58 AM · It's not mastering a concert that a concertmaster does. The "-master" portion of his title refers to his GENDER, not his skill level. It's "master of the house" and "mistress of the house" for British estates, right? Master of Ceremonies and Mistress of Ceremonies, therefore, right? The ceremonies themselves can be neuter, forcibly gendered, or eunuchs for all the language cares.

As for the rest, FMF, I wholeheartedly agree with what I think I understood you to have said about language vs. action. It is SO much easier to loudly decry linguistic oddities and irrelevancies than to address actual injustices.

Here in the US, we have had actual movements to term the topic "HERstory" as opposed to "HIStory", with actual budgets spent on this goofiness. This while Johnny and Susie don't even know what the COLD WAR was (actually happened with a high school student of mine, two years ago), let alone what the English vs. French vs. American vs. Russian Revolutions were.

We've had actual drives to re-spell "women" as "womyn", in order to avoid the inclusion of "-men". All this at the same time as Johnny and Susie are graduating with a level of literacy and cultural, historical, political and scientific awareness roughly equivalent to that of a medieval carrot. It's not that we didn't launch literacy drives. It's that we found time for half-cocked winges about illiteracy simultaneously with stunningly vociferous demands for linguistic maskerades.

We like finding causes to champion. We don't like thinking about digging a bit deeper to the root causes of our causes, or to how following a cause into the teeth of hell may HURT the cause. Witness the German "animal rights activist" who advocated the killing of the cuddliest polar bear cub on the planet on the grounds that bottle feedings in the absence of the cub's mom were "inhuman". Completely aside from the defensibility or lack thereof of his position, did such a self-satisfied, vocal twit ever stop to think what a hideously bad spokesMAN he was for the cause he was supposedly trying to help?

April 3, 2007 at 06:34 AM · Emil, my little "master" verb question was my poor attempt to joke about this whole issue. I wasn't too serious there. And Jim, yes, I think it's perfectly ok for the US president to use "Americans" since almost everybody knows what it MEANS.

Just starting to think about the "correctness" is a messy thing to do, because e.g. "German" means nothing else than "a man with a spear" (by origin). So how can anybody dare to call Anne-Sophie Mutter German while claiming to strive for political correctness? Just imagine a theory that the English speaking world forced these guys into running around with "spears" (weapons) all the time through calling them (incorrectly) "men with spears". ;-)

Russians are even worse; they call a German немец which means nothing else than "a немый (dumb) person" in the sense of "incapable of speech" by origin. And all this only because the Slavics wouldn't understand the language of the women and men with or without spears ("correctly" spoken) at first. Now I am beginning to wonder why one would call those other poor guys SLAVics .... etc.

Another not too funny story: When I lived and worked around route 128 in the early 80ties some crazy group's lawyer forced Boston radio stations to change their ads for Sony Walkman into Sony Walkperson. After a few days the trade mark law prevailed and we were back on Walkman again.

In any case I feel tempted to deduct a minimum of 5 points off any person's IQ worrying about "political correctness" in language.


April 3, 2007 at 08:58 AM · Which is more absurd; spend a split second to call someone concertmistress if she seems to like it or spend 20 pages of opinion writing up how absurd political correctness is?


April 3, 2007 at 09:28 AM · Well said Ihnsouk.

Of course, the US could always switch to the Brit term of "Leader". Heaven forbid.


April 3, 2007 at 09:48 AM · When in doubt, check a dictionary. I am looking at the Webster's Delux Unabridged Dictionary (it's thicker than the phone book):

"Concermaster: after the German, konzertmeister, the leader of the first violin section of a symphony orchestra, who plays the solo passages and often serves as assistant to the conductor."

Nothing there about gender. However, the term "master" has almost a half page of definitions. Interestingly, "master" is the origin of the term "mister," and several of the definitions are gender specific.

However, in addition to the definitions of a master as a "chief" (which is gender specific), there are definitions that have to do with "mastery" in terms of exceptional skills and abilities, and these definitions are not gender specific.

Therefore, the question is whether "concertmaster" refers to the role as head violinist or assistant to the conductor, or whether it is based on exceptional mastery of the instrument.

Now you can overlay the issue of personal preference and contemporary correctness over that.

Good luck. Sandy

April 3, 2007 at 11:07 AM · I don't know, Ihnsouk. Which is more ridiculous: taking one situation, which is easily resolved, as sui generis - unprecedented and unfollowed? Or using one easily resolved situation to discuss the pros and cons of a condition of which that situation is symptomatic?

Do you feel that politically correct speech has pros which are being overlooked? Or do you feel that the discussion is a firestorm of agreement as no one can possibly endorse PC speech? If the latter, don't you find it curious that PC speech police not only endure but flourish? And if the former, don't you think the discussion would benefit from introducing such positive aspects, rather than condemning the discussion itself?

April 3, 2007 at 11:28 AM · Everyone-

I have learned that the proper terminoligy is "concertmaster" no matter what the gender. Number 1)the term mistress can often be very degrading to women. 2) the words mistress and master do not have the same definitions. It's just the same with Maestro. A female conductor is still Maestro, not Maestra.


April 3, 2007 at 11:52 AM · Since Sandy got his dictionary out, I pulled out my favorite, "The American Heritage Dictionary" (4th ed). The word "mistress" has a long Usage Note that included this:

"many of the negative terms used for women derive from words that once had neutral or even positive associations. For instance, the word 'mistress', now mainly used to refer to a woman who is involved in an extramarital sexual relationship, originally served simply as a neutral counterpart to 'mister' or 'master'."

I personally have never liked the word "Concertmistress". I do not know another female violinist who does.

April 3, 2007 at 12:05 PM · Emil, As I am sure you know, social conventions don't necessarily follow logic. While political correctness bores me greatly, trying to apply logic to prove it's wrong seems a wasted effort. If the matter is not of logical nature, one can't really say it is correct since it is logical.

Would you keep calling African Americans negroes while lecturing them that the term negro originates in latin describing..., or would you just call them African Americans if they like it better that way? These are not matters of life and death. Whatever conclusion we draw from a lengthy discussion on this matter cannot be applied to solve our other more serious problems. So, I take the easy way out giving it a minimal attention it deserves.


April 3, 2007 at 12:19 PM · I got a question for you. Should Hillary Clinton get elected president, should we call Bill Clinton First Lady?


April 3, 2007 at 01:00 PM · As a political junkie, I'm curious as to what polls she is trailing in. I've been following the race relatively closely and most everything I've read says Clinton, Obama, Edwards on the Democratic side and Guiliani, Romney, McCain on the Republican side, with the latter two sometimes switched in position. If there's a poll she's trailing in, I'd be interested in seeing it.

(Sorry, feel free to go back to political correctness now...)

April 3, 2007 at 02:51 PM · I think "concertmistress" sounds sleazy.

April 3, 2007 at 03:15 PM · You don't have Conductresses so I'm in favor of any gender bing the Concertmaster. To me CM is a job description.

April 3, 2007 at 03:18 PM · I vote for "concertmaster."

Actually, with a wife and two daughters, I've always been careful about non-sexist language around my house. I call the mailman the person-person.

:) Sandy

April 3, 2007 at 04:14 PM · This raises an interesting issue -

A man's lover may be called a "mistress," but is a woman's lover then called a "mister," or maybe a "master"?

And what about a "mistress lock" or a "mistress key"?

April 3, 2007 at 07:59 PM · I have been, um, first chair first violin several times, been called both "concertmaster" and "concertmistress" and have barely thought twice about it.

Personally I don't think the "master" part of "concertmaster" is a reference to gender so much as it is a reference to that player's status as the leader of the orchestra, especially back in the old days when the concertmaster was also the conductor (such as it was.)

On that topic though, is anyone else as sick of "political correctness" and weird forms of "sensitivity" as I am? It seems to me like a spectacular national exercise in missing the point. Take the word "mankind". PC-ers will say that word is offensive, male-chauvinist, because it isn't "womankind" or "personkind." But what they don't understand is, the "man" in "mankind" is effectively gender-neutral! In English (at least, what used to be English) the word "man" can mean "male person" or just "person", e.g. "Reason is what separates Man from Beast." And for crying out loud, it should be perfectly obvious to anyone who can think straight that whenever someone says "Mankind" they mean "the human race", so why re-engineer the language into some sort of bland, uber-inclusive, ultramodern Newspeak and make us, in the interests of equality and democracy, say clumsy and clunky words like "personkind"?

Sorry, rant over. :)

April 3, 2007 at 08:59 PM · Atlanta Symphony:

Cecylia Arzewski


National Symphony

Nurit Bar-Joseph


Detroit Symphony

Emmanuelle Boisvert


Minnesota Orchestra

Jorja Fleezanis


Symphony Magazine Article on Women Concertmasters

All of these articles and pages use the term CONCERTMASTER.

April 3, 2007 at 09:26 PM · Ya' know, most concertmasters are bad enough (ahem) but just thinking about a concert mistress gives me the willys.

Do they were tight leather outfits and carry a whip onto the stage?

Is their sole purpose in life to inflict pain onto the audience? -no wait, that's the violists' job.....

April 3, 2007 at 09:32 PM · Wilma Smith is the concertmaster for the Melbourne Symphony. the official web site refers to her as concertmaster

April 3, 2007 at 10:09 PM · I didn't think anyone used "concertmistress" these days. It's always struck me as archaic, like "aviatrix" or "poetess."

April 4, 2007 at 01:45 AM · What if the first chair player is gay? What if he had a sex-change operation?

It's so confusing ........

April 4, 2007 at 02:20 AM · yup, I can see it now... the day I say to my wife... " dear, I'll be home soon after I see my favourite concert mistress." :-)

April 4, 2007 at 09:08 AM · Allan - We live at a time when a guy gets married, has kids, and decides to have a gender change. After the operation, s/he still lives with his/her family. I don't know what the kids call him/her, mom or dad. The confusion about concertmastress is cosmetic at best compared to that.


April 4, 2007 at 12:28 PM · Hi,

To the original inquiry - I would refer you to Igor's post. Answers the question quite well and appropirately (thank you for that my friend!).


April 4, 2007 at 03:22 PM · Pleasure is all mine... How YOU doin?!

April 7, 2007 at 02:03 PM · Thank you for some hilarious Saturday morning reading. A few thoughts:

Regarding the professional question, Igor's posting seems to cover it. Thanks for the interesting research!

Regarding the linguistic questions, the difficulty is that language is not static. Sure, there was a time when "man" just meant "human", but that was not the "original" or "actual" meaning of the word. From Biblical Hebrew through the English of earlier American documents, "man" usually meant literally males (e.g., "the rights of men" meant just that). Since the usage of "man" as a collective was intrinsically connected to this assumption that we no longer hold dear, something needs to be adjusted in either our words or in what we think they mean. (Note that these are *both* reflections of linguistic development. There is no "just let language be" option.) There have been two main schools of thought about what the adjustment should be. One (older) school would argue that the collective "man" should now be understood to include women. This is just one point on the road of linguistic development, which some now think was the "original" meaning. (It has been around for a long time, but is still just one stage in a process.) Another school of thought is that since "man" really did mean males, then instead of just assuming we now include "women" as part of "men" (imagine how appalling a race, black-white parallel would be!), we should use terms like "person" and "human" which really do intrinsically include both. We won't all agree on this, but the one thing I don't think we should do is oversimplify the issue as if adjusting our language in one of these ways is right and adjusting it in the other is just silliness (even if we can all think of over-the-top examples).

And the point of all this, you ask? Let me think... oh yes. Some people will cringe at "concertmistress" the way I cringe when I'm called a "female professor" or "woman scholar", where the assumption is that the genderless term refers to a male norm, and others will hear "concertmistress" as one of those terms which really does have two gendered forms, maybe like waiter and waitress. Personally, I preferred "concertmaster" back when it was relevant to me, but I'd just like to throw in this (very long) word for not jumping from that choice to the dismissal of any and all thought about inclusive language. (Would that it were simpler!)

Maeve, congratulations on the seat, whatever you choose to call it!

P.S. Sandy, thank you for the hilarious "person-person" tidbit -- I'll carry that one with me.

April 8, 2007 at 12:39 PM · nevermind--repeating myself

April 8, 2007 at 12:48 PM · OK, OK, this will end all of the arguments and satisfy everybody......


April 8, 2007 at 07:07 PM · How about just calling him/her the first violinist?

Is first chair so superior to second chair that they need to have a special designation?

What do we call the first-chair cellist?

April 8, 2007 at 08:53 PM · Principal cellist. The second-fourth chairs in each string section often have special designations too... hence you'll frequently hear them referred to as "title chair positions."

It's really not snobbery; there's a whole set of additional responsibilities assumed by the concertmaster (at least in a professional orchestra environment). It's a demanding and time-consuming position. You could do the British thing, though, and just call them "Leaders." That's clearly non-gender-specific.

April 8, 2007 at 08:44 PM · Greetings,

then you`ve got a load of followers. The orchestra has become a cult!



April 8, 2007 at 09:47 PM · Sandy,

If the mailman is a woman, shouldn't you call her perdaughter-perdaughter?

April 8, 2007 at 09:28 PM · In my experience, which is in all kinds of orchestras except really big pro ones, being concertmaster is a lot of extra work and a lot of responsibility. It can involve meetings with the conductor, solving personnel problems, bowing parts, being a liason and even teaching lessons and leading sectionals.

It is fun but it does deserve a little recognition.

And, of course, therre is the responsibility for the solos.

April 8, 2007 at 10:59 PM · Yixi:...human-human. Ooops: huperson-huperson....Ooops: being-being.

OK, here it is - "Principal-Violin-FirstDesk-Leader" (unless the orchestra is accompanying a program of lieder, in which case you are the "Principal-Violin-FirstDesk-Lieder-Leader")

April 8, 2007 at 11:11 PM · Erika & Michael,

Thanks for your posts. That's something I had no knowledge of and quite interesting.

April 9, 2007 at 12:14 AM · In that case, you might appreciate one or the other of these articles for a more detailed overview of the position:,3899,Feature-1.asp

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