Female representation in classical music

Edited: March 21, 2023, 6:22 AM · It took some while but it now appears that female instrumentalists suffer little or no discrimination in classical music circles. The position of female conductors is more contentious but is undoubtedly greatly improved in recent years. The promotion of previously neglected female composers is also making considerable strides.

I discovered on my shelves a book published in the distant days of 2007 called “1000 classical recordings you must hear before you die”. One of the first things that struck me (apart from the fact that I disagreed with most of the selections) was the sparseness of female representation – a total of 5 entries from 4 composers. They couldn't publish that nowadays could they?

Tonight my recently-joined community orchestra will have its penultimate rehearsal for Saturday's concert, the programme of which includes Amy Beach's Gaelic Symphony. I believe in our next concert we'll give a symphony by Florence Price. I wonder, does or should this reflect a radical shift in the ethos of classical music programming or a temporary “corrective”?

To give this thread greater relevance to v.com, can anyone suggest an unjustly neglected violin concerto by a female composer? I mean one that can justify a place in the standard repertoire on merit alone?

Replies (87)

March 21, 2023, 7:27 AM · Not only composers, but my wife and I have always noticed that many older videos of performances from almost everywhere show orchestras that are almost completely staffed by male musicians.
Edited: March 21, 2023, 10:52 AM · I have to disagree that female musicians suffer little to no discrimination in classical music. Competitions are still populated by largely male juries and produce largely male winners. This may be more the case in the wind and brass world than in the string world. If there were no discrimination among conductors, women would be far better represented.

Look up what happened to Dylana Jensen’s career when she had the audacity to get pregnant.

The principal oboe of the Baltimore Symphony, Katherine Needleman, regularly calls out sexism and discrimination in classical music in her public posts. Sadly, there is a lot of material for her to work with.

Edited: March 21, 2023, 11:19 AM · I just picked the first competition I could think of. Again, small sample (N = 1) but females have done pretty well in the Indianapolis (numbers of laureates are tabulated below). I didn't see on their website whether they have used a significant number of female judges but that would be good to know. It would be also good to know how many men vs. women applied. Sorry my table formatting didn't really survive.

Year Female Male Winner Name
2022 3 2 Female Sirena Huang
2018 4 2 Male Richard Lin
2014 6 0 Female Jinjoo Cho
2010 2 4 Female Clara-Jumi Kang
2006 5 1 Male Augustin Hadelich
2002 4 2 Male Barnabas Keleman
1998 3 3 Female Judith Ingolfsson
1994 3 3 Female Juliette Kang
1990 1 5 Male Pavel Berman
1986 2 4 Female Kyoko Takezawa
1982 3 3 Female Mihaela Martin
Total 36 29

Edited: March 21, 2023, 12:12 PM · An overrepresentation of one sex doesn't automatically mean some sort of handicap on the other. My university music program is *overwhelmingly* female in the classical stream. At least 2:1. All the top ensemble seats are occupied by women. Likewise I see tons of women in competitions and orchestras and soloing these days.

Meanwhile, in the jazz program, it's the exact opposite.

In any case the University of Toronto is one of the most anal-retentive, liberal schools in Canada, so it's not like the jazz program is somehow hostile to girls by its design (or the classical program vice-versa)—the administration make sure of it.

Men and women clearly have different interests and aspirations. I'm so tired of this stupid debate. I don't agree with programming music by specific ethnic groups, one sex or the other, or whatever other category. At least not as a continuous trend. I think it's insulting to the listener, really, to choose music that ticks boxes instead of music that simply moves people.

March 21, 2023, 12:09 PM · I disagree with the op. In some instances there may be no discrimination, but in others there certainly is. Certain orchestras and countries discriminate against women more than others.

Also, no discussion of this topic should avoid mentioning sexual harassment. It is still rampant in music. Women are often the targets.

March 21, 2023, 12:28 PM · But Cotton, you brought up the well known, 'Men are from Jazz, Women are from Classical' dichotomy all by yourself.

Less facetiously, I think that it's an interesting time of canon rehab, rethink and expansion, but previously neglected composers, whether women or not, often have some disadvantages; My quartet is starting to work on a Florence Price quartet (who seems to be everpresent at the moment, as composer that could be eminently rehabbed), and the quartet is very beautiful, charming and idiomatic. Her work seems to come out of the American tradition that Dvorak made a model for and predicted. It's not intensely modernist, and is pretty romantic.

But what's interesting to me is that the rediscovery of her oeuvre is speaking to our current moment, and there's no real way to re-situate the growth of her renown as a great composer in her time. The music she was writing, and the music of many composers that get reconsidered for 'the canon' were relatively neglected in their own times, so necessarily, their music is already out of fashion with our own time, even if the music was very part of their own moment, or sometimes not, but actually their music is perfectly in fashion with our time, by being of a different time but now. My circuitous thinking might seem stupid, but if you've ever read Jorge Luis Borges short story, "Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote", it's sort of a reverse of that. You couldn't enter the canon writing the music now, like perhaps, an Alma Deutscher; it would be pastiche, and a cute anachronism.

Unfortunately, in many cases, we can just lament what could have been, like Fanny Mendelssohn or Nanerl Mozart, but there are interesting and worthwhile projects of rehabilitation, like Hildegard Von Bingen or Clara Schumann. I think the 20th Century already provided a society that took great female composers, like Lili Boulanger, Grazyna Bacewicz or Sofia Gubaidulina, much more seriously.

Just some circuitous thoughts.

March 21, 2023, 1:19 PM · Mary Ellen wrote: "Look up what happened to Dylana Jensen’s career when she had the audacity to get pregnant."

I don't know if its the same event but if you are referring to her loss of the sponsor violin I think that was not due to pregnancy but because the invited her sponsor to her wedding.

March 21, 2023, 1:24 PM · On female representation I fear that we are just going through a phase of positivity - the wish to emphasize women in classical music is 'a thing' if you were. Time will tell if this is a real change or a fad.
March 21, 2023, 1:31 PM · I just recalled this story I read recently, about sexism and exploitation in the film-score industry. To your point, Elise, I often wonder if things look like they are changing specifically in order to stay the same.


March 21, 2023, 2:18 PM · Christian, yes on the side of the coin everyone can see, there's the hiring statistics, the awards and competitions, and the wages. And then, there's the other side. Thank you for reminding us of that.
March 21, 2023, 3:07 PM · I don't know about violin concertos, but Rebecca Clarke's compositions for viola are not well enough known.
Edited: March 21, 2023, 3:22 PM · The two concertos by Florence Price are getting some well-deserved attention. I'd also suggest the violin concertos by Ida Moberg, Grace Williams, and Guirne Creith from the first half of the 20th century. (Creith's concerto is her only surviving large-scale work; almost all her music has been lost.) From the 19th century, Amanda Maier's concerto is definitely worth more performances, even if only the first movement of it survives.

I'm not as familiar with the work of living composers, but Ellen Taaffe Zwilich wrote a concerto I like a lot.

March 21, 2023, 3:21 PM · Johnathan there is a nice viola-cello duo written by Clarke also.
March 21, 2023, 4:48 PM · The times, they are a-changin' - no doubt, but it is surely too early to claim that the classical music world has reached a state of no discrimination. Cotton says that: 'Men and women clearly have different interests and aspirations.' Within the world of music the interests and aspirations of men and women generally overlap, but the salient thing about women's aspirations in music is that there is a 'glass ceiling' that makes promotion to the highest positions more difficult for female candidates with all the required talents.

March 21, 2023, 6:40 PM · Men and women can have the same interests, but there are many examples in which they do not. There are, for example, differences in instrument preference based on gender.

One aspect that is essential to human life is child bearing and rearing. Most jobs do not allow for adequate time to be spent on this. Professional music is very much this way, as many jobs involve travel, etc. Women suffer on this account more than men, as they in the very least have to bring the child to term. They are turned down from positions, paid less, etc as they cannot devote as much time to the job.

Look at Hollywood. Effort is put into turning someone into a star. If they then take time off to have a child, that is revenue that is 'lost' for the star makers. So there is discrimination.

March 21, 2023, 8:58 PM · Mark wrote: "There are, for example, differences in instrument preference based on gender."

Can you expand - I mean are there studies to demonstrate these difference - and more important, are they truly based on gender and not the other myriad of possible factors?

March 21, 2023, 9:11 PM · Most woodwinds are VERY threatening to the masculinity
Edited: March 21, 2023, 10:10 PM · There have been studies of musical instrument preference. There are differences in the preferences for the different genders. Using thr term 'based' may have been too strong. It is not known what causes it. There is an association. It may have many aspects, just as gender does. Social, biological, etc.


And a more recent article from 2014 indicating that the gender stereotypes in instruments continue.


(The studies go back ti the 1970s and earlier)

Some students will consider some physical attributes when selecting an instrument. People with large hands may be more likely to select certain instruments than others.

Obviously some instruments are considered masculine or feminine based on the register of thr instrument.

Then there are the uses in society. Some instruments are used in military bands, and thus acquire a masculine attribute.

March 21, 2023, 10:58 PM · While some of that may be preference, music teachers may subconsciously play a role in it too -- steering students toward certain instruments in school ensembles, or possibly giving preference to students who "look the part" for a particular instrument.

Anyway, trends are not set in stone. Interestingly, even though I played in school bands and have played in orchestras for over 20 years, it took until 2021 for me to play in an ensemble with a male tuba player for the first time. Also, last year I played in a university orchestra where the gender ratios in the strings reversed the usual trends: the violinists and violists were mostly male, the cellists were mostly female, and the double bass section was all-female.

Edited: March 22, 2023, 5:01 AM · I was wondering if anyone can suggest another piece by a female composer that deserves to be among the 1000 we "must hear" before we die. No neither can I, unfortunately.

Thanks Andrew for the list of violin concertos. It's a shame that Amanda Maier's is incomplete because I enjoyed playing and recording one of her string quartets. How come I never heard of Guierne Creith or her VC? Well worth getting to know. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZRQj3zaUqU. I'm sure the librarians of the RAM have already explored the cobwebby corners of their attic for her "lost" manuscripts so I won't bother them again.

March 22, 2023, 3:59 AM · OK, not about female composers, but female conducting is certainly and very noticeably on the rise!
Edited: March 22, 2023, 4:50 AM · A book recommendation - 'Wrong Sex, Wrong Instrument' by Maggie Cotton: Apex Publishing Ltd, 2006-2016. Maggie Cotton was a percussionist in the CBSO and the book also tells the story of that orchestra from its days with Hugo Rignold to the Simon Rattle era. It is amusing and uncomplaining, but paints a clear picture of professional orchestra life in general, and gives an account of the female perspective, together with other challenges, such as being a working-class northerner in a world dominated by middle-class southerners, growing up in wartime, and losing her mother at an early age.
Edited: March 22, 2023, 6:36 AM · Steve Jones wrote, " I was wondering if anyone can suggest another piece by a female composer that deserves to be among the 1000 we 'must hear' before we die. No neither can I, unfortunately."

One of my friends has created a local recital series where one is asked to perform pieces that were written by members of under-represented groups. Erica is a pianist, and my daughter and I joined her in a performance of a trio movement by Fanny Hensel (Op. 11). At the outset, Erica showed us YouTube videos of three selections that might match our skills (where I am the limiting factor) and sensibilities. I was thrilled by how lovely the piece was and how fun it was to study and perform. On the same performance were pieces for harp and for saxophone-and-piano that were fine pieces and performed beautifully.

So if nobody can think of anything written by a woman that would make the top 1000, I would suggest that we challenge ourselves to think about why. I would suggest that our own "excuse" is mere ignorance. Yet, what happened before that prevented many talented women from joining that profession? Is that so hard to imagine? And of those who did, what prevented their compositions from becoming household literature? Fanny Hensel wrote hundreds of compositions (mostly art song and "songs for piano") and was her younger brother's most trusted advisor and critic throughout his career. (Her brother was Felix Mendelssohn.)

If it takes a "token" of inclusiveness on a program (or whole programs!) now and again to break that mold and inform today's audiences what they might have been missing along, not only in their listening and purchasing of music, but also in their support for the career ambitions of women within their own orbits, I'm in favor.

Edited: March 22, 2023, 7:33 AM · I'd suggest that the kind of music we consider truly great was all written between the eighteenth century and, well, fairly recently. During this epoch it was the unfortunate lot of womankind to be socially restricted such that few had the opportunity to practise musical composition with the single-mindedness it demands. The achievements of exceptional women such as Fanny Henselt and Clara Schumann have certainly been unfairly neglected but are now starting to be appreciated in their full stature.

However, from such a small sample it's unrealistic of us to expect that any of these women should have produced music of genius equal to that of the truly great male figures. For every great male composer there were maybe fifty or more whose works are better than negligible and thus deserving of an occasional hearing. At present we're tending to give the women preferential treatment, partly out a feeling of guilt that they were denied opportunities during their lifetimes. In the end, however, I think they'll find their proper place among the many.

Edited: March 22, 2023, 9:24 AM · It is indeed truly sad that this male vs female virus is everywhere.

Call me crazy, but when I go to a concert I analyze and listen to the music, the sound, the orchestra, the performance. I do NOT care about race, sex, religion, eye color, hair color, if your parents went to college or not, or whatever random variable you think is not being represented. It's just pathetic.

I'm male and I consider, particularly in classical music, age discrimination THE only real discrimination. Even more, I've been around the world of music schools and conservatoires for 10 years now and absolutely never ever saw any kind of discrimination against a musician because of their gender.

Talking about gender... I've been surrounded by WAY more females than males in the violin world, class mates studying violin easily 80% female, even teachers have been 90% females, I just had once one male violin teacher.

According to your sickening male vs female virus, I should have rioted and demanded the head of the music school and the head of the string instruments department that change whatever is going terribly wrong in the admission process so we meet that perfectly nazi 50% of gender, nothing more, nothing less. Also the truly horrifying experience of having almost 100% female violin teachers... I don't know how I survived such misandry.

No, since I am not sick in the head, I don't give a flying doughnut about what my teacher has in between the legs, and I don't consider WRONG that I had almost 100% female violin teachers, and that doesn't make me think violin pedagogues HATE men, and neither makes me want to CHANGE something so we have 50% male female teachers. I just wanted a friendly, competent teacher, which I had, and they all happened to be females. Wow, burn the city.

Also... the composers... Jesus, I bet my violin rosin, through history, there have been like x800 times more men that women that have been ignored and underrated. Perfectly talented composers whose work was completely tossed. There have been thousands and thousands of composers in the last 800-900 years, and only a very few have made it to the very top of the top list.

Instead of worrying so much about this senseless "look this variable is not represented", I would worry about something really terrifying that's coming, such as AI completely replacing composers. Now that's the real fight, don't call music something that has been "composed" by a computer. Defend human arts.

Edited: March 22, 2023, 10:40 PM · This must be my woke mind virus talking, or perhaps some kind of non-feline form of toxoplasmosis, and it's suggesting to me that there are compositions by women in the TOP 1000.

The (female) parasite is incensed at the terms of the conversation, finding it absurd, but it must, in it's utterly gynecological hysteria, be heard. I am but a poor, rational man, trying, in a cool fashion to mediate its sputtering fury. I calmly explain theorem x, and it insists on sacrificing all the first-born males in all the world's orchestras. It refuses to participate, but in my masculine high-mindedness, here is at least one piece that one would be an absolutely irrationally-feminine mind-parasite to ignore.

My quartet chose the Florence Price because we like playing the piece. I look forward to dispassionately exploring her works and the works of other women composers: Germaine Tailleferre, and others that have already been mentioned. So here's two bonuses to plant a seed for further exploration that your masculine open-mindedness will find irresistible!

March 22, 2023, 10:50 AM · Steve "I'd suggest that the kind of music we consider truly great was all written between the eighteenth century and, well, fairly recently."

Steve, you certainly like to make controversial statements ;)
Maybe in a violin website it is not soooo radical. But really. We would lose such things as the Biber sonatas. Saying nothing of earlier masters Monteverdi, Byrd, Palestrina, Josquin etc.

March 22, 2023, 10:59 AM · Paul "Call me crazy, but when I go to a concert I analyze and listen to the music, the sound, the orchestra, the performance. I do NOT care about race, sex, religion, eye color, hair color, if your parents went to college or not, or whatever random variable you think is not being represented...."
I share this perspective.

"I'm male and I consider, particularly in classical music, age discrimination THE only real discrimination. Even more, I've been around the world of music schools and conservatoires for 10 years now and absolutely never ever saw any kind of discrimination against a musician because of their gender."
Ok, this is where we begin to differ. Gender discrimination is very much alive, even in music. In many fields women are paid less than men. Etc.

Although you may not see the discrimination, it does not mean it does not exist. Most people were not aware of Harvey Weinstein's horrific acts, but that does not mean they do not exist.

Read the links and suggested reading above.

Edited: March 22, 2023, 11:59 AM · Mark - I constantly strive not to say anything controversial or stupid. And frequently fail.

Christian - thank you, at least a suggestion...

Edited: March 22, 2023, 11:44 AM ·
Dear Paul N,

Angry irony will not settle or close discussion of the issue, and I cannot see 50% mentioned as a solution in any of other people's contributions, nor do I understand the connection between that figure and Nazism. I hope you will moderate your arguments and republish, with more rationality and less vitriol.

Best wishes,


Edited: March 22, 2023, 12:29 PM · Just idly browsing this thread, and just for fun I started a gender count. Hmm. . Lot of us guys talking, huh?
March 22, 2023, 12:55 PM · Probably not mansplaining, though. No that couldn't be us. . .
Edited: March 22, 2023, 2:32 PM · Christian - I had another look at this very silly book that also finds no room for key chamber works by Dvorak (string quartet in Eb, piano quintet!), Elgar (piano quintet, string quartet, violin sonata), Janacek (all of his chamber works with wind), Smetana (second quartet), Stenhammar (quartets 3 and 4) etc etc. Florence Price's first quartet is very affecting but IMHO not in the same league.
March 22, 2023, 3:28 PM · That's fair, Steve. I'm still exploring her works. I guess, and I frequently obscure my own points, I kind of want to poke a hole in the idea of "the canon", which I saw as an embedded assumption in your original post.

I think that the benefit of engagement with women composers is kind of self-evident, and that rather than a top 1000, we can just like what we like, and things don't have to be important, and I guess it's all very post-modern, but I don't see the big point of making a case for the importance of some art that I love; it may not speak to another at all. I happen to think that Elgar is almost entirely a purveyor of schlocky melodrama (although when he's not trying to get taken so seriously, I find him pretty charming), but many absolutely love him. I've been told that actual humans listen to Liszt, and on purpose!

The canon kind of has to change, or else we wouldn't be listening to stodgy old Bach, and it took a relative conservative like Mendelssohn to advocate for him, rather than some progressive firebrand of the time. But that speaks to the dilemma of trying to listen to someone who wrote many decades ago, in a different historical and musical context.

March 22, 2023, 4:07 PM · Paul N says he doesn't care about the gender or race of the person who composed the music he's listening to. At face value, that's fine. But it's very hard to exclude bias from aesthetic choices. In large measure, we like what we were taught to like. I love certain types of paintings because my mother taught me how to see when I look at art, so I naturally cleave to her preferences. The general exclusion of women from the art of musical composition when that art was reaching its zenith is transmitted to us in the form of "time honored" preferences.

Including a Hensel trio or a Price quartet on a program is, first of all and most importantly, an intentional way to discover what we may have been missing. There are lesser-known male composers whose work is sadly underperformed, too. But including works by members of underrepresented groups is also a way to reject wrongs of the past and embrace a more equitable future.

And we have to be vigilant. The blowhards of the manosphere would like us to believe that women in the 18th century were better off.

March 22, 2023, 5:27 PM · In one of my best community orchestras, a chamber orchestra, last time I was playing in it I was the sole male in the first violins. There was likewise one male in the seconds and one in the viola section. However, the cello section had a 50/50 male/female mix last time I looked. The double bass section just consisted of one man - no surprises there. My other community orchestras, without exception, have a predominance of females in their string sections. All in all, this cannot be anything but good.

For age-related reasons I have retired completely from 70 years of orchestral playing, first as a cellist and in later years as a violinist. I regret missing the camaraderie, but I’m keeping in touch by going to concerts given by my former orchestras.

March 22, 2023, 8:02 PM · I am so glad and fortunate to be living in an age where there is no shortage of female violin superstars. My favorites today, in no particular order, are Hilary Hahn, Lisa Batiashvili, Liza Ferschtman, Arabella Steinbacher, Karen Gomyo, Midori, Dylana Jenson, Vilde Frang, Elissa Lee Koljonen, Julia Fischer, Anna Tifu, Alena Baeva, and Hana Chang.
March 23, 2023, 2:48 AM · Christian - at the risk of subverting my own thread I must call you out for besmirching a composer (male) whose music runs in my veins. My people will shortly be in touch with your people to make the arrangements. When I want "schlocky melodrama" I go to Mahler.
March 23, 2023, 4:50 AM · I do need to call out Paul N's comment that "there have been like x800 times more men that women that have been ignored and underrated".

Recent history makes it obvious that creative talent is not confined to one sex, whether in music or other creative arts, but rather present similarly in both sexes. So over the several hundred years for which we have records of composers and prominent performers you would expect there to be roughly equal numbers of men and women. That there are not strongly suggests there are more women than men that have been held back.

But it is true that only a small proportion of all composers are remembered by subsequent generations. History have judged some to be better, but fashion also plays a part. There will have been Kantors like Bach in many German churches in the early eighteenth century, and what they composed will look mundane beside Bach's great masterpieces - but even so Bach went out of fashion a hundred years later until Mendelssohn sparked a revival. And you have to remember that female musicians of the period wouldn't have had the opportunity to develop their musicianship and composition working in such posts which were restricted to men.

If you have ever heard any of Clara Schumann's compositions you will know her talent was comparable to her husband's. But she never achieved comparable reknown; she had less opportunity to write because of child-bearing and later care for her ill husband, and what she did write tended to be mostly chamber music and lieder in an age when composers achieved recognition through their symphonic output.

March 23, 2023, 6:09 AM · They were playing Ethel Smyth's concerto for violin, horn and orchestra (1927) on R3 a couple of days ago.
March 23, 2023, 6:18 AM · Full agreement with the points Jonathan makes.

Gordon - Ethel Smyth featured in a recent 'University Challenge' question. What's more, works by Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Lili Boulanger have been programmed in my city this season. Change happens, improvements happen.

Edited: March 23, 2023, 6:37 AM · But the history is complex.
Originally playing an instrument was a trade and not a good one. Women dodged a bullet in some ways. Being a composer wasn't a lot nicer. You basically had to do it while being an underpaid music teacher.
Just because only men did it, doesn't always mean it was a cushy number. Do women harbour ambitions to become coal-miners?
It has become, since the 19th century, cushy for some (read James Galway's autobiog on how they were treated at Sadler's Wells), so understandably women want, and deserve, a piece of the action (but market forces always have a time lag). But the tide is still turning, and music is again being treated as something you pick up on the sole of your shoe.
Or smellier...

I'm intrigued by those tiny coloured spotlights. They are presumably low temperature, being so close to that cloth, but what are they doing, painting weak coloured pools of light onto a stage no-one will be looking at?

March 23, 2023, 7:26 AM · Gordon, I would categorise music historically as a craft rather than a trade, but we think along similar lines. They were doing a job, and if they were lucky their skill was recompensed accordingly. As well as performers, there were lots who were expected to write music - like the church musicians writing or arranging music for each Sunday. Haydn was a household servant for most of his career.

A few individuals became well enough known to become independent artists. Handel seems to have done, though he remained dependent on his links with particular theatres. Mozart tried to be an independent musician and struggled financially. Beethoven may have been the first of those we now remember who was relatively independent throughout his career but of course he also needed patronage.

But returning to the thread topic, whether craft or trade it was largely closed to women, so they didn't get the opportunities to develop on the job. The main exception was female sopranos, and a number of those did become significant composers (Barbara Strozzi is a well known example). Things opened up a bit in the nineteenth century, so Clara Schumann (nee Wieck) made her name as a piano virtuoso and one can speculate whether she might have developed a bigger composing profile if she had continued that career rather than marrying.

Edited: March 23, 2023, 9:55 AM · Richard - I wonder how many viewers recognised (or correctly guessed) the storm music from The Wreckers? Not me for sure.
March 23, 2023, 9:55 AM · Can't help but notice that the women dropped out of this thread quite a while ago. . . Leaving the boys to work it out for themselves?
Edited: March 23, 2023, 10:06 AM · That reminds of the old joke among the blue-bloods that move between Manhattan and Appalachia:

A promising young female composer hails a cab, and then gets in. She asks the cabbie, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?", to which the cab driver replies, "Why, you go get a job as a coal miner!"

I believe their blood was blue due to some kind of heavy metal poisoning, which might explain the joke as well...

Steve, we've struck the mother-lode in terms of common ground! I believe Mahler was purported to have said that "A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.", to which I might have asked him to just have it contain a symphony instead. Tedious music you couldn't pay me to hear any more of. I'd take Elgar any day over Mahler.

Edited: March 23, 2023, 9:30 PM · Parker seems to be very concerned that women are not contributing to this discussion. I'm not sure why, so I'll do what scientists do when we're not sure: I'll guess.

(1) They're just tired of being expected to contribute to these kinds of conversations because they're asked to do that all the time as part of their professional lives (whether in music or not).
(2) Their comments are typically viewed more critically, so they feel like they have to be extra careful what they say, and that's draining after a while.
(3) If they're writing from direct personal experience or from the collective experiences of women within their own circles, then their evidence is dismissed as anecdotal and their conclusions as scientifically unsound.
(4) If they're writing in general (i.e., not from personal experience), then their comments are dismissed as biased -- because they're women.

March 23, 2023, 11:50 AM · I think you got it, Paul.
Edited: March 23, 2023, 12:43 PM · I agree with Paul and Mary Ellen and others. I will go so far as to say that some women may not be responding because of how untrue, outrageous, or ignorant they feel the OP’s comment is, and that to post would give some credibility to the position, which there isn’t.

Not to mention, simply the sexual harassment and assault that some have had to bear to advance their careers, or in fear they would end their careers if they said anything, should negate notions of full gender equity in the classical world. Also, what of the women who did dropped out of music because they’ve been subjected to such atrocities?

Gender bias is pretty rampant across many other areas of music making. While there have been exceptional women who have made it to the top, it’s fairly probable that most worked (much) harder than male counterparts.

March 23, 2023, 1:06 PM · Our orchestra played Ethel Smyth's concerto for violin and horn.
I read that if she wrote "weaker" music it must be because she was a woman, and when she wrote strong music she was just aping men. Not fair..
March 23, 2023, 1:53 PM · Jane - I guess the comment of mine that you find "untrue, outrageous or ignorant" is my opinion that there is "little or no discrimination" of female instrumentalists in classical music circles. It's quite likely I over-generalised from the situation that exists in the UK, in which case I apologise.
Edited: March 23, 2023, 6:12 PM · Steve...re. “The Wreckers” & Ethel Smyth: I did manage to answer the question! It defeated the students (let’s not embarrass the university by naming it), and I’m sure you are right that not many viewers got it.

In fact, the only music of Ethel Smyth that I know is the overture to “The Wreckers”, which represents England on the LP Music of the Four Countries (Alexander Gibson, Scottish National Orchestra). It’s a beautiful record, and has been a favourite of mine for decades. I remember recently reading a review of a production of the opera, but it’s a rarity, and its composer is more named than played.

Edited: March 23, 2023, 8:39 PM · Ethel Smyth's double concerto is one of the most interesting IMO, because it's for a pair of instruments that aren't typically seen together and can be challenging to pair. And there's another nautical-themed opera by Smyth whose overture I've heard performed and would recommend: The Boatswain's Mate.

As Adrian points out, female composers were often in a no-win situation with critics. Their music was either dismissed as feminine if it was lighter, or criticized for being too masculine if it was heavier. And this is after they'd gotten past the obstacles of finding opportunities to study with competent teachers and finding time to devote to composing amidst everything else society expected them to do. Despite these obstacles, there's a lot of music by women that would absolutely not look out of place programmed alongside anything in the standard repertoire, if you look for it. "Meriting a place in the standard repertoire" is a really slippery standard, because it's often self-fulfilling: pieces by less famous composers rarely get the repeat listening that is often required to make a piece a favorite.

I want to point out a few pieces that have gotten into my favorites in their respective genres, anyway. Amanda Maier's violin sonata is my favorite non-Brahms violin sonata. Rebecca Clarke's viola sonata is not only my favorite, but also the most performed viola sonata in recent years. Marianna Martines's symphony is one of the very few Galant/early-Classical symphonies that have really stuck in my head. Laura Valborg Aulin's F major quartet would likely go on a list of my top 10 favorite string quartets.

I'm also happy to list some other pieces I'd recommend listening to or playing, once I've had some time to compile one.

March 23, 2023, 10:10 PM · Paul, you win for "all of the above". You can add:
(5) Posting in threads like this one can lead to both public abuse and abusive private communications.

(While I have faith that Laurie will take action if the abuser can be identified, not everyone registers in a way that truly allows them to be identified, and it's easy to create throwaway email addresses anyway.)

Edited: March 24, 2023, 3:25 AM · There may be more to it (forum gender distribution).
It may be anthropological or biological/biochemical or sociological or psychological.
Why limit yourself to women in music, rather than women in society at large? (I watched a documentary on women in the film industry the other week. It was a mixture of Jane Fonda saying she was so nervous that she did all the nude scenes in Barbarella drunk, and others complaining of sexual assault by male actors. The Fonda anecdote was interesting, I thought, since we tend to assume actors - male and female - are extroverts, but the sexual assaults are a problem of society at large, and only looking at those in the film industry is not addressing the problem, nor is it saying something specific to the art of acting, although we know that the film industry is one of the biggest culprits, but even that needs special treatment, not just one or two specific complaints that fail to highlight the size of the problem. I think it was a channel 5 documentary - lightweight, in other words. Many films are about sex, which creates problems specific to the industry, apart from those of predatory producers and others - I, for example, wouldn't enjoy kissing any woman a director told me to kiss, so what is it like for a woman - that's what the documentary should have been about).

The following are just possibilities and are partly suggested by a friend who has an MA in philosophy from Cambridge.
As soon as a forum gets polemical, the more aggressive will dominate, and they tend to be men, presumably due to testosterone, or perhaps also nurture.
Even when a forum is about feminism and those men are, or think they are, genuinely feminist, they can still dominate the content and force out the women. Some will imagine they can do feminism better than women can, without realising the irony and self-contradiction (am I myself guilty?).
And there are different types of feminism, which muddies the water - I read a book on it by a woman a year or two ago and she ripped apart those feminists who believe that all sexual intercourse is rape, whether the woman thinks she wants it or not.
The aforementioned Cambridge friend observed these things on an intranet forum in our civil service department - the most vociferous female on the forum was an MTF. A woman once commented (her only contribution to the forum) "I like to read this forum, but I don't like what people write on it." Go figure.

Edited: March 24, 2023, 4:10 AM · Gordon - why limit yourself at all? Let's talk about everything!

Andrew - of course we all have different ideas about the "merit" of any given composition but the remarkable thing, I think, is how a generally accepted canon has emerged which is fairly impervious to new discoveries and rediscoveries from past ages. A great deal of neglected music would certainly not look out of place when programmed against works from the canon and a vast amount of it is now available in commercial recordings. In spite of this the canon remains the more or less the same and is reflected in the publication of books of recommendation. However silly the concept of "1001 recordings you must hear...", a poll of music lovers would probably show 90% agreement about the core 900 works.

Edited: March 24, 2023, 5:44 AM · But that could also be because our tastes don't develop in a vacuum. They're developed through what the people around us like, and through what they expose us to. That's the point Paul Deck made earlier. The canon is self-reinforcing just as a matter of how frequently it gets heard, and how little everything else gets heard.
Edited: March 24, 2023, 8:39 AM · Maybe my tastes became ossified at an early age. I recently went through a period of boredom with the "standard" repertoire and explored almost every "unsung" composer I could find but failed to identify any neglected masterpieces. I'm still more inclined to listen to works I'm unfamiliar with than old warhorses but in general I think posterity has made a good Darwinian choice of which composers to celebrate.
Edited: March 24, 2023, 12:53 PM · Steve, you're continuously reifying an acausal reading of history and culture. It's like a version of Darwinism that posits that evolution always makes organisms better, rather than that evolution is the process by which organisms survive in often contingent and unpredictable ways, and we can then see in retrospect that those organisms happened to be suited to survival in their narrow environmental context.

That framing makes your question ultimately not a question at all, and you're pretty much making an is/ought argument. That's why ultimately this isn't a real debate, and isn't particularly interesting.

I, who am without ideology, would like you to prove me wrong that x is worthless, even though I'm totally open-minded.

You're allowed to listen to 0 female composers, and that's fine. You don't need to be convinced. If you like where the canon is at, that's fine.

March 24, 2023, 1:54 PM · Women in composing may be like women in chess: No actual inferiority, but because there so far fewer women in the field, one must expect the top ranks to be populated by far more men, simple statistics, poisson distribution, and all that.
Still, we may well see a woman composer of the stature of the three Bs or Mozart. Alma Deutscher is only 18!
Edited: March 24, 2023, 7:04 PM · I worry that the prodigy effect is not helping. The youngest children are the most susceptible to their parents' biases.
Edited: March 25, 2023, 2:04 AM · Sorry Christian you lost me there. What interests me in this debate is that the existence and persistence of the canon constitutes objective evidence for a quality existing to varying degree in classical music that you may as well call "greatness". I believe our preferences aren't down to cultural conditioning but because certain composers, 95% of them male, really were the great poets of this strange, untranslatable language.

And by the way, I believe that Elgar and schlocky, melodramatic Mahler are up there with the greatest!

March 25, 2023, 2:02 AM · I find your viewpoint strange. Find me 'the canon' if you can; whatever 1000 page listicle you have was just written by some dude, and I'm some dude too, and obviously what I like matters and what others like doesn't, but I don't have quite the hubris to write a book about it.

The thing is, the actual canon consists of what gets played, so the objectively great stuff at the moment, by your standard, happens to include a lot of women composers, and you hold in your hand a dusty book that doesn't make a sound unless you choose to read it out loud - One of those things is music and the other isn't.

March 25, 2023, 2:11 AM · Isn't my viewpoint the conventional one, yours the radical one that there's no such thing as "great" art but just stuff some people happen to like?

Of course the existence and composition of the canon can't be determined in a moment but over decades or centuries.

Edited: March 25, 2023, 3:52 AM · If that's the conventional one, then it's still incoherent.

A canon is what people hear, and the reasons people hear what they hear are multifold, so to claim that there is a static canon is a misunderstanding of the reality of music programming. So if Vivaldi entered the canon somewhere, realistically, in the latter half of the 20th century, by virtue of his music being performed regularly by a variety of orchestras, then that's something that we can now take for granted as inevitable, but then, where was Vivaldi hiding for 300 years? If you claim that there is some objective validation, then objectively, Vivaldi was an unimportant composer and a footnote, merely serving as study material for Bach, if you are asking before about mid-20th century, but if you ask now, then objectively, Vivaldi is a great and important composer loved the world over whose music is undeniable.

So then which objective truth is the objective truth?

So yes, as you hint at, what is valued changes over time; certain composers come into favor and others fall out, so I hope you have now disabused yourself of your initial framing. Explore whatever music you want, and orchestras are going to continue programming a variety of voices, and certain composers will come into and out of fashion. A number of women composers are already played regularly all over the world, which I guess makes them part of our current canon.

It took years for Mozart to click for me, so if I heard Mozart for the first time, what would have been the point of me sharing my opinion that reflected almost no time spent with his work and no real engagement? Again, the terms of the argument are meaningless. We like what we like until we don't, and we don't like what we don't until we do, and there's no need to frame music written by women as a special case that someone needs to convince you about. You can put in the work to engage with them or you can decide not to, and the profit of whichever choice is profitable is all yours.

I'm happy to invest in exploring music that's new to me in whatever seemingly random way I decide what it is I like and then perhaps rationalize it to myself.

March 25, 2023, 4:38 AM · Christian, thanks for posting those links above. I really enjoyed listening!

Record companies (used to?) pay radio stations to play specific tunes over and over because repeated hearings of stuff-- stuff that maybe you wouldn't even really like normally-- will make you fonder of it. That phenomenon helps reinforce the status quo of "the canon" as we've all heard the standards a LOT.

Unlike some of the 80's tunes I grew up with, I do believe I'd still really enjoy a lot of the 'Classical canon' had I not been exposed to all the repetition. (But I do enjoy it even more because of the repetition.)

I've also heard quite a lot of music not in the canon that could have made it on its own merits (as I see it), but the historical circumstances didn't allow for it. You don't have to convince me that much of Bach and Beethoven's music is exceptional and at the very top, but there's also a tendency to exaggerate the very top and disconnect it from the spectrum of what leads up to it.

Since this is a website for violinists, I'll put it in violinists' terms. The big names are (usually!) really great, but those of us who listen to more than those names all have a fairly long list of other names who might've been there as well. (And still others who are not as uniformly at that level, but there is a lot to enjoy in their playing.) If it's about keeping the canon small enough to 'master' a subject, ok, but if it's more about the enjoyment of music, why restrict yourself only to the most famous? Who's famous changes all the time!

Edited: March 25, 2023, 5:20 AM · Christian, as so often the disagreement comes down to the meaning of words. Unfortunately I don't have a proper dictionary to hand but google gives:
canon: a collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine.
So in the context of music not just those works in everyday usage but something more "sacred", "genuine", those generally accepted as special. We could argue for months of which composers are or are not of the canon but I hope we'd agree on a core of works whose right to be considered canonical is unassailable.

And whereas I say "objective evidence" you use the phrase "objective truth". I'm afraid I take the conventional view that there is only one truth, neither objective nor subjective.

Edited: March 25, 2023, 8:12 AM · Steve wrote, "What interests me in this debate is that the existence and persistence of the canon constitutes objective evidence for a quality existing to varying degree in classical music that you may as well call 'greatness'."

I'm fine with all of that except for one word: objective.

Steve and Christian and Ann and Scott and the whole lot of us might agree on which works or composers deserve the label "canon," but we're all subject to bias, and many of those biases will be held in common. Bias held so much in common to the point where it's enshrined and celebrated is how societies end up with tyranny by the majority.

I don't see how the enjoyment of -- or preference for -- certain composers and works can ever be anything but subjective. On the other hand, if one feels that the Beethoven Violin Concerto is the greatest work of music ever written, then a detailed explanation of why you think so would potentially be interesting and suitable for discussion, rebuttal, and so forth. Violin students learn that it's the greatest because they've heard their teachers say that it's the last thing they would ever assign a student even though it's not anywhere near the most difficult from the standpoint of technique alone.

Edited: March 25, 2023, 11:30 AM ·

can be anything but subjective

I smell the ghost of Foucault. But suppose if I went along with that, let's not make it legally actionable when it comes to hiring. ; )

Edited: March 25, 2023, 12:34 PM · Jim, I don't think we can close the door on post-modernism even if we are already beyond it.

Scott, Youtube is a goldmine for me, but that Bacewicz Piano Quintet is particularly one of my favorite works. It seems like something I could send to someone that never really got into classical music, but that would immediately resonate.

Steve, you consulted the canon of the dictionary to define canon for you, but I'm not sure if, by now, I haven't been able to convince you that the terms of the argument are bunk, that I will, and I've run through my yearly word quota in this thread alone, and we're only in the 1st quarter.

Evidence and objectivity imply a set of facts, per the scientific method, which would not be appropriate for use in investigating a set values, like 'what music should be played?'. Claiming there is a platonic canon that you in particular have access to wants to have it both ways. On one hand, there exists a book with a list of things, and for that book to be true, the author of the book must be objectively correct, but the book can only describe the climate around which it was written, and the book is currently out of date, and it was written by someone with a particular ideology and set of values, so unless the book was written by an infallible god, then it's merely descriptive of what was popular in a time and place. To make it a prescription would be like taking a particular music theory as prescriptive, and so if your music theory book says 'no parallel 5ths', then I guess Debussy is objectively bad and a sucky composer, or maybe Debussy means that you need a new book to understand what he is doing.

It's hard to get into new music after our teens. I'm basically calling for a certain suspension of judgment and curiosity about possibilities we may have missed, so that we don't find ourselves only ever listening to the oldies.

If you try and point a cannon at the canon, you'll see that it's a moving target.

Edited: March 25, 2023, 12:56 PM · Now I guess I need to define what I mean by "objective". In my mind the canon of music consists of those works which are highly praised by knowledgeable critics, frequently programmed, performed and recorded over a significant period of time. By counting and comparing such occurrences one can objectively determine which are the most popular pieces and composers without asking anyone what they actually like. Trust "the market" to discover. Of course nobody has done such a formal study but you don't need to read much literature to be able to conclude there has been considerable consistency in the popular taste for the last century and more - music that "stands the test of time".

One might also claim objectivity for a well-designed and conducted questionnaire study asking people whether they prefer to open their boiled eggs at the big end or the small end. Subjective preference and value judgement can actually be examined objectively.

March 25, 2023, 1:32 PM · As a kid, I was surprised to hear from older musicians (born ca. 1910-1920), how things used to be seen differently. Tchaikovsky was more popular than Brahms and unaccompanied Bach was not as uniformly admired as it is today. People hadn't yet come to like Bruckner or even much Mahler (in the US at least.) I think a lot of the lighter Classical rep. (von Suppe, Lehar, even Liszt) is performed a lot less often today.

The change of the canon is slow, but it's there. As to letting the market or critics decide what it should be... Those two forces can't be ignored, but I certainly wouldn't surrender anything to them either!

March 26, 2023, 2:00 AM · This discussion has ranged far and wide in the 77 posts above me. But to the original point, I have no doubt in the music world as there is in the world at large there remains strong discrimination.

However, curiously when I was a double major in college, 50 years ago, my physics department had 1 women undergrad and no grad student's the whole time I was there, and no applicants for professorships. They said they could get no applicants. Contrarily in music, the orchestra was overwhelmingly female.

But how many female classical students went on successfully. For that matter, how did that compare with the male students. I have no idea. But, alll three string faculty were male. My theory teachers were male, my music history teachers male, my advisor male, etc. the 2 music college deans during my time were male as well.

Coincidence or something more?

March 26, 2023, 9:27 AM · Scott writes, "The change of the canon is slow, but it's there."

Yes, it grows, around a solid core, static as ever, you might say.
Excluding what belongs to it is like excluding the VW Beetle from classic cars. You could only do it by dictat. And that's been done. Shakespeare? Off with him.

March 26, 2023, 1:43 PM · Things also fall out of the canon. Weber's reputation, in particular, has dropped considerably over the last century. A hundred years ago he was generally considered a top-10 composer. Also: Charles Stanford's 3rd Symphony and Josef Rheinberger's piano concerto were once considered standard repertoire.
Edited: March 27, 2023, 1:19 AM · Yes, the canon does occasionally deselect old members as well as electing new ones. I have a morocco-bound mid-19th century edition of Messiah whose cover prominently displays the names of the indisputably great composers of the day - Handel, Haydn Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and...Spohr. By 1900 Spohr's day was done and Novello's covers included Bach and Brahms (also Purcell and Elgar but then of course this was the high water of British chauvinism).
March 27, 2023, 11:13 AM · Reminds me of a popular trick used in trade publications: sprinkle each chapter with the big names.
March 31, 2023, 8:38 PM · To my father, when I was growing up, the Five Great Concertos were the Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Paganini 1. His teacher, later also mine added a sixth, the Sibelius. The first time I heard any reasonably sized extract from the Bruch, I almost wondered why it wasn't in that number, with a slow movement like that. Nowadays, of course ... (It was actually the first that my father produced a first position version of, at the behest of Mr Dickin of Bosworth).
April 1, 2023, 2:58 AM · Don't forget, females have been represented in classical music ever since Peri's La Dafne, at least!
April 5, 2023, 8:10 AM · I am a viola maker. Most of my players are women, never made the count, but I am pretty sure of that.
April 5, 2023, 8:56 AM · You can be a Viola Maker in more than one sense of the word if Twelfth Night characters form part of your clientele.

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