Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

A View from Germany: Classical Music is so Sexist

by Liane Curtis - July 30th, 2018

Inge Kloepfer‘s striking article “So sexistisch ist die Klassik  — Classical Music is So Sexist” appeared on June 13, 2018 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.  We wanted English-speaking readers to be able to read this important journalism, so we asked Elizabeth Osman to translate it for us, and then I polished her translation.  Thank you to Inge Kloepfer for permission.   (Liane Curtis)

(this image appeared in the E-paper version of the article)


“If enough castrati were available, women would not even have roles as singers: in the classical music establishment, the obstinate patterns of perceptions maintain that feminine can be merely the muse, while genius is only masculine.”


The Berlin Philharmonic program for the upcoming concert season is outdated – to an extent that you wouldn’t think possible in 2018. Because the next season will be predominantly enacted by men. Women are almost only allowed on the big stage of the Berlin Philharmonic as singers. Because the music scene no longer has Castrati for the high voices, and not everything can be done with Countertenors, the strictly conservative program writers cannot ignore Sopranos.

But that is not all: not once does a female conductor stand at the podium of the [Berlin] Philharmonic [in this season].  Also, new music composed by women is almost never played. Of all things, for the Berlin Philharmonic, which makes such a big fuss of their role in youth development, one would expect otherwise, especially since they have had Andrea Zietzschmann as the (female) artistic director for the past eight months.

This top operation of German classics is no exception. The Elbphilharmonie (Hamburg) is only a bit more modern and forward looking. We, the audience who are inclined to the classics, are still predominantly entertained by men in the large concert halls. And we can hardly stand it.  “There is a need for progress, especially in the area of female conductors and composers” admitted Director Zietzschmann. But it does not appear that anything  is happening with them.  At least she promises that “in the season after next, female soloists will play a larger role.” Numerically, women remain accessory parts to this day in the top classical music scene, [and even that role is] not guaranteed to them. This discrimination is systematic – it is part of a deeply rooted and rarely acknowledged set of beliefs and practices.

It has already been a year and a half since the survey by the German Cultural Council. The result of the analysis of the past twenty years showed one thing above all for the world of classical music: it has a sexism problem. And it cannot get it under control.  Olaf Zimmermann, President of the Cultural Council, says “patriarchal structures have become deeply entrenched in the pattern of artistic work.” The male genius cult had never been challenged. And it will not be even today. Men are still the geniuses, women still the muses. The artistic leaders have been reassuring the public for years that a lot has already been done, that progress has been made. Statistically, that is false.  The classical world had made more progress, more than a hundred years ago. For example, in the 1908-09 season in Vienna, almost 40 percent of the official soloists or chamber musicians were women. It was after that the women disappeared from the main stages.

The directors regard the women question as obsolete, at least for soloists, and claim that equality prevails here. But once again, the numbers show this is also not true: one only needs to count the concert programs. And female conductors are not good enough (it is claimed) for the big stages. “Unfortunately, the number of female conductors is much less than the number of male conductors, and so the selection is limited,” said Zietzschmann.

This is not plausible: for 25 years, more women have studied singing and instrumental music than men. For 15 years, 40 percent of the conductors and 30 percent of the composer classes have been female. Assuming a normal distribution of talent, the degree programs should produce in percentage terms just as many excellent, mediocre, and bad female musicians as male musicians. But on the biggest stages this is not the case – we see only a very few female superstars like Martha Argerich, Barbara Hannigan, Hélène Grimaud, or Yuja Wang. Natural distribution laws apparently do not apply here. Why?

The American neuro-scientist, Vivienne Ming, has been researching this very phenomenon [the prejudice that is discussed in the previous paragraph] for years, though not in the field of fine arts, but in rather in economics. Not without reason does she elevate the issue to the level of human cognition; after all, she has determined that the male or female first name of a start-up founder determines the chances of receiving financing. Our brain, she explains, is lazy when it has to make a decision. When an investor has mostly encountered male engineers, then his brain will resort to this usual assessment of business model and will tend to judge the men’s models positively. The women simply lose the game due to these bad statistics. In other words, people – men and women alike — are prejudiced, and they are most often not aware of it.

A whole novel about this cognitive phenomenon was written by American bestselling author Siri Hustvedt, called The Blazing World. It deals with an artistically talented but unsuccessful gallery owner’s wife, who decides (after the death of her husband) to restart her career as an artist with the help of three men. Behind their masks, the perception of her art changes 180 degrees. There is, Hustvedt said, a perceptual reality: art is assessed very differently depending on whether a male or female name stands by it. And she knows that countless studies have long since proven that. This perceptual reality is not different in music – it is just that it simply not believed.

The consequences of this bias are significant: If women do not get to the big stage at the same rate proportion as men due to obvious bias, then they will never win the game against the statistics. A perpetual show of this distorted perception is the important Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, which is worth 250,000 Euros. In its 45-year history, it has only been given to men – with only one exception: in 2008, Anne-Sophie Mutter. The foundation has brought four women to the Board of Trustees, including Director Zietzschmann and her colleague from the Zurich Tonhalle, Ilona Schmiel. So far (to date), they could not or would not produce any change. At the beginning of May, another man was rewarded and thus removed from the sphere of semi-visibility. The prize went to Beat Furrer, who once sat on the Board of Trustees himself. Women do not have such a situation. “A timidity exists, about being seen to bend to the pressure of quota,” says the Foundation. Every time there are serious, remarkable females competing for the prize. But unfortunately, no women are perceived as having the same level of  accomplishment as  the top level of men. There are other curious arguments, for example, that women who have children would have problems maintaining the quality of their work. Mostly, composers are the target here. “The Board of Trustees retains the absolute right to award the prize according to artistic criteria.”

Maybe they should advertise a highly paid composer competition, in which the submissions are anonymous. Like the curtain for auditions that was introduced in America to eliminate the problem of skin color. The trick revealed something amazing — it brought more women into the orchestra and made the body of sound of the orchestra even better. Not because the women played better, but because fundamental pool of talent was increased greatly.

One cannot measure quality the way that distance is, in meters, says the Viennese music historian, Melanie Unseld. A Beethoven Symphony does not have a value of 80 and one by Mozart 79 or 81. Does a Beat Furrer compose better than the grand Sofia Gubaidulina? Unseld has always addressed these issues of women in music and how they are perceived. “There are mechanisms supporting the belief that the question of quality is gender neutral,” she says. Because it is based on an aesthetic criteria that has been developed for centuries,  in (thought-)structures in which men call all the shots.

“What pieces does a female piano student get to learn?” one can ask.  Only on rare occasions does she learn [music by] Fanny Hensel. And then what will she then learn at the conservatory?

Gender obscures the perception of quality in such a way that more than a few people have adopted the assumption that women cannot conduct. That is the way it has been for decades. What deficits have not been attributed to all female musicians? For example, intonation difficulties and rhythmic insecurity – a death sentence in serious music; or shortcoming in contrapuntal technique, which is a basic prerequisite for composing. In the meantime, the professional niveau is out of reach: women could not conduct male music like that of Bruckner or Stravinsky; or they exude too much sexual energy at the podium – the musicians who had their concentration impaired would, of course, play poorly. It goes without any explanation: women at the podium? “Just not my cup of tea,” said acclaimed Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons a few months ago. Outrage followed, and the poor guy, certainly not a misogynist, backpedaled meekly, then let himself be carried to a very true statement: he just comes from another time. Right – Jansons comes from the world of yesterday – at least in the issue of women.

And he can’t get out of there [the world of the past]. Just as we can’t get out of there, when it comes to the fine arts. Jansons’ brain plays him the same statistical trick with him as ours does, or as anyone’s brain does if we let it: what he sees and has seen are mostly men on the important stages, and therefore it is very clear to him that they can and do play better.  [What he experiences becomes his reality, and what he knows is simply better than what he does not know]

Can that ever change?

Only if the men decide to follow suit with Tonhallen boss Ilona Schmiel: although this coming season offers their audience no female conductor, but certainly comparatively strong female soloists. “The head conductors must, on their part, insist on finding outstanding female conductors and engaging them.” After all, it is also crucial to “who will be discovered and pushed by whom.” Alexander Steinbeis, director of the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin for more than a decade, which shares the Scharoun building with the Berlin Philharmonic, will feature three female conductors in addition to several female soloists on the big stage. “I would like to have more,” he says, especially those who have an excellent reputation and a lot of experience on the big stages. But how are there ever going to be more, if so few famous orchestras are willing to trust them for an evening?” Here is the circular reasoning of the problem [“the cat bites its tail,” is the German expression], that he understands.

Meanwhile, the Minister of State for Culture, Monika Grütters, has initiated another mentoring program for young women in art and culture. The Siemens Foundation now wants to look after women more, she says, and Jansons is now all about young female conductors. The crux of it is: aid support programs nurture the old patterns of perception that women still need help, because they are not good enough. It does not lie with the quality of the female musicians, but that the men in the classical music industry set still the tone. In 2018, women will belong on the conductor’s stand, and they will be rewarded. Their music deserves to be played.

Not promotion, but recognition is the solution – it could be that easy.


Featured Guest Blogger: Report from German Conference on Women and Gender Studies

by Liane Curtis - May 23rd, 2016

Anja-BunzelI was recently in touch with musicologist Anja Bunzel, because I am intrigued by her research project on Johanne Kinkel. Bunzel will write another post for us about Kinkel, but first we asked her to share with us about the annual conference of the Working Group for Women’s and Gender Studies of the Society for Music Research, Germany.   She also points out that a conference on a related topic is taking place this weekend (“Stepping out of the shadows’. Women at the side of learned men of science and art”). Originally from Germany, Bunzel has a Master’s degree from the Freie Universität, Berlin, and she has presented her research in countries including the UK, Greece, Italy, Austria,  Turkey (see photo), and, also in Ireland, where she is currently based.   Bunzel is on Academia.edu,  and also has her own blog.   Last year, Bunzel was featured on the classical music website, Finale Note Magazine

Thoughts on Current Research Strands in Musicology

A Ph.D. candidate at Maynooth University, Ireland, I was thrilled to have been invited to present parts of my research at the annual conference of the Fachgruppe Frauen- und Genderstudien in der Gesellschaft für Musikforschung (Working Group for Women’s and Gender Studies of the Society for Music Research, Germany), which was organised by Cornelia Bartsch (University of Basel), Katharina Hottmann (University of Hamburg), and Corinna Herr (HfMT Cologne), and hosted by the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz, Cologne, on 1–3 April 2016. The conference programme featured inspiring presentations by a refreshing mixture of both senior and junior scholars from within the fields of musicology, history, gender, literary, media, and cultural studies. The subjects included music as cultural practice, gender representations in different art forms, and recent methodological challenges.

After a warm welcome, the conference launched into its first section titled ‘Between Daily Routine and Work: Artistic Practice in Social Networks.’ In her paper on the reception of Bach as reflected in Lea Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s letters, Evelyn Buyken (HfMT Cologne/ University of Cologne) discussed gendered music pedagogy, masculine role models within the musical education of children, and the questionable division of nineteenth-century performance practices between everyday life on the one hand, and special occasions on the other. The idea of everyday cultural practice was taken up by Birgit Kiupel (Independent Scholar, Hamburg), who provided some entertaining and impressive insight into the social network of the Hamburg singer and concert organiser Margaretha Susanne Kayser (1690–1774). Following on the notion of social interaction and creative exchange, Henrike Rost (HfM Detmold/ University of Paderborn) offered a glimpse at the nineteenth-century fashion of Stammbücher, an exciting phenomenon which was practised widely by both men and women during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and whose potential as research material is being underrated today. Based on the Stammbücher of Emily (1827–1889) and Serena (1830–1902) Moscheles, Rost demonstrated how these poetry books, which include personal wishes and sometimes small personalised compositions, musical sketches, or drawings, bear witness to a fascinating and vibrant culture networking and sociability during the nineteenth century throughout the German-speaking regions and beyond. Veronika Keller’s paper on her empirical research of US-American female students at German conservatories between 1843 and 1918 accentuated the notion of cross-national cultural exchange.

Another broad area discussed at the conference was the aspect of gender representation in the arts. Stephanie Schroedter (FU Berlin) touched on representations of femininity in nineteenth-century French music theatre and dance; Karin Martensen (HfM Detmold/ University of Paderborn) elaborated on satirical interpretations and constructions of gender in caricatures around 1900. Examining representations of musical everyday life, Katharina Hottmann (University of Hamburg) looked at the construction of boys’ experiences through the lens of gendered musical upbringing and education in the novels by Agnes Sapper (1852–1929) and Else Ury (1877–1943). Nadine Scharfetter (University of Graz), Theresa Steinacker (University of Basel), and Federica Marsico (University of Pavia) offered a diverse music-analytical account of gender constructions in selected works by Richard Wagner (1813–1883), Leoš Janáček (1854–1928), and Sylvano Bussotti (1931–).

Scheduled within the section ‘Analysis: Representations of Family,’ I advocated in my own paper a reception history ‘ex nihilo’ by using as a starting point the reception history of Johanna Kinkel’s (1810–1858) early Lieder compositions and her non-reviewed Heine ballad Don Ramiro. Drawing on Charlotte Salomon’s (1917–1943) series of paintings Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?), Elisabeth Reda (University of Hamburg) provided some fruitful insight into this stirring work of art, and she also raised attention to current concepts of remembrance and recollection studies within the humanities. She thereby linked the aspect of researching the past with scholarly challenges of the presence.

In the spirit of contemporary challenges to both the research and wider public communities, Svenja Reiner and Corinna Herr (both HfMT Cologne) elaborated on representations of musical practice within the context of twenty-first-century media and technology, more particularly the World Wide Web and its manifold opportunities and challenges. Carla Schrievers (University of Oldenburg) offered an interesting account of her ethnographical research of twenty-first-century patterns of fandom – her research is based on the fan community around Prince, a field which certainly could not be more topical. All three papers encouraged a lively discussion of such current notions as mediated self-representation and identity, gender bending vs voice bending, hidden commercialisation, materiality of the self, and the music business at the edge of morality, researched under the consideration of social structures of power.

The conference concluded with two papers focusing on questions of methodology. Elisabeth Treydte (HfMT Hamburg) discussed vividly and comprehensively the research potential of discourse analysis geared to gender constructions in musical journals and newspaper articles. Beatrix Borchard (HfMT Hamburg) reflected on her own biographical work on Pauline Viardot-Garcia (1821–1910) and on research difficulties she faced as a result of gaps in the documentation of sketches and improvised works. She reiterated the importance of a gender-sensitive musical historiography through the lens of cultural practice rather than musical masterworks in isolation, and suggested different modes of historiography, e.g. montage, (un-)annotated images, encyclopaedia entries, and multi-media representations.

All conference papers ignited a fruitful discussion of such broader concepts as music and biography, representations, (re-), and (de-)constructions, and (re-)considerations of musical histories within their own socio-political and cultural contexts, ranging from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries. The discussion was enriched by stimulating comments and questions from the chairs and floor. For example, Sabine Meine’s (HfM Detmold/ University of Paderborn) constructive input on salon culture and the conceptual use of the term ‘salon,’ Susanne Rode-Breymann’s (HMTMH Hanover) realistic insight into funding and administration issues for gender studies within the field of musicology, and Rebecca Grotjahn’s (HfM Detmold/ University of Paderborn) original commentary on a potential music historiography based on crowds rather than individuals offered much food for thought, also in relation to potential future events.

On my flight home to Maynooth, I found my tired but happy self reflecting on an eventful weekend, and I can certainly say that it is a real pleasure to be part of such a vivid, friendly, and innovative research community, which, thanks to such international online projects as Sophie: A Digital Library of Works by German-Speaking Women or Musik und Gender im Internet is no longer limited to national research infrastructures. In this spirit, it shall be interesting to watch out for further developments of such exciting endeavours as the establishment of a cross-disciplinary and cross-university MA course ‘Gender Studies’ as is currently planned by GeStiK (Gender Studies in Cologne), various international projects and cross-disciplinary internet platforms, a selection of which will be introduced at the international conference Lexicography, Gender, and Music Historiography (HfMT Hamburg, 26–29 May 2016), and such other promising upcoming conferences as ‘Aus dem Schatten treten’: Frauen gelehrter Männer aus Wissenschaft und Kunst (Berlin, 27 May 2016), and The Visualisation of the Salon (St. Petersburg, 7–9 September 2016).