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The Berlin Philharmonic program for the upcoming concert season is outdated – to an extent that you wouldn’t think possible in 2018.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.


Nannerl Mozart, No Longer Forgotten

by Liane Curtis - July 15th, 2014
The Other Mozart
Written by Sylvia Milo
Sylvia Milo as Nannerl Mozart
Directed by Isaac Byrne
Review of performance July 8, 2014 at HERE Arts Center in New York City

The Other Mozart tells an archetypical story—of musical brilliance, ambition, dedication and talent—thwarted by oppressive and insurmountable societal factors. This vividly dramatized portrayal of Maria Anna (nicknamed Nannerl) Mozart, is a story of ambition thwarted and talent crushed.  Through Nannerl’s eyes we get a glimpse of what might have been—but wasn’t.  That Nannerl, like her younger brother Wolfgang, was a precocious talent is clear. But she faced limitations from earliest childhood, specifically because she was a girl. That the story is true—as is stated in the theatrical prologue—makes it even more powerful. 

Author and actress Sylvia Milo is the creative force behind the 75-minute play, which has had several prior productions in Europe as well as the US and garnered rave reviews, earning a ‘strikingly beautiful’ from The New York Times. A musician and composer herself, the Polish-born Milo researched primary sources for years and drew heavily upon the Mozart family’s own words, set down in voluminous correspondence that documented their closeness and need for connection to each other, even when separated by travel.

To call this a “one-woman show” seems woefully inadequate and inaccurate, as Milo brings to life with such multi-dimensional physicality an array of characters: the stern Leopold; the dour, guttural mother; the bubbling Wolfgang and his chortling wife, Constanze; even a mention of Haydn. While the HERE Arts Center is an intimate venue, the intensity that Milo creates would carry to a larger setting as well; her presence gives power and momentum to this sweeping drama.

Sylvia Milo as Nannerl Mozart in the 18-foot-wide dress that serves as the play's central metaphor.

Sylvia Milo as Nannerl Mozart in the 18-foot-wide dress that serves as the play’s central metaphor.

The background soundscape for the play has been created by composers Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen. They draw on a varied palette of percussive sounds—clinking, chiming, clanging—suggesting of clockwork mechanisms, a metaphor for social structures constructed with rigidity and continuing with inflexible inevitability, moving inexorably, immune to human emotions and desires.

That Nannerl wrote music, we know. None of it survives, but she plays a piece, described as her own, on a tiny music box, supportive by additional sounds. It is delicate and melancholy; Chen and Davis evoke a wistfulness, and Nannerl can then bask in the praise, the effusive praise recorded in a letter she receives from her brother: “My dear sister! I am in awe that you can compose so well, in a word, the song you wrote is beautiful.”

The 18-foot wide dress (designed by Magdalena Dabrowska from the National Theater of Poland) is the central prop, and metaphor, of the play. It serves, ultimately, as a restraint. But at first it is the canvas for her life, a back-drop, and multipurpose stage-prop. As young Nannerl, she does not yet wear it. Dressed in modest undergarments, she capers around it, pulls out objects from under and within its elaborate folds, and, jumps over and hides behind the corset frame. It serves as both a landscape and an interior.

At first young Nannerl enjoyed and benefitted from her ancillary status with Wolfgang. Her father taught them both, and they performed together on the harpsichord or piano.  For years, the family toured widely (Paris, London, Vienna, Munich), showing off the talents of both children. But once Nannerl was too old to be a child prodigy, this could not continue. With the family focused on climbing in social status, it was determined that she should be groomed for marriage.

In order to serve as an appropriate spouse, Nannerl was withdrawn from the public stage. Her distress at this loss of the exhilarating life a performer was visceral—months of retching and vomiting—as she was confronted with the end of her touring career. The curtailing of her horizons was a grim, even brutal development.  At home in provincial Salzburg, the sounds of ratcheting gears accompany the gesture of pulling the embroidery needle, in mundane repetitiveness; at the same time Wolfgang is being applauded in the great European capitals and having his operas commissioned and debuted.

The intersection of gender and class is sensitively revealed as a factor silencing Nannerl.  She exuberantly recalls composer Marianne Martines (1744–1812), who had autonomy and success: composing, publishing and performing, and who thus was an inspiration for Nannerl.  But this was possible for Martines only because of her inherited noble status and financial stability.  And Nannerl’s mother viewed Martines as a failure because she never married—her social status was only marginal.  In the background, we hear a piano performance of her work mutating into her grand symphony, showing that Martines had some traction even in the sphere of large-scale orchestral works.

Nannerl might have attained a success like Marianne Martines. But as a woman it is unimaginable that she would have ever reached the same level of success as Mozart. The Other Mozart is a poignant reminder that, for many centuries, and even millennia, one precondition to the status of genius was being male—and we have lost uncounted works of genius by that arbitrary fact.

And for Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, the corollary realization is that we continue to be denied works by all of Mozart’s “sisters” if we ignore the output of the women who, despite the many obstacles, DID manage to write music and leave a record of their creative legacy. The Other Mozart will help to generate interest in the music of the female contemporaries of Mozart, and, in fact, a complementary pairing of a concert with the play (featuring composers such as Martines, Maria Antonia Walpurgis, Maddelena Sirmen, Maria Theresa Agnesi, Maria Theresa von Paradies, Francesca Le Brun, etc.) would be an exciting artistic offering.

The Other Mozart has now finished its New York City run, and will play in various European locations this summer.

Sylvia Milo introduces the play in several videos, here.


A Round-Up of Recent Headlines on the Fat-Shaming Incident

by sarah - June 10th, 2014

The current role, and expectations, of women in music have been in the headlines as of late—all surrounding reception of a recent production Der Rosenkavalier and the size (not the talent) of the singer playing Octavian.  The critical reviews of acclaimed mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught have been big news, and raised many red flags, as they focused almost entirely on the physical appearance of Erraught and not her vocal performance.

The critiques of the critiques have also brought to the fore conversations about expectations for women’s bodies in performance, as well as just how different the expectations for men and women are, more often than not.

Here’s a short list of some of the articles framing the story:

Anastasia Tsioulcas at NPR’s Deceptive Cadence as the story broke and with some additional reflections.

Anne Midgette at The Washington Post

Alex Ross at The New Yorker

Barney Sherman at Iowa Public Radio (which also address the wider facing women inequities throughout the arts)

And, it just so happens, the performance Der Rosenkavalier (from Glyndebourne) with Erraught is available streaming online until June 15.

These links to YouTube recordings are provided on Erraught’s own website: