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The Berlin Philharmonic program for the upcoming concert season is outdated – to an extent that you wouldn’t think possible in 2018.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


Monday Link Roundup: March 27, 2017

by sarah - March 27th, 2017

News to start your week!

This year, 2017, is an important celebration year for Amy Beach and Teresa Carreño.  A conference is being organized to celebrate their lives and works, and the conference organizers are seeking calls for papers and for performances.  Scholarly works, as well as lecture-recitals, that discuss the role of American (North, Central, and South) women in music are welcomed – but the deadline is April 1!  Learn more about the coming conference and call for papers here.

The Atlantic Journal-Constitution  introduces readers to Orchestra Noir – a classically trained ensemble comprised entirely of black performers, based in Atlanta, Georgia.  The ensemble, founded and led by Jason Ikeem Rodgers, strives to bring classical music to diverse audiences, and to highlight the important diversity in the history of classical music.

Justin Davidson of Vulture looks at how the concerto has evolved over time, looking at four contemporary examples.  Notably, he discusses Sofia Gubaidulina’s Triple Concerto, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Lera Auerbach NYx, premiered by the New York Philharmonic.  Read on here.

Musicologist David Skinner writes on www.classical-music.com about the way that King Henry VIII’s last wife, Katherine Parr, used music in the King’s propaganda wars.  A fascinating piece about the combining of Parr’s words with Tallis’ music.  Read on here.

What did we miss?  What are you reading?  Drop us a line and let us know!

Monday Link Round Up: March 6, 2017

by sarah - March 6th, 2017

News to start your week!

The Guardian has reviews of two new CDs of works by women.  The first are works for piano and orchestra, including the Amy Beach Concerto, Dorothy Howell’s D Minor Concerto, and Cécile Chaminade’s Konzertstück. Read the review here.  There is also a new recording by pianist Diane Ambache featuring the chamber works of Grażyna Bacewicz.  Learn more here.

The Awl’s Fran Hoepfner writes about how reading a Brahms biography only made her obsessed with the life and work of Clara Schumann.  It’s a wonderful perspective of a music enthusiast falling in love with the music – and the tenacity – of women composers working against societal norms.  It’s also a great introduction to those only familiar with Bach, Beethoven, and the Boys to the obstacles that women in music faced.

Great news from the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera – they have extended the contract of Music Director Kayoko Dan to May 2022.  We look forward to more great works, and inclusive programming, in the seasons to come!  The Chattanoogan has the story.  Kayoko-Dan-photo-by-Brad Cansler

Planning ahead, BBC Radio 3 will feature a concert by women composers in their “Lunchtime Concert” series.  Included will be works by Gubaidulina, Laura Snowden, a new work by Joo Yeon Sir, and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Easter Sonata, which until recently was wrongfully attributed to her brother Felix.  Find out how to listen in and learn more here.

What did we miss?  What are you reading?  Leave a comment and link and let us know!

Contemporary Symphonies

by sarah - August 28th, 2015

The current issue of The New Yorker includes a column by Alex Ross in which he explores the ways in which the symphony has transformed in new music.   As one would expect, it covered the most familiar names with only a few surprises (including Gloria Coates who, to date, has written 15 symphonies).

Ross saved his more complete list for his blog since, as Ross noted, the column wasn’t intended to be a bibliography.  The more extended list includes some great reminders of women who have composed in the genre including:

Florence Price

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Grace Williams

Sofia Gubaidulina

What great inspiration not only for weekend listening, but for future programming!  Our 2015 Performance Grant applications are now live – this is the perfect opportunity for  professional, community, or youth ensembles to acquire funding to rent music or hire the additional musicians necessary while expanding their repertoire by performing works by women composers.  Have a listen to Zwilich’s Pulitzer Prize winning Symphony No. 1 and get inspired to begin an application, or pass on news of the opportunity to you favorite ensemble.


by sarah - March 12th, 2015

We missed talking about an inspired concert that took place on March 8 – International Women’s Day.  Though you can find many concerts listed on the International Women’s Day webpage, it is surprising to see how many classical concerts are being held in honor of women, but don’t actually include any women composers.  (London Arte Chamber Orchestra – I’m looking at you.)


The idea for frauenkomponiert was first born 2013 and came to fruition this past Sunday in Basel, Switzerland.  The video on their crowdfunding page explains quite a lot of the inspiration an work that was done to make the concert happen.  The excellent programming and collaboration surrounding this concert is a perfect example of what an International Women’s Day event can be!

Their goals were to:

give a voice to women composers and recognition to their work(s)
spread our enthusiasm for these courageous women and their splendid music
contribute to the variety of concert programming and thereby enrich the music world

And I’m quite sure that the organizers can feel as if they succeeded.  The concert included Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3, Gubaidulina’s Impromptu for Flue, Violin and Strings, Hensel’s “Hero und Leander”: Dramatic Scene for a Singer with Orchestral Accompaniment, and Smyth’s Serenade in D.  

I do hope that this is the first of many such events, as there are many more works waiting to be performed!