Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Primitive Praxis

Recently the New York Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic, two of the most media-followed orchestras in the United States, released their programs for the 2011-2012 seasons. Both include the superstar performers Joshua Bell and Lang Lang. The NYP is also including the violinist Gil Shaham, the cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and the pianist Yuja Wang, and the pianist Evgeny Kissin. They both are including Emanuel Ax, and the LAP also has Hillary Hahn on its list. Great conductors will be showcased as well, such as Esa Pekka-Salonen, Christoph Eschenbach, Sir Simon Rattle, and Lorin Maazel. John Adams (the composer-in-residence of the LAP) will premiere his oratorio “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” Magnus Lindberg’s “Feria” will be performed by the NYP, as well as Thomas Adés’s “Polaris” and other modern works. Seems like everyone is included, right? Think again.
New York Philharmonic
Where are the women? Except for one woman composer in one of the LAP’s “Green Umbrella” concerts, (Zosha di Castri), all the featured modern composers are men. I’ve never considered myself a true feminist, but I certainly stand up for women’s rights. As mentioned and discussed in the Sequenza 21 article by Christian Carey and the NewMusicBox article by Alexandra Gardner, there are no women composers in either of these upcoming programs. “So what?” you might say. Well, a lot.

Sofia Gubaidulina
Even less women composers emerged from the 19th century. Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Louise Ferranc were some of the only women composers to gain respect after their lives in the 1800s. Clara Schumann wrote, “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?” Although she was an immensely respectable pianist, the times she lived in suppressed her composer’s talent. Of Farrenc, François-Joseph Fétis said, If the composer is unknown, the audience remains unreceptive, and the publishers, especially in France, close their ears anyway when someone offers them a halfway decent work...Such were the obstacles that Madame Farrenc met along the way and which caused her to despair.” Farrenc’s works are a great representation of the classical period and stand along the men of the century’s compositions. Fanny Mendelssohn published some of her works under her brother’s (Felix) name. These words are explained by the times, but why are women today not represented well?

Louise Farrenc 
Sure, some people could say that the neglect of women composers is sexist, but I don’t think that’s the reason. Our culture for the most part, and especially the arts community, is accepting of many different kinds of people and wouldn’t purposefully discriminate against a minority. From what I can observe, the problem seems to stem from habits. I looked up the ages of the composers having premieres in the NYP and LAP this season. Seventy-five percent of them grew up from the 50s-early 70s. This age seems to be the median for most composers commissioned from major orchestras. People of this age have a respectable amount of works, experience, and a large amount of musical knowledge. While women weren’t banned from power while growing up in these decades, they certainly weren’t encouraged by their mothers (especially in traditional neighborhoods) to aspire for independent and powerful jobs such as composers. Men on the other hand, were. Therefore, while not illegal, women were less likely to pursue a career in composition than men. That leaves the extreme majority of composers from this era male. So it’s not the orchestras’ fault, but, in a way, time’s.
Young women composers (Tansy Davies, Emily Hall, and Zoe Keating) are now surfacing, however. I predict in a decade or two, a woman composer will be difficult not to find on a program. I certainly hope so, however. If not, though, I hope us girls who aspire for careers in music other than performance can obtain motivation from our outnumbered state.

(Despite this, the orchestras' programs look great. NYP programLAP program.)


  1. A male of our human species, I take exception to the notion that either chromosonal couplings make for "rights" as regards music as a pursuit or product. That men have been composers is of course without debate, and that woman have and can continue to compose is also without debate. What I would debate is that gender should be considered in making repertoire decisions. It begins to sound like an affirmative action for females sort of argument, that will become a theme and variations, as LGBT all stake their claim for "inclusion" alongside all races, religions and cultural backgrounds. I would like to think that the piece itself -- Ding an sich -- were to make for programming decisions, but some of the avant garde has died aborning, for the decision was not what was "best" but what seemed to be "in." Given that "in" should be tempered by gender and all the other possible lobbies, I think there not programming time enough to accomodate all. Which brings me back simply to "good music" from and by musical criteria alone. Were that this possible....

  2. I definitely see your point, and I can vouch for it as well. In modern music, trends such as Cage's chance-pieces in the late 60s/early 70s made pieces synonymous with this technique automatically more used (in the avant garde world at least) than pieces that maybe were avant garde but non-electronic (but genius). So I understand what you mean by women being picked just because they are "in" instead of because of the quality of their pieces. I just hope that women aren't overlooked for larger programs because the "custom" is to pick men from similar ages.