Scholar looks at lack of female composers in major symphony main season lineups
Comedian John Oliver rhetorically asks why American culture still permits norms like Columbus Day, Ayn Rand and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition in “How Is This Still A Thing,” a recurring segment on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.” On Thursday, Women’s Studies Research Center scholar Liane Curtis borrowed the segment’s title to question another part of American culture: why major symphony orchestras almost never play music composed by women, especially music from the 19th century.
Curtis pointed out that of the top 21 major symphony orchestras in the United States by budget, 14 aren’t playing any pieces by women at all this season, and five are only playing one female-composed piece each. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, for instance, is playing one piece by a woman out of the 87 it has lined up for its main season shows this year. According to the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra — one of the two major orchestras playing four female-composed pieces — women composers only accounted for 1.8 percent of the total pieces performed in the 2014 to 2015 concert season.
When many symphony orchestras are asked about this disparity, they will point to female composers in their pops concerts or special programming, according to Curtis. However, female composers are often passed up in an orchestra’s mainstream subscription programming in favor of classical male composers like Bach or Beethoven.
To explain why orchestras still give male composers so much representation, Curtis considered the history of orchestral music in the United States. In the 1800s, cities began to establish formalized symphony orchestras that were entirely male, mainly performing famous European male composers. Only in the 1950s did women begin to enter orchestras as performers, in part thanks to musicians’ unions fighting for gender-blind audition processes.
In the 1800s, even male American composers had trouble getting their work played, since the American orchestral scene venerated Europe. Some European women had their works performed in Europe during the 1800s, but most were forgotten after their deaths.
In the 1970s, music fans began discovering and talking about female classical composers from the 1800s. However, since orchestral decision-makers and audiences mostly clung to classic European pieces — and due to sexism and patriarchy, Curtis argued — these rediscovered pieces mostly went unplayed. As a result, even though orchestras have almost equal gender representation in their performers today, their repertoires remain widely male.
It is difficult to determine exactly how many female composers wrote during the 1800s, and because mostly male composers were being commissioned, female composers wrote solely out of love for music, and their works were not performed as frequently. “It will never be as large as what the men had, because the men had jobs,” Curtis said. “The men were being paid, and the women were outside that whole economic transaction. But women were still, nonetheless, doing it.”
Among their numbers were Fanny Mendelssohn, Emilie Mayer, Augusta Holmes and Amy Beach. Curtis is currently campaigning for the Boston Symphony Orchestra to play Beach’s works next year, in honor of both her 150th birthday and the symphony she premiered through the BSO in 1896. “She made her mark in Boston,” Curtis said.
However, many continue to argue that gender bias does not exist in symphony orchestras, citing pops and children’s shows. Curtis said that these shows don’t carry the same professional cachet as a main-season performance, adding that the argument doesn’t address the deficit in main-season shows in the first place. “They’re not composers the same way classical composers are; it’s sort of pay-for-hire,” she explained.
The argument that quality alone determines what is chosen for a concert series also holds no water, Curtis emphasized. “We all know that there’s no formula for determining what is quality. … So often in the classical music world, familiarity takes the place of quality. It’s what they know, it’s what they learned in music school.”
Mozart’s Symphony No. 1 is performed frequently, usually as a contrast to his later work, when it’s often considered forgettable on its own merits, she pointed out. “Is there anything really that distinctive about Mozart’s Symphony No. 1, which he wrote at the age of eight with help from his father?” Curtis quipped. “But people program it because we’re interested in Mozart.”
The notion that someone can objectively determine quality assumes that they are “living in some patriarchy-free universe somewhere,” Curtis added.
“We all know that gender bias exists, and even those of us who work every day against it can never be free of it,” she said, sharing an anecdote about seeing conductor Susanna Malkki walk on stage and thinking, “Who’s the soloist?”
Yet the labels “women composers” and “men composers” still have a place in this discussion, Curtis concluded. “We need these labels to point out the presence of men without women and the lack of women and the lack of inclusion,” she said. “We both need special events that celebrate women, and we also need more women in the mainstream.” She added that orchestras are making some progress, especially smaller orchestras playing women composers, but that there is still more progress to be made.