The manliness of classical music

Teaching at Shimer has reawakened my interest in the fine arts — partly self-defensively, as I may be called upon to teach their introductory course on the fine arts — and classical music in particular. Recently, continuing my haphazard attempt to “bone up,” I looked through the classical music selection on Netflix, and it struck me how stuck classical music is in the Great Man approach to the arts. The marketting approach for the middlebrow audience is fairly consistent: the Great Conductor (Bernstein, Karajan, Berlioz, etc.) realizes the Great Conductor’s Great Symphonic Works in one of the truly Great Performances of the 20th Century. Things are not much better for the “truly” high-brow appreciator of classical music, however, as there is still a definite macho element in appreciating the less accessible works of modern classical music.

There are obviously great female performers in the classical music world, though my impression is that women are still vastly underrepresented in the headlining roles of conductor or solo recital pianist. Yet the obstacles to a woman conductor are seemingly insuperable. Hostility to contemporary work narrows the window for a young composer of any gender, and in classical music in particular, the likelihood of discovering a previously neglected woman who can now get her due is vanishingly small — a woman could certainly write or paint in the privacy of her own home, but to be a classical composer, one needs vastly greater institutional support. Perhaps there are forgotten piano compositions laying around in an attic somewhere, but the odds of finding a “lost” symphony by a woman composer from any of the Heroic Eras of classical music — someone who was composing alongside Mahler et al., for example, in the same way Mary Cassatt was painting alongside the Impressionists — are seemingly at or near zero.

What do you think, readers?

18 thoughts on “The manliness of classical music

  1. but to be a classical composer, one needs vastly greater institutional support

    Is it true? Is it true? Isn’t classical composition, in a way, a form of writing? To get your works performed is another matter.

    My (almost completely uninformed) sense of the odds of finding a lost symphony from the late 19th/early 20th century are about what yours are, though.

  2. Clara Schumann is a 19th century woman composer of some distinction. I think classical composers are in some sense aliens to musical outsiders, much more inscrutable than novelists, for example, and this combines with the sexist past to make The Great Man narrative almost unavoidable for producers of mainstream popular accounts. I think Haeneke’s La Pianiste is a good anecdote but a bit too pornographic to.replace something like Amadeus in Hum1

  3. Ben, That’s true, which is why I left open the possibility of piano compositions lying around, but writing a symphony requires vastly greater musical knowledge and training. Women might have been virtuoso pianists, but how many really had the knowledge of all the string and wind instruments, etc. You need institutional support before you sit down to write as well as for performance.

  4. there is something about being in command of an arsenal of bodies and sounds, isn’t there? especially to be a conductor… to be the figure (with the little stick) who everyone looks to for their next move.

    one composer who isn’t really in the classical world, but overlaps with it, is meredith monk. she’s someone who uses her own body to make sounds (her breath, especially), but also works collaboratively with others in a symphonic way. she might offer an interesting lens to look through, to do a feminist reading (with students) of the classical tradition.

  5. I’m very glad Kyle posted his list. I had considered posting a much shorter list of the contemporary woman composers that I had come to hear by way of reading about them in Kyle’s column in the Village Voice.

  6. There’s definitely a macho element in classical music appreciation/fandom:it is more “manly” to like “difficult” works (whether that gets parsed as Wagner or Webern or Stockhausen), and a little femme to like merely “pleasing” works (Mozart, for example, or Holst or anything too accessible). It breaks down along the lines of what C Battersby’s has identified as the gendered sublime/beautiful distinction in Kant.

    There is a good sized body of work in feminist musicology on the “great female composer” problem. Check out the journal Women & Music, or work in the 90s by people like McClary, Abbate, Evans, and Brett’s work on queer musicology.

  7. (Brief vita, for purposes of this discussion= I am a 35 year-old published female composer, choral director, doctorate of musical arts, and wife+mother of 3 young children.)

    re: conducting and leadership–I observe that as a young woman, leading a group of mixed age/gender individuals has high requirements for me. Compared to my male peers, to be well-received as a leader of the group, 1) I must be technically and intellectually immaculate, 2) I must be assertive and lead without being perceived as being “bitchy” or “bossy” 3) I must systematically groom my peers, ensemble, and audience to receive a female-led ensemble both now and in the future, and to see femininity as a quality alongside leadership. (My personal campaign is through my attire: I conduct wearing skirts and dresses, never slacks.)

    re: the ‘oddity’ of being a female composer–There is certainly a difference in how it feels to have one’s compositions performed on a “Women Composers” concert as opposed to a “Concert of Contemporary American Composers.” To have my work sought out as an oddity because of my gender undermines any independent evaluation of my work as compare to the rest of the (male-composed) repertoire. It feels a bit like pity.

    re: institutional support– While building a career in classical music as a young woman w/ kids, I sincerely hope there is an on-ramp to academia as I take 5 years out to raise some kids. Robert Shaw’s glorious staff arranger Alice Parker raised 4 children as a widow while composing prolifically as she washed dishes, etc., is a concrete hero to me. What a perfect example of how to excel as a Great Woman, an icon in the field.

  8. To dovetail a bit on my area of my dissertation–folkmusic

    The “Great Man” take on musical performance really capitizes, well, on capitalism= we produce a product which is marketed, sold, and bought. Regarless of currency, the result is fame and notoriety. Western men are the historical participants in this system, yes? And classical music is more formally known as Western classical music.

    By contrast, folk music is music “of the people,” with limitied, if any, fame attributed to it its composition or performance (Bob Dylan, etc, excluded for the moment). Who sings folk music? Everyday people singing to children, to themselves while they drive steaks into railroad ties, to their friends on the front porch. I must believe that this is not the “Great Man” music, but rather the “Anonymous Man” music also greatly includes women. I can certainly attest that during this particular season of kid-raising, the majority of music-making occurs while sitting on the floor with toddlers. This is the music many women make for many career-building years: anonymous.

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