Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Sounds and Sweet Airs

I take my title from a new book by cultural historian Anna Beer, the full title of which is: "Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music." Not so forgotten, it would seem, as I see a similar article hailing women composers (and conductors, of course) about once a month in the Guardian. In fact, I think I have devoted at least one previous post to the Terrible Neglect of Women Composers. So, in these ever-recurring demands for more recognition of women composers, are there any new arguments? Or are the old ones getting any better? Not according to this review in the Guardian. Let's just take a stroll through it.

A favorite technique of these sorts of haranguing articles is the Unsupported Assertion:
The institutions of classical music tend to be heavily invested in a carefully protected performance tradition that hands on the precious flame of white, male genius from generation to generation and has little interest, for all kinds of reasons, in disrupting the canon.
The one collective group that not only can be, but must be, assaulted constantly is that of white males. One literary critic as I recall, recently suggested that publishers publish only women writers for a year. Why don't we do the same in music? For one year, all performances worldwide must be only of music by women composers. That would be interesting. No Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, well, you get the idea. Actually, the process of updating, disrupting, adding to, blurring the lines of, etc, the "canon" is going on constantly.

We are informed that women composers:
...encountered obstacles, on the other hand, that their male composers didn’t, whether the vagaries of childbearing (Clara Schumann ploughed on as a composer, and especially a performer, through eight pregnancies) or straightforward full-on sexism (Maconchy was told in the 1930s by publisher Leonard Boosey that “he couldn’t take anything except little songs from a woman”). 
Oh yes, no male composer ever encountered obstacles like women composers did. Not child-bearing obstacles, of course, but every biography I have ever read has detailed the enormous obstacles that most composers encounter. Name one composer who didn't encounter disinterested publishers!

Regarding Fanny Mendelssohn, the reviewer writes:
After her death her work was subject to insidiously gendered critiques: it was said to lack “a commanding individual idea” and the “feeling which originates in the depth of the soul”.
One simply has to ask, would any critique in any terms of any woman composer NOT be regarded as "insidiously gendered"?

My favorite section is the ending which, after noting the very successful career of Elizabeth Maconchy (who, by the way, was honored by being appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) goes on as follows:
Sound and Music, which supports composers in Britain, has a strong commitment to gender equality. It is also keen to increase opportunities for black and minority ethnic composers, who are woefully invisible in the UK’s classical musical culture. Some balk at the notion that such “extra-musical” factors might be invoked when programming a concert – as if commercial concerns, personal relationships and a host of unremarked prejudices did not come into play in any act of curatorship. This book helps show why a narrative that insists that the good stuff will naturally and always rise to the surface is simplistic. It is important for us all, composers, musicians, audiences, men, women, society at large, that we seek out the best and most exciting creative voices, from wherever they may come.
The idea that gender equality must be assured by putting a bureaucratic thumb on the scale is no better than putting a thumb on the scale for commercial concerns, personal relationships or other unremarked prejudices. Two or three or several wrongs do not make a right. The characterizing of the idea that good stuff will out as a simplistic narrative is just another, and particularly stupid, unsupported assumption. All those people listed, composers, musicians, audiences, men and women, are people with aesthetic judgment. And their considered judgment as to what is worth composing, performing and listening to IS in fact the "canon". And it was never anything else. If a large number of people grow more and more interested in enjoying the music of Elizabeth Maconchy (and I certainly think they should), then she will enter more thoroughly into the canon. That's how it works. All this stuff about gender equality is just so much special pleading. I take particular delight in the last sentence as the writer seems to have not noticed how the statement of this worthy principle completely negates everything she has previously said! Yes, we should seek out the best and most exciting creative voices from wherever they may come--even if from white males!

Our envoi, obviously, should be something by Elizabeth Maconchy. This is her Nocturne for orchestra, composed in 1950/51:


David said...

Bryan, this topic can quickly become a PC minefield. So it is with my best "walking on egg shells" steps that I venture these observations:

1.In the world of classical music you don't have to be a female composer to be neglected. Just ask Hummel, Ries, Kraus, Spohr, Stamitz, Telemann, Gliere, Glazunov, Magnard.... the list goes on.

2. But for the efforts of Mendelssohn and Goethe, even JS Bach might now be just a footnote (or a "newly discovered composer on the Naxos label).

3. These issues are not confined to the world of classical music. A recent editorial in Macleans, a Canadian news magazine looked at the situation faced by the demographic of unmarried young men:

The concluding paragraph of the article shed some light into the corners of these seemingly intractable issues:

Certainly any systemic issues preventing girls from studying math-intensive subjects ought to be eliminated, but obsessive focus on male-to-female ratios in computing and engineering overlooks a broader gender imbalance afflicting the entirety of Canadian campuses. Women now make up 58 per cent of all university graduates. They constitute a significant majority in nearly every degree program other than math, computers and engineering. Across Canada, 75 per cent of all education and health degrees are earned by women. Two-thirds of all degrees in the social and behavioural sciences and law are earned by women. At the University of Waterloo—centre of so much concern over gender ratios—72 per cent of degrees granted by its optometry school are to women. With the importance of higher education universally recognized as being crucial to success in a modern, global economy, where’s the concern over the disappearance of young men on campus?

Short answer: no one cares. They’re just young men.

4. A Modest Proposal: Rather than ban the music of all dead white European males, perhaps there could be a compromise agreement to allocate some of the concert time devoted to the works of one G. Mahler to unfairly neglected music by composers of all identities.

Sorry for the ramble. I clearly wanted to present a target as big as the "broad side of a barn".

Jeph said...

I largely agree with you Bryan, the inclusion of women composers in the canon can't just happen instantly by fiat. And I think, as you say, the "canon" is slowly and naturally changing as more women choose to enter the field and write more music. I think the most blatantly sexist barriers to acceptance of music written by women have come down, notwithstanding some cranks here and there in the institutions, performing and educational. These people, and their attitudes will die and others will take their place, and a new equilibrium will emerge.

Still the dearth of women composers overall has been so striking and perplexing, that it SEEMS like some injustice must be afoot. And for many years there was, the great conservatories certainly harbored a bunch of sexist jerks who wouldn't give women a chance to be as well-educated. But I think it's possibly true also that composition is a field, that men just "gravitate" to more than women, for reasons which we will never understand or prove.

Also, let's not forget, the total number of composers (of art music), period, is a VERY SMALL number. Granted, I'm not in academia, but of the dozens and dozens of musicians I know, there are only a couple of serious composers. I fervently wish there were more. Composition at that level is very hard and time-consuming, it's not a challenge people take up unless they can't help themselves. Let's make sure there are no barriers to anyone's participation in music, and let it be what it is.

Bryan Townsend said...

As always, Jeph, you add a thoughtful perspective to my discussion. I was in my philosophical mode in writing this post, which means that I criticize in detail the assumptions and arguments of the subject of the post, without presenting my own position on the issue. This is a technique one learns early on in philosophy after having your ass handed to you a few times by the professor. But while it is very useful, it doesn't answer too many questions.

Your comment brings out exactly the kinds of questions that do need to be answered. Mind you, there are a number of possible answers that are simply taboo in our contemporary culture.

I have previously posted on this issue:

You might want to have a look at the post and the comments there.

Let me leave you with this question: why are there a large number of great women poets (such as Anna Akhmatova, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Sappho, etc.) but almost no great women composers?

David said...

Bryan, it is interesting to approach the plight of the neglected composer with a look at the Numbers According to Wikipedia. The Wikipedia list of all female classical composers is 847 pages long. The list of male classical composers is 2109 pages long. This produces a female to male ratio of 29:71 (assuming there are equal numbers of names on each page of the lists). That is actually a higher female ratio than I would have expected.

Another observation is that with such a large absolute number of composers (both female and male) the odds of any one of them being "canon-ized" is comparable to the odds of a good university basketball player making it in the NBA. In the NBA, talent is the key criteria. In the classical music world, aesthetic quality of the highest order is required in the creations of composers of both genders.

BTW, I am listening to a recording of Germaine Tailleferre's sonatas for violin and piano at the moment and the composer's gender is the farthest thing from my mind.

Bryan Townsend said...

@David: Sorry, for some reason your first comment did not appear earlier this morning, which is why I didn't respond. Oh yes, you can make quite a good argument for setting quotas to address what seem to be mass injustices perpetrated against young men. But that is precisely the approach that I reject. No quotas!! As an American judge once said, "if you want to stop discriminating on the basis of race, then stop discriminating on the basis of race."

I am equally surprised that the list of female composers is that long.

David said...

Bryan, I have discovered an error in my Wiki numbers note. It turns out that the reference to "pages" is a reference to Wikipedia entries, so there are not 897 pages listing female composers but rather entries or "pages" for 897 female composers. Likewise for the male composer listings. Still a 29:71 ratio. Just not quite so impressive a total number. Still I think it would be a challenge for even the most enthusiastic classical music enthusiast to name even 10% of that number.

I note that the reviewer in The Guardian made reference to the Encyclopedia of Women Composers which apparently has over 5000 entries. Obviously, aspiring Wikipedia contributors have some way to go!

Jeph said...

I did take a stroll through that post. Nice healthy discussion there. To your question about great female poets, women have been literate in our culture for a long time, and language is a tool everybody uses in their everyday lives. I'd venture that the ubiquity of language, and availability of books creates a much larger pool of writers who could ascend to 'great' status. Hence, a larger representation of women.

In contrast, just think about the degree of specialization and training required to produce an adequate composer, much less a great one. It's at least two removes from literature. Music is a science, the candidate must understand the language of music, acoustics, orchestration, be an adequate performer on some instrument (some would quibble with that), AND finally, rarest of all, have an interest in composition. There's no reason women can't excel in all of those disciplines, but the pool of people with that list of qualifications is vanishingly small compared to the pool literature is drawing from. Couple that with pressure of societal expectation hundreds of years ago, lack of access to education (in the old days, it was ok to train women in performance, but not so much in theory, which a composer really needs), and viola! No women composers in the eras when our great canon was written.

As to the very touchy brain issue, men's vs women's. It makes sense that researchers have found differences between the sexes' brains. Men and women are the same organism, however, we produce very different cocktails of hormones which shape how we grow and develop. If there are predispositions, I'd say they are primarily hormonal in nature, and need not determine a motivated person's fate. And I think focusing on hormones could diffuse some of the tension around this subject.

What's more problematic is how the data is used to draw conclusions. We should not use it to explain why Fanny Mendelssohn's music is just ear-splittingly awful, or why Clara Schumann's is tepid and banal. Those two have been thrust into the limelight because they are "great-composer adjacent", they are not great composers. But it's not fair to draw broad conclusions about women's aptitude from those examples.

I think it really has been a perfect storm of societal expectations and lack of access to very specialized training, perhaps with an overlay of gender predisposition. Let's look at the fact the women are dominant in pop music today. That's a field that has been historically much easier to get into, not so much training required, and women totally rule the roost. And also, the fact is, over time, as more women seek out deep musical training, more women composers will emerge, and some of them will be great, it's only a matter of time.

Bryan Townsend said...

@David: so, 897 entries for women composers and 2109 entries for male composers? Can you find out, for example, the numbers for male and female poets? Painters? Just out of curiosity.

@Jeph: that was a substantial attempt to answer the question! I do wonder, though, if there is not a flaw in your argument: it is not so much that literature has a different level of technical challenge or a wider base, it is that compared to men, women have done relatively well in that form. We can also name a number of great women novelists: George Eliot, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, J. K. Rowling, Charlotte Brontë, Mary Shelley, etc, etc.

Yes, I can name probably ten women composers, but while the women poets and novelists are easily comparable in quality to their male counterparts, I'm not sure the same is true of the composers. And I really have no idea why! Jane Austen is as fine a novelist as there has ever been in the English language. But is there a woman composer who is in any way comparable to the great symphonic composers?

One is tempted to say that this is merely due to social barriers. There is absolutely no barrier to setting pen to paper, though there may be in finding a publisher. But in order to get your music played, you have to have the assistance of a whole lot of music professionals: conductors, managers, orchestral musicians and so on. Or an aristocratic patron. Are there any numbers available on how many women were able to win posts as capellmeisters or music directors?

But still, if you are pianist writing for piano, then there really are no social barriers except for getting a date in a recital space. For much of music history there were large numbers of women musicians working in the field, especially singers. But that still leaves us with the problem of the lack of women composers of real stature.

Recent attempts to fill the gap, as it were, have resulted in a very large number of women composers being active now. But we will have to wait a hundred years to see if there are as many of them who become widely known as male composers. That is certainly not the case for women composers in the 20th century, though again, you might be able to argue some kind of social barriers, though less than in previous centuries.

It's a puzzle...

Jeph said...

I don't doubt my argument has flaws :)
Your point about the pianist is a good one, and one I thought of making, but that post was getting long....
So yes, why, out of the scads of female pianists of great technical accomplishment (in the 19th cent), did no great female composer for the piano emerge? Well, before I had any theory training, I could play pretty complicated music, with no idea of how it's put together. Lots of great performers have zero interest in composition. It's a self-selecting profession, with very little (monetary)reward or practical application. The question is, why would anyone want to be a composer? Answer: they can't help themselves.

I read a comment somewhere that compared composition to model airplane building, an overwhelmingly male-oriented hobby, maybe that dynamic would explain a smaller gender disparity, but not the huge one we are looking at in the canon. No, I think it really has to do with lack of resources and access to education. Our greatest composers were treated like hothouse flowers, given good jobs, tons of education, a nurturing environment and encouraged to develop their craft. Much harder for a woman to create that scenario in the period when our canon was written.

Women have done well in literature because they were given access to acquire those skills. It's a lack of training, and I think it explains the striking absence of women in all highly technical, scientific fields throughout history. Hildegard of Bingen's music has lasted for a thousand years, and still sounds amazing. She was a powerful, influential person in her time who had all she needed to excel. The art form was still young at that time, women's roles in society were somewhat more malleable then. Barbara Strozzi, 17th century composer, was successful and popular in her own time, but her music was not preserved. There are so many dynamics at play here, that there is no one answer.
If we could fast-forward 200 years and look back at whose music is standing the test of time, then we could answer this question.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh god, I was really into building model airplanes when I was young!!

Jeph, you might be absolutely correct and, as you say, we just have to wait a couple of hundred years to confirm. But I have a tiny quibble. I wonder about this: "Our greatest composers were treated like hothouse flowers, given good jobs, tons of education, a nurturing environment and encouraged to develop their craft. Much harder for a woman to create that scenario in the period when our canon was written." Some of this might be absolutely correct: who knows, perhaps Leopold coddled Wolfgang and was mean to Nunnerl, never letting her compose. But I suspect that he was a controlling bastard with both of them. Beethoven's father was an abusive drunk. Haydn was as lucky as any, but at age sixteen or so he was out on the street, broke and having to work as a busker. Schubert led anything but a coddled existence. I honestly can hardly bring to mind a single composer of whom it can be said that he was treated like a hothouse flower--at least in the formative stages. Bach had the advantage of coming from a family with connections everywhere, but even he didn't get much of an education. He had to buckle down and work as a church organist from age seventeen.

Bryan Townsend said...

That should have been "Nannerl" --autocorrect strikes again.

Jeph said...

Well, life was certainly no picnic a few hundred years ago. I guess hot-house flower is overstating it, although Mendelssohn had it pretty cushy. But they were all gainfully employed as musicians, were encouraged in their art, with receptive audiences, opportunities to perform, and in more-or-less stable situations which afforded them the free time to put in the hours it takes to do the great stuff.

All that being said, if you could control for bias (which you can't), maybe there would be more men than women composing at every level. At this stage there's just no way to tell. Thanks for the lively exchange.

Bryan Townsend said...

Right! I had forgotten about Mendelssohn; he did have a pretty ideal situation.

Marc Puckett said...

I had missed this conversation-- fascinating questions and possibilities. Thanks!