Gender Discrimination in the Field of Classical Music

By Abigail A. ’23

For the small host of people who pay attention to news in the world of classical music, it came as a breath of fresh air when, several months ago, the San Francisco Opera named Eun Sun Kim as their next musical director. Why is this significant? Eun Sun Kim is the first woman to hold the title of “Music Director” at a major opera house. All over the world of music, women are slowly making their way to the front of the music scene. 

                    Photograph of Ms. Kim inside the SF War Memorial Opera House

In general, music doesn’t feel like a male-dominated field. Singing and the arts in general are often associated with femininity, and the fact that there is an abundance of sopranos and altos (higher parts usually sung by women) while most directors scramble to find men to sing tenor, baritone, and bass, the lower voice parts, appears to speak for itself. Even into college, there is normally an equal proportion of men and women music majors. However, whether these musicians get recognition or are promoted to high-ranking jobs is another matter. 

Composers

Anyone who has had any exposure to music (and most people who haven’t) have heard of famous classical composers. Composers such as Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Mozart, and Beethoven and their tunes are famous to almost every ear. On the other hand, composers such as Hildegard von Bingen, recognized as one of the first church composers in European history, Chiara Cozzolani, whose music was considered as the best in all of Italy in her time, and famous pianist Clara Schumann? Not as much.

The area of music where the divide between genders is the most extreme is the field of composers. At the renowned Metropolitan Opera in New York, it took until 2018 to commission projects from women. Before the appointment of these women (Jeanine Tesori and Missy Mazzoli), the Met had only performed two operas by women in 1903 and 2016, neither written specifically for the opera house. A study of the 21 largest orchestras in the 2014-15 music season showed that women wrote just 1.8 percent of the music programmed. 

This trend started due to sexist standards reaching back to early modern Europe. Although music as a hobby was encouraged, especially when it came to voice and piano, pursuing a career in music and composition was seen as “unladylike” in much of Europe for centuries. Because of this, many compositions were either published under the names of male family members (such as in the case of Felix Mendelossohn’s sister Fanny Hensel), or abandoned in total. As women never got the chance to be considered “the greats,” this trend has continued up until today.

Instrumental Music

From people claiming that the usual positions used when playing an instrument were “unladylike” (for a while, female cellists often were told to sit alongside their instrument in order to avoid placing the instrument in between their legs), to the fact that most professional orchestras prevented women from joining until the 1920s, sexism has long affected the careers of female classical instrumentalists. 

As mentioned above, orchestras and symphonies have long restricted the presence of women among their ranks. The first woman to hold a tenured position in a major American orchestra, harpist Edna Phillips, was not awarded her position until 1930, while the Berlin Philharmonic did not hire their first woman to a tenured position until 1982.

There is also the idea of certain instruments being gendered. Even in school bands, most flutists are women, while brass players tend to be men. In a study conducted in 2014, about 95 percent of harpists in major U.S. orchestras were women, compared to only 3 percent of trumpet players and trombonists. 

Next Steps

Luckily, many efforts are being taken in the modern day to combat this issue. Choirs and symphony halls across the country are now holding concerts featuring solely women composers, and the works of previously unknown composers (i.e. Clara Schumann and Fanny Hensel) are finally being brought to the limelight. For instrumentalists, many symphonies have adopted the “blind audition” method. An example of this is in the pit orchestra at the San Francisco opera, where instrumentalists perform their piece behind a black sheet to obscure their appearance, and those overseeing the audition are only given the individual’s qualifications. Although not perfect, this method has been shown to help groups curate a more diverse group of musicians, both racially and on the basis of gender. 

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